Parents queue in the middle school office, collecting hand-drawn tickets for tonight’s show. “Welcome to the Night Circus” is lettered on each ticket, alongside drawings of magicians, children with kittens, and contortionists. Classrooms have been turned into “tents” decorated in black and white, where students offer entertainment such as fortune-telling, a tree on which people can hang wishes they’ve written on slips of paper, and illusions. In another room, clusters of students rehearse the tiny stories they’ve prepared. The kids have been working on this event for about six weeks, and they are both nervous and excited.
The event wasn’t my idea. My eighth-grade English students devised and executed this experience because they were enthusiastic about their whole-class read of the book, optimistic about their ability to show what they knew and could do, and eager for an adventure that combined academics with creativity.
While I didn’t suggest the Night Circus event, I did make a few critical decisions early in the year that created the conditions in which my students could flourish.
Throughout the year, I used competency-based learning practices to teach and evaluate. This meant that I had to hone my learning targets so that students focused on just a few skills at a time—no more than three. For this project, the learning targets were about writing (big idea, details) and reading (connecting themes to self or the world). My students practiced these three learning targets over and over again through short assignments.
For example, I set up “big idea” by offering students an assortment of objects and stickers with a word on each. The word was different for every kid in class and read something like “illusion,” “control,” or “love” (themes from The Night Circus). Students had to select an object—maybe a stuffed elephant or an ice cream cone eraser—and write a five-sentence story connecting the word on their sticker to the object. The big idea needed to come through in the sentences. The result was stories about erasers as expressions of affection and roller-skating elephants who felt out of control. This practice directly rolled into stories about illusion, control, and love that were shared at the Night Circus event.
After each exercise, students read their work aloud and heard peer feedback. I also explained what each student did well in their writing, whether it was an apt word choice or striking image. All the feedback focused on the learning targets so that students developed a sense of what “proficiency” or “mastery” in details entailed. I might give feedback like “I could picture what you meant when you wrote, ‘Jasper floated in the vacuum of YouTube, allowing autoplay to select the next video as he stared, unmoving, at the screen.’ We’ve all probably felt that lack of control that you set up with the word ‘vacuum.’”
Additionally, students practiced versions of the summative assessment. For the Night Circus event, students wrote and rewrote their work to get it production ready. Every student had to produce three pieces of writing for the event, specific to the “tents” they self-selected, such as a personal narrative about conjuring, a story involving illusion, or prophecies that involved love. During the polishing process, my job was solely to give feedback on the three learning targets.
Social and Emotional Learning
Incorporating SEL felt like a natural fit. As students both read their writing aloud and offer feedback, they’re simultaneously figuring out how to support and encourage others, show compassion, and even manage conflict.
I made these behaviors explicit by calling attention to them and emboldening students to foster connection rather than competition with one another. We celebrated small wins, uncovered and emphasized strengths, and weighed how to use those strengths when confronted with obstacles.
For example, a group of students were really into the idea of a tent that included live animals. They had to seek permission from school administrators and parents, figure out how to transport the animals, and keep the animals calm during the event. But as the date drew near, we decided that the logistics just didn’t work, and we had to scrap that tent idea. The students were quickly able to pivot to other tents because they were not only aware of, but eager advocates for, each other’s talents. It was SEL in action.
The Night Circus event was successful because students were completely invested in it. A crucial element of that investment was that students graded themselves. I set the learning targets and gave tons of frequent, timely, and targeted feedback, but the students evaluated themselves and assigned their own grades.
Student-centered grading was a process that evolved over time, and it was the best decision I ever made as a teacher. I was able to do it because I had already prioritized competency-based and social and emotional learning. When students are keenly aware of the learning targets, understand the rubric and progression of learning, value growth, and see themselves as capable, they are highly effective evaluators.
Students had to rate their work on the rubric’s progression of learning (from “beginning” to “mastery”) and provide evidence.
Here’s a sample rubric for the standard I can explain my big idea using specific examples of details:
- Mastery: The details or examples support and provide evidence for the big idea. The details/examples are layered and make the writing unique to me. Finally, the details/examples help the reader picture what I’ve described.
- Proficient: Details and examples support and provide evidence for the big idea. Most of the details/examples are specific. Some of the details help the reader picture what I'm writing about.
- Developing: Details and examples don’t all support the big idea. The details are minimal or the examples are not fully explained.
- Beginning: Details and examples do not support the big idea or do not make sense. The descriptions aren’t as clear as they could be.
My students’ self-assessments were astonishingly accurate. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I agreed with their grade. If I didn’t, I’d explain why and invite students to rewrite or, as happened frequently, give themselves more credit.
At the end of the night, students swapped stories about how everyone’s showcase went and hatched plans for the next party. Competency-based assessment is, to me, the apex of assessment practice, as it allows students to demonstrate what they know and can do in a relatively authentic setting.
The drawback for some teachers is that you can’t necessarily repeat the same assessment year after year. For instance, no subsequent cohort of students resonated so much with the book The Night Circus that they wanted to create an event around it. But that’s OK! Future groups of students had other ideas they wanted to try—an English Olympics (with events centered on rhyming, spelling, and puns), a dinner party featuring characters from the books, and a community website on which students published their writing. Each experience was fantastic for the students because they chose it.