One Fails, We All Fail

Something amazing took place in class today. After spending the past week struggling to comprehend the opening act of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, my juniors had a breakthrough. Everyone reached proficiency thanks to one of my favorite formative assessment strategies: one fails, we all fail.

The week began with entrance slips to check initial comprehension of Act I, scene 2, which was read independently. I prepared three knowledge level questions and handed one question to each student. The responses provided immediate feedback to plan further instruction. The results were divided into piles of not yet, almost there, or got it.

The next day, I differentiated questions for each student. The got it group moved up the depth of knowledge chart and received an analysis level question. The response was again assessed as not yet, almost there, or got it. The rest of the class was asked another knowledge level question. Many of the almost there group shifted to got it with the extra day of preparation and practice. Several of the not yet group even made the jump to got it–something to celebrate.

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We always move forward with discussions of Act I with a whole class reading and discussion. Reading aloud makes it easier to hear the language and we bring the literature to life. Everyone has designed island paradises, there is a shipwreck in which we must come to class prepared with life preservers, and everyone sits at tables according to their character’s subplot. Yes, the classroom becomes an enchanted island…which becomes my excuse for the many strange events that take place everyday.

The Tempest Act I, Scene 2 Quiz–“One Fails, We all Fail”

1) What is the cause and purpose of the storm?

2) What strategy does Shakespeare use to set up the exposition of the play? (How does he present characters, setting, and explanation of the basic situation?)

3) What factors were involved in Prospero and Miranda ending up on the island?

4) Explain the parallels between Prospero and Sycorax.

5) How is Caliban’s story similar to that of the Native Americans?

*Explain the connection between the play and history at the time the play was written.

For those still struggling to comprehend Shakespeare after going through the entire act as a class (even with the aid of an open book and a study guide), I add a sense of urgency. I project five questions (3 knowledge, 2 analysis) on the smart board and as students enter, they must find a way to guarantee everyone in the room can communicate the correct answer if called on at random.

Much like the mystical happenings on Prospero’s island, the classroom is transformed into a collaborative team of answer seekers. The strongest learners are forced to lead and collaborate with their peers. There is conversation–extremely focused dialogue–at each table. I assess the level of proficiency simply by listening as I walk around the room.

Once small groups of students have answers, they realize I could call on anyone. What if there is a weak link at another table? What if someone was absent when we discussed the answers to these questions? Confident tables check in with other groups to make sure everyone agrees on the answers. I have even seen individuals step up and lead a class rehearsal at my two minute warning. I already know they will get the answers correct, but it is too fun to stop here.


And then Fate determines the first representative to answer question one. Oh yeah, by Fate, I mean the dice I roll. I inform students as to which number table they are sitting at and then assign a number to each student (obviously, up to six). The first die determines the table number. Suspense builds. The second roll picks the speaker from that part of the room. Very exciting. As some exhale, the pressure is on. I ask the question and the student represents. If he or she gets it wrong, we all fail. The correct answer immediately turns the speaker into a classroom hero. Then we move on to question two… the clatter of the plastic die hitting the wood table top initiates the next wave of anxiety. The result is once again positive–another victory.

It is an amazing review session and a way to get all students to verbalize accurate, deeper learning. Sometimes, Fate finds the same person twice. Sometimes, it selects the expert. Other times, Fate locates the quietest kid in the class. But my all-time favorite instances are when a student says, “Pick me! I know this one.” I will stop, make sure I heard him correctly, check again, and roll. By some force in the universe, there have been numerous times when I make it happen. Students are momentarily speechless, awed by my powers. It happened again today. And the student was right: he knew the answer.

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More impressive than my ability to roll dice is the collaboration, teamwork, and community established in fifteen minutes of crunch time. Act II will bring about new challenges, but at this point, all learners have a proficient understanding of the play–quite an achievement.

And for the record, no class has ever failed this assessment challenge–another celebration of learning.

*Day 25 of the TeachThought #reflectiveteacher 30-day blogging challenge


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