Especially an assignment for which the criteria are completely unclear.
Over the holidays, one of my children has the task of preparing an oral presentation which he will be presenting to his class, along with a ppt slide deck, and the boy had asked me for help in creating cue cards to help with his talk. The presentation is an extension of a multi-paragraph movie critique he wrote some weeks ago, and while a fairly extensive rubric (ugh, who still uses those?!) was provided for said written assignment, precious little seems to have come forth for the ppt and oral components of the assignment.
I explained that knowing the end goal might be helpful as we worked towards preparing an effective presentation. Knowing what was expected of him, and how his assignment would be marked, would help him/us to work towards a product that he could be confident in.
I was particularly troubled by the fact that the child seemed intent on basically reading aloud each text-enveloped slide to his audience, and I was hoping that some teacher-provided guidance might yield fodder for a conversation about how the ppt would better be used as a visual backdrop or enhancement rather than a wall of text with which to overwhelm his classmates.
My outrageous request resulted in tears and drama, as the dear boy insisted everything was fine as is, and he just needed my help transferring the mass to index cards which he would use while presenting. (He was not interested in my suggestion that the cue cards could contain jot notes from the presentation, either. It was to be the text in its entirety, copied out copiously onto a million small index cards!)
As I lay on my bed recovering, now myself fighting back tears as I agonized over what a terrible mother I clearly was, a small voice inside me spoke the wise words of Thelma Jarvis, my first principal and long-time mentor: "What's good about this situation?" she whispered deep inside my mind, reminding me of her tireless drive towards positive action in real life.
So, determined to find the silver lining, the teacher in me searched for classroom connections.
As I faced the reality that many of my own students could use a little guided instruction in how to prepare an effective slide deck, a lesson plan began to take shape inside my brain: I would use two versions of my child's ppt presentation -- the text-laden one, and a more visual-cues-style presentation -- to share with my class and engage them in a critical thinking lesson.
In a few weeks, as we finish up a Social Studies inquiry we started earlier in December, my Grade sixes will be presenting their findings and supported opinion about a big idea they have explored. Their presentation will include both an oral and a visual media component. In preparation for said presentation, I will ask them to assess which of my child's two movie critique presentations is more effective and why. Then we'll co-construct some success criteria, which I shall post in class and online for them to refer to as they proceed with preparing their own presentations.
And I hope to inspire those teachers who are not yet using co-constructed and descriptive feedback to begin experimenting with this method so that they can let go of the rubrics that few if any students ever read, and move into a more effective and research-based form of assessment.
Clarifying expectations on assignments through the use of co-constructed criteria helps students know what they need to do. It helps teachers with marking. And, most importantly to me right now, setting and providing clear criteria at school helps families avoid tears and drama at home.