If we are testing the right things, it’s hard to cheat.

A few years ago, my teaching of Romeo & Juliet changed. No, the play hadn’t changed, and the actual instruction was more or less the same. The only change is that I encourage cheating.

A few years ago, it became clear to me that despite working on the language and the story in class, many students were logging into SparkNotes (No Fear) online and reading the side-by-side text on their own. I was irritated when I realized this was pretty widespread. I thought of it as the easy way out.

The reason I felt it was the easy way out, is because I knew I would be evaluating them on their understanding of the play. Why should they read the original text if they can get synopsis help online.  I forgot what I was doing.

I have build my Shakespeare study on the premise that if you can learn to read Shakespeare by learning how to use context clues, understanding unfamiliar sentence structures, and asking the right questions, those skills would transfer to medical forms, tax code, and just about any other reading task where unfamiliar words and language would be used.

But here I was, pretending that the story mattered. It really doesn’t. Sure, it’s great if they get into the story, but it isn’t the point of the instruction. It’s about context reading strategies. So why didn’t I evaluate them on that?

These days, I encourage cheating. I post all of the help sites on Schoology, and even assign for them to read passages on these sites. However, I give them a pretest containing several unfamiliar passages of Shakespeare, and ask them to read them.  We discuss how we will be honing our ability to read unfamiliar texts, and that the story is somewhat irrelevant.

They now understand that relying too much on the “cheats” will keep them from learning to read Shakespeare. They understand that it is a skill that requires challenging themselves and practicing. They can use the tools to help themselves check their own progress.

The summative assessment is more Shakespeare cuttings. They can read Titus Andronicus and The Tempest because they gained a skill, not just a story.

I think the “cheating” that started all of this lead me to determine what is important and what is not. Students deserve to be encouraged to find information, to use it, and learn from it.

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