Over the last fifteen years, reading Oedipus the King in-class essays has made me want to gouge out my eyes with a red pen. Students traditionally analyze the play’s themes, symbolism, irony, or character flaws. This year, while maintaining the integrity of the original prompts, I added a twist–I changed the purpose and audience. After reading the play, my juniors sent Oedipus to court to determine if he is guilty and deserving of his outcome, or not guilty–a victim of fate’s injustice. They came to court prepared to write from the perspective of the defense or prosecution. But in typical fashion of Greek drama, fate determined which side of the case they would present…after entering the courtroom.
We have practiced argument skills all year. The trial became the ultimate test of declaring a logical claim, presenting credible evidence, and providing enough warrants to justify the argument. Writers could prepare notes and find evidence as one would for a trial, but not compose the essay in advance. Therefore, writing was authentic–not aided by Google nor reproduced from Sparknotes. The challenge was to understand both sides of the issue; students were blind to which role they would represent until reaching into The Oracle (a basket with slips of paper labeled Guilty or Not Guilty).
Indisputable Success: Argument for Improved Writing
Understanding of the purpose and audience resulted in interesting hooks as writers established their cases. The trial approach led to strategically-organized arguments. The most successful lawyers arranged major claims in order of significance, building to their strongest point. Closing statements left nothing in question and there were no boring, redundant conclusions. In fact, many students addressed the opposition’s strongest claim, then used it to their advantage.
Clear learning targets and rubric criteria guided students toward success. The rubric simplified assessment (for teacher and students) and guided my feedback. The concrete sequential learners, who would inevitably question the length of the essay or if it needs to be five paragraphs, accepted this advice: be complete and thorough enough to convince a jury. In places where arguments were incomplete, I inserted comments warning lawyers about leaving openings for the opposition to attack. They needed enough evidence to win the confidence of a jury, not praise from a teacher. Lawyers were also reminded long-winded testimony is difficult to follow; the audience loses focus. Therefore, students who presented more summary than analysis did not show enough critical thinking or present facts in a new light. They did not persuade a jury by retelling details of the plot.
Craft for Credibility
The trial approach, while fun and playful, presented writers with a specific identity–something often lacking in writing assignments. The most impressive effect was the emergence of writers’ voices. It was not stuffy, fluffy, mechanical, or artificially academic. Each claim was stated with conviction. Word choice was persuasive and confident. The attention was not on what words must be avoided. Students were cognizant of vague or informal language that would get attorneys laughed out of the courtroom. Improved sentence fluency was also notable. Quote integration made sense like never before; random quotes sounded really awkward without proper integration. Likewise, tense shifts were not a factor; court was in session–live–so there was no logical alternative to present tense. And speaking of tense, everyone finished in the allotted time with less anxiety than in a typical on-demand scenario.
I always anticipate some errors in on-demand writing. By nature, an in-class essay is a first draft. While the focus remained on the content of the work, the purpose and audience of this piece added importance to conventions and usage. Too many grammatical errors interfered with the message and readability of the content. Consequently, the writer-lawyer lost credibility.
As I continue to emphasize the quality of written communication, I know students will not improve if I do all the marking on the paper. Therefore, I placed a mark in the right margin to indicate basic editing errors. I will have students locate and make corrections to common conventional mistakes and use class time for mini-lessons or small group instruction as needed. We will also use these essays as a means of showing the impact of punctuation to accentuate a point–a difficult concept to teach.
The verdict is in. The jury finds me GUILTY of shifting the audience and purpose of a traditional writing assessment with intent to increase student comprehension, critical thinking, and craft. I face a lifetime sentence of providing students with unique learning opportunities, creating alternative forms of assessment, and challenging writers to craft a better sentence. Oedipus was not as fortunate.