When I first started out as a teacher, I was the king of authentic performance assessments. In English, when I wanted my students to read Native Son or Animal Farm, a test and a essay wouldn’t do. No way. Instead, we would have to conduct a mock trial. And it couldn’t be in a classroom. It would have to be in a real courtroom with a real judge.
The same thing was true for history. A study of World War II and the atomic bomb turned into a full-blown Smithsonian museum exhibit. A research paper about the Civil Rights led to a youth resistance symposium at Stanford University. The Great Depression and New Deal unit resulted in a community service project to combat hunger.
I still believe in authentic projects. They’re complex; they’re memorable; they get students to work on real-world problems. Even when they’re simulations, performance assessments encourage students to read, write, and think like professional adults. They offer young people opportunities to rehearse their future lives.
There are many opponents of project-based learning, particularly when it’s not done well. A few common claims: It’s not rigorous enough. It lets students avoid their weaknesses. It doesn’t hold students accountable. There isn’t enough reading and writing. Many of these arguments are valid.
In fact, over the past several years, I’ve moved away from authentic performance tasks and toward more old-fashioned teaching practices. In short, I believe in the importance of reading, and I see that our students are struggling as readers, and I feel the urgency, and I believe that the best way to improve reading is to make sure there’s tons of reading happening every day.
That’s why I care deeply about independent reading — where students get to choose what they read, where there’s a lot of time to read, and where reading is the focus of the classroom. In my opinion, there’s no better way to build highly skilled readers.
But sometimes I worry that independent reading doesn’t lend itself to authentic performance assessments. The act of reading is, of course, authentic — and so is becoming an avid reader and identifying as such. But what can I assign to my students that would demonstrate their transformation, their reading journey? What real-life issue would a year of independent reading address?
This is the part that’s missing in my thinking. I might know why I’m reading, and individual students might know what reading means to them, but why are we reading together? What’s the bigger purpose here, and how can our reading improve our community?
As I’m sure you can tell, this is a new question for me, and I would love your ideas. Please let me know your thoughts!