This exercise is one that I invented (pretty much on the spur of the moment) last year, when students asked me if we were having a midterm and I hadn’t planned on it. I told them no, then thought it over a bit. The next class I came in and put on a grave and serious face. I started the class by telling them that I realized that we did not have a midterm scheduled, but we still had to have one, so today was the midterm. After letting the moment of panic sink in I told them we would do a different kind of midterm. We talked about the purpose of midterms generally, about questions being more important than answers in a class like this (this is a first-year honors seminar “The Arts in New York City,” but of course I believe the same holds true in all classes). We discussed how a midterm was (could be) a chance to check in and see where the learning was happening and how it was going, but it was also a chance to reinforce and tie together the themes of the course. It seemed that in most cases, they hadn’t really thought of a midterm as something that had a purpose–something connected to learning. It was just something you had to do to get your grades. (in fact, this seems to be true for tests in general. Students–and probably many teachers–don’t use or understand tests as learning tools, only as assessment tools…if that. It’s fun and illuminating to hand students the power to step outside their educational process and and critique the tools and activities to which they’re being subjected. Ultimately, ideally, that leads them to stop being subjected).
So I told them we were going to have a midterm, but it would be my midterm. They write the questions, I have to answer. I told them they could grade me, too. (this led to some moments of real joy).
I started with a brief presentation (about 20 minutes), telling them this was part of my midterm assignment. Sort of an essay question (last year I actually made a Keynote slideshow with pictures of the class activities and screenshots of their own work on the class site. This year I didn’t have time for that, but it didn’t seem like a major loss). I summarized what we had done up to that point in the semester, and gave a little preview of what was coming. This let me sneak in an opportunity to be sure that the students could see and know the through-line of the semester, at least understand that I’m trying to build one and see it develop. Using the presentation for looking back and looking forward let me highlight some of the themes and questions that had been developing (and refer to specific students and specific assignments/discussions “remember when P- was so upset about that photograph?” “Remember when M- showed us the snowy scene outside her house?” “This was when we saw the jazz performance that surprised you all so much.”).
Then I asked them to each write five questions for me. Last year I had each and every student write five questions and it was too many…I couldn’t possibly answer them all. This year I put them in groups and had each group write five questions. I told them they should be questions about the class, either what we had done or would be doing, what they wanted to know or themes they were curious about, and that it was really up to them–it was my midterm exam so I had to answer. I gave them about 7 minutes to write questions. Most groups easily came up with five, although one group only got three, and another wrote ten but told me that they really were most interested in the second five.
After they finished with the questions I asked them to think for a minute about what it would be like if every midterm was like this? They liked the idea…and we talked about how writing a good question means you really have to know and think about the subject (they had just done it in their groups so they knew exactly what I meant). They said “if we could give all our professors midterms like this, we would really know if they know their stuff and we could ask them why we were doing things the way we were. Why we spent so much time on some things and so little on others.”
Then I sat down and read the questions aloud and answered them. I tried to be really honest and think about them as if I was really taking a test (it felt like a job interview, which I guess is the closest I come to taking a midterm these days). I tried to give my best answers, relating to what we had done in class, making connections and modeling how to use a test as an opportunity instead of an obstacle. Part of what I was doing was the “think-aloud” method (widely used and described, but introduced to me by Sam Wineburg) of showing how to approach a question or unfamiliar material. Of course some questions were a little silly, some were impossible to answer, some had premises that I had to question first, so I did all that with real seriousness. I told them how hard it was for me to reverse my usual teacher impulse…which is to throw a question right back at them. I told them (of course they had noticed) that I would usually work hard not to push my own response but to make room for their response. But in this case, since it was a midterm, I wasn’t allowed to do that (several times I caught myself and chided myself and asked them not to “take off points.”)
What happens from this activity right in the middle of the semester is that it ties the class together and engages all of us in the enterprise of the class. We already have a pretty good team vibe by this point, an understanding that the class is something we’re doing together, and this makes it even stronger. (Of course I’m leading the team, I don’t pretend otherwise. But it’s active and inquiry based all the time. The class is not something that’s happening to them or being done to them…it’s not even something they’re “taking.” It’s something we’re making). When students get to think explicitly and critique carefully what’s going on this class, it creates exactly the dynamic I’m looking for in any class. So that’s the purpose of this reverse midterm.
Here (lightly edited) are most of the questions they asked this year. Some were repeated so I won’t type them twice. (you can see that they have definitely absorbed “exam language!” and we talked about that, too).
- How do we find out what are the things we can’t not make (this is a reference to the Adam Savage video we watched which has become a long-standing theme in the class http://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/ugoretz13/steam/ also related to the Sol Lewitt “Learn to say Fuck You to the World” video)?
- Why can’t everything be considered art? Why do we have to divide things between art and not art?
- Is there a difference in aesthetic quality between art that is confined to an “art place” and art that is all around us in the world? Elaborate
- What is the best form of art?
- In what ways is oral performance considered art and in what ways not art?
- What’s your favorite poem? Why?
- How do you distinguish what makes good photography?
- Which art form do you think is the most honest? Least honest? Elaborate.
- Extra credit: what is your shoe size?
- How can you find art in your everyday encounters?
- Every photograph manipulates/exploits its subjects. True or False? Explain.
- What form of art is the most expressive (Don’t worry, you will get all 20 points for this).
- Is art inspiration or perspiration?
- If you had the power to choose one of your senses to give up, which would it be?
- Draw parallels between a museum, a space for religious prayer, and a playground.
- Is nature independent from art? Why might someone consider nature to be art?
- Is there any art form that you would like to entirely wipe out? Remove from existence?
- Would passionately reading a love letter be a form of oral performance art?
- Why or why not is music the most primitive art form?
- Do you feel that arguing over artistic merit has a constructive purpose? Is arguing about art something that moves art forward or holds it back?
- What is your perception of video games? Are they a form of art?
- Do you believe art and love are related? How so?
- Is grafitti art or vandalism? Defend your position.
I think this “reverse midterm” could work in all kinds of different ways–they could make the questions for other students to answer, instead of me (this year’s students did want me to use these same questions for next year’s class), or we could revisit some or all of the questions as a final which they answer. There are all kinds of tweaks and modifications I want to experiment with. I freely “release” the exercise to any and all who want to use or modify or transform.
If all tests were given to teachers, by students…what would that mean for schools? I think often of how we could more closely approach Harmonica High.