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This lesson is second in a series of lessons on writing an evaluative essay. My objective in this lesson is to address issues of bias and opinion that the class is having overall. This lesson is basically reteaching from the earlier lesson, but using student's rough drafts to help them better develop their ideas.
The students started this writing assignment the day after I left to attend National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) national convention in Boston. They worked on the drafts until Thanksgiving break, and over the break I reviewed their early drafts, giving them comments and encouragement.
Many of their essay focused on criteria that was irrelevant to the assignment and I realize that they might not understand the larger goals of the paper. Now that I am back I focus on developing objective criteria.
"What are we really trying to accomplish in an English class?" I ask the students. This is the basis of the evaluation and I want to make sure students understand this.
"Learning how to read complex texts so we can understand how to read a mortgage loan or the instructions to fill out our taxes," one of the students responds.
"Learning how to talk to people from different cultures and different places," says another.
"Being able to talk to your parents or your boyfriend and make yourself understood, and understand them."
"All good answers and all answers you've heard before." I tell them. "Of course I hope you want to read more and discover more great literature, read more great books. But I am happy if you can communicate with your family, your boss, people at the grocery store, someone from another part of the country. Or some one from a different country.
"In order to teach you how to do that we have to look at texts that have complexity, that don't always say exactly what they mean, or that mean more than one thing. We read texts like Shakespeare or Chaucer because they give us a glimpse into the complexity of being a friend, a son, a king, a servant."
I notice some glazed looks so I know I have to put the ball back in their court.
"I don't choose the texts we're going to read in class because I like them." A few surprised looks. "I choose them because I have specific objectives, criteria, that I want you to meet, and I feel that these are the best, most challenging texts to make that happen.
"So what do I want you to get out of reading a Shakespeare play?"
"Understanding what not to do?" one of the students hesitates.
"Sure, there is a moral element to every text we read. Can't avoid it; it's human nature to judge the rightness or wrongness of other people. But there is more than that, there is a complex element of human nature in each of Shakespeare's plays. He provokes us to think about ideas and situations, to reflect on the decisions the characters make and to think about the decisions we might make in a similar situation. This is the heart and soul of why we read Shakespeare. That and the entertaining stories."
I walk the students through criteria again, this time addressing specific criteria they chose for their papers and why or why not it is relevant and objective. We move through some more of the potential criteria that I might be looking for.
Depth of narrative
As I write these on the board I notice students writing them down, but I also notice them adding a few others.
We discuss why these are valuable criteria in the classroom and why we need combinations of complexity and accessibility to really learn.
I know that I need to help students make a better connection between criteria and making a judgement. "What is the difference between opinion and judgment?" I ask my students.
"An opinion is something you like," one of the students says.
"But a judgment...." I wait, giving them time to think.
They don't have much to say.
"A judgment is an opinion that you've given consideration to. You've weighed out the pros and cons as to why you think the way you do, and you've arrived at a conclusion, based on facts...hopefully based on facts.
"I can say to you, 'I don't like chocolate.' And you might ask me why, and I could say, 'just cause' and that would be my opinion. But what would you think of me?"
"That you don't like chocolate," one student says.
"That you don't really know what you're talking about." Bingo.
"But if I say I don't like chocolate because it's texture is too smooth, and it's too sweet, and the smell reminds me of my mean babysitter Janice. Now what do you think?"
"That you have criteria," says one student.
"Exactly, and that I've made an informed judgment, based on my personal opinions and past experiences.
"What's wrong with my criteria? Why can't I make a recommendation to other people not to like chocolate?"
"Because your criteria are too personal."
I write the word bias on the board. "Remember this word. Personal bias means that you are only thinking about what you like.
"But when I'm making choices about what I'm going to teach you, I can't use personal bias. I can't teach you the literature I like, I need to teach you a broad range of literature that meets the objectives I've been mandated to teach, and that at least a few of you in class will like.
"So I have to be objective.
We discuss whether or not Entertaining or Memorable are going to be criteria that are more susceptible to bias.
We then discuss how comparison and contrast can help determine criteria. That by making an informed judgment about one text we can understand another.