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Not Your Average Essay: English Assignments Challenge and Inspire

by Danny Isquith, Upper School Director

If your schooling was anything like mine was, your teachers assessed you exclusively with tests and essays. While we also use tests and essays frequently as assessments, at Calhoun we also believe there are other ways to assess knowledge and understanding. While this idea is probably not new to any of you, I’d like to make this potentially abstract idea of assessments in the Upper School more concrete. 

I spoke with Kristen McElhiney and Lyda Ely, two of our English teachers who use a wide variety of assessments in their core and elective classes, in order to dive deeper into what assessments look like in our division and why they are so engaging, inspiring and rigorous. As you read, you’ll notice that even if some of these assessments look familiar to your schooling experience, the way we design and scaffold these assessments at Calhoun is different.

Traditional English Essays

For Kristen, rigorous assessments challenge “students’ ways of thinking in a way that requires them to engage in authentic discovery.” In her tenth-grade core class, students are asked to write various traditional essays, and she works with students on refining, polishing, and making a compelling argument. Kristen works closely with tenth graders as they select important quotes and hone their topic sentences, and she is clear with them that, in the end, students will be assessed based on how compelling their argument is. She believes that students need to generate a thoughtful thesis that takes many attempts in order to develop, and to do this, they must commit to an iterative process of creation. Instead of just following a formula, Upper Schoolers are learning how to think critically and creatively and express their complex thoughts and feelings in clear, concise and compelling ways. The final product, while very important, is also only one part of the assessment –– as is true for most of our teachers, Kristen cares deeply about the ideation process, and assesses students along the way to their final product. By valuing the steps along the way in her grading rubric, Kristen guides students through the sometimes circuitous path to a strong argument, privileging those who take risks and engage in authentic thought and discovery. Not surprisingly, it is the students who fully give themselves to the process who produce the strongest final products.

English books

In collaboration with Ellen, Lyda teaches 11th grade core English. Students read Souls of Black Folk by WEB Debois, Ragged Dick by Horatio Alder, the 1619 Project, and various criticisms of the 1619 Project. All of these pieces are about the American Dream, and students are asked to take three of these texts, think about an American ideal (like freedom, hope or success), and write about what these three texts say about that ideal. To supplement their essays, students use Book Creator, an online tool that allows users to upload their ongoing notes as they work. Lyda is able to access these online journals and celebrate their diverse forms –– pictures, recordings, links to Google Docs, podcasts, collages and more. In their reflection at the end of the mod students were asked to give their opinion on the American ideal of their choice, and then write about how their entries in Book Creator reflected their opinion and choice.

It's about finding your own personal level of what it means to put your all into something. In the end, I am assessing, ‘Did you throw yourself into it? Did you take joy in it? Did you take pride in it?' Kristen McElhiney, Upper School English teacher

Non-Traditional, Creative Assessments

Our strength at Calhoun is the wide variety of types of assessments we assign throughout a student’s four-year journey. For example, in the elective Bible as Literature, one project asks students to modernize the tale of Job through a creative project , and Kristen assesses student learning by asking them to reimagine the text and embody the characters. In one instance, a group created a short film that told the story of Job as a mafia movie!

Because of the importance of academic writing, a set of conventions that will be very present in the future schooling students will experience, Kristen assigns many analytical essays. However, Kristen believes that her most powerful assessments are creative work that includes a lot of joy. If students can find a way to connect their studies with something that they already take joy in, they can’t help but learn–and the learning becomes even deeper. When I asked Kristen what makes these types of assessments rigorous, she explained that “it's about finding your own personal level of what it means to put your all into something. In the end, I am assessing, ‘Did you throw yourself into it? Did you take joy in it? Did you take pride in it? Did you make it your own in order to make it compelling?” Kristen recalled a student from years ago who was writing an analytical essay on his favorite movie, My Own Private Idaho, and said to her, ‘It’s so important for me to get this right. I want to honor this film, and I want to find a way to say what I want to say about it.’ So that’s what rigorous, meaningful assessments are about: if a teacher can create a text or a prompt that will elicit a response like that– whether a five-paragraph essay or a creative assessment –– students will be challenged to excel and stretch themselves intellectually.”

The process of imagining the reality of and connecting to those different from you requires a form of empathy, imagination and risk-taking that is the kind of rigor that most matters in the humanities – maybe the only kind that matters, really. Kristen McElhiney

In Lyda’s Media and Message class, students are assessed on a case study they conduct about a current event in the news. Using a wonderful website, AllSides.com (a site that juxtaposes the variety of articles written from across the political spectrum), students are asked to determine and present what the story is, what was left out from the extreme sides’ articulations of the facts, and how the language (like adjectives and adverbs) is used powerfully to present a certain message or truth. At the end of the course, students select one story and write an article where they explain why the topic is controversial. To write an objective article about a topic about which you have strong opinions requires great attention to detail and intellectual stamina.

When it comes to our approach to assessment in the Upper School, Kirsten put it best when she said, “I think the process of imagining the reality of and connecting to those different from you –– say a Quaker whaling captain in his 60s, or a young Mexican woman crossing the border into a hostile new world, or even the subjective experience of a Sperm Whale –– requires a form of empathy, imagination and risk-taking that is the kind of rigor that most matters in the humanities –– maybe the only kind that matters, really.”