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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles: Implement Standards, Curriculum, and Assessment

Meeting Standards Through Alternative Assessments
Judy Jones

Think back to when you were in school. What are the classroom activities that you remember well? When I take this journey into the past, I remember events like a field trip to the California tide pools where I was fascinated by the varied and strange invertebrates that filled the rocky crevices. I remember a paper that I wrote on the Greek dramatists – a paper that consumed me as I compared various dramas and their authors. I remember being editor of our school’s literary magazine. And I remember a biology project where we had to collect examples of organisms from several different phyla and orders – a project that had me out scouting the hills and environs of my town. I remember making class presentations, the feeling of acute nervousness at the beginning and the wonderful sense of accomplishment at the end. I DON’T remember the tests and worksheets. They have thankfully faded from my memory. Of course as a teacher, I know that I need to use occasional worksheets and tests. These are valid as learning devices and as assessments. But I also want to give my students the opportunity to become excited about their own learning and to store some memorable experiences from their time in my classroom.

Our state (North Carolina) is close to approving senior projects as a graduation requirement. In spite the concern of many teachers that this will increase our workload, I am very in favor of the change. Let me explain why. For years, I have done an “Exhibition Project” with my seniors in their Honors Human Biology class. This has been an incredibly meaningful project for my students. It is often the activity that they cite on a course evaluation as the one that produced the most learning for them. Second semester seniors will NOT study for tests! So giving them a final exam is an exercise in futility. The Exhibition Project is an attempt to engage them in a last meaningful experience in high school. Every year, they go beyond my expectations. Our community is full of professionals – particularly in the sciences. During the exhibition’s evening event, the parents and community members continually praise my students for the quality of their research and the depth of their knowledge.

This project is a culmination of a year of studying the biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, ecology, genetics, and evolution of human beings.

When I introduce the project, I stress that they can choose any human disorder that fascinates them. I suggest that it might be something that appears in their family or in friends; it might be something they have just always wanted to learn more about; or it might be something that they find during a browse through books or the internet. The main point is that they experience some passion for the topic! This is asking a lot of second semester high school seniors!

The requirements for the project are:

  1. Research, research, research
  2. An interview with someone who has the disorder, a person who knows someone who has the disorder, or a person in the medical field who knows something about the disorder
  3. A paper (5-10 pages) written around a thesis that is developed after extensive research.
  4. A brochure that is publication-ready
  5. A presentation of their exhibitions to their classes
  6. A presentation of their exhibitions during an evening event for families and community members.

The exhibition can be a tradition poster presentation, a PowerPoint presentation, the development of a webpage, a piece of art (sculpture, painting, music), poetry, a children’s book, etc. Students are limited only by their imaginations. The idea of the exhibition is that they can show what they have learned or experienced by researching their particular disorder.

Over the years, I have had some amazing exhibitions. One memorable year, a pair of girls decided to research manic depression (bi-polar disorder). One of their family members suffered from this disorder. The girls did their traditional research, wrote an excellent paper, and prepared a very knowledgeable PowerPoint presentation. Included at the end of the PowerPoint presentation was a series of beautiful pieces of artwork done by famous artists who were thought to have battled manic depression. They also collected poetry, music, and novels from similar artists and writers. For the evening exhibition, these young women took over a large room. They set up a projection device and had their PowerPoint continuously running (alternating between clinical information and the beautiful artwork). The walls of the room were decorated with the poetry. The music was playing the background and there was a table covered with the novels. The thesis that these students used in their paper centered on the dilemma of medication for manic depression and the incredible creativity that comes from the mania. Walking into that room was a powerful experience. Parents and community members were touched and awed by the experience that these students had created.

Do these types of assessments actually address standards? This particular assignment addresses many standards that are part of the human biology curriculum. Some of the standards are content standards and others involve learning processes. One of my personal goals in this class is to prepare my students for the college experience. All of them will be attending some type of four-year college. This assignment helps them practice researching, analyzing, and presenting meaningful original work.

I encourage you to consider projects such as these. They are incredibly memorable to the students and will give you enormous pleasure to assess. I never get bored grading these projects because each one of them is so unique and personal to the student who creates it.

I have provided the original assignment sheet, the assessment sheet (rubric), and the program from one of the exhibitions (PDF file). Please let me know your ideas and experiences with similar projects.

E-mail Judy!


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