Alternative Assessment: Character Representation Through Music
Megan Killigrew, English Faculty

The Great Gatsby is the first novel we read each year in American Literature & Composition, and while Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is nearly 100 years-old, the novel and its complex characters provide an important, and relevant, opportunity in the classroom.

Throughout our reading, my students and I spend a significant amount of time discussing the characters, asking ourselves: What are their defining characteristics? How do they interact with each other, and why? How are the characters represented in the novel? What are their motivations and desires? 

Literature is life, so by focusing on characters, we humanize this somewhat dated text, making their issues and insecurities feel not only relatable, but familiar. So once we know the characters and feel we have something to say about them, then we move towards the assessment.

In my first years of teaching, I relied heavily on how I’d been taught. After reading a book, I’d be given a prompt and asked to write a five paragraph analysis. This form of assessment has a purpose, but it didn’t feel right for Gatsby. With our focus on characterization, I knew I wanted students to give their personal take on a character that most interested them. Plus, the often-dreaded “five-paragraph” essay felt too cumbersome so early in the year; I wanted to keep building up to analysis and argumentation. 

This is when Shannon Parker (Director of Innovation and Teaching) gave me the idea to have students make playlists, almost like "old-school" mixtapes, to represent characters. Her idea almost perfectly addressed my goals of offering an assessment that engages many learners in a way that is quick and accessible and builds towards literary analysis.

So that’s what I did! For the assessment, students use music to represent a character they choose, creating a playlist that shows one character’s essential qualities and development throughout the novel. Students validate their song choices by pulling direct quotes from the novel and writing a very brief explanation to show how each song is connected to their character. So students are not only showcasing their abilities in Creative Engagement through their song choices, but also demonstrating Critical Thinking & Decision Making by working with multiple texts and choosing how best to represent their character accurately through songs, quotes, and interpretations. 

You know you’re on the right track when students are calling an assessment “fun”, but what is especially rewarding is seeing the work students produce, especially students who struggle with more traditional assessments. This assessment strips away the meat of the literary analysis; there are no paragraphs to construct or transitions to consider. Students are asked to identify a main idea - their character - and illustrate what is essential to that main idea through particular evidence - songs, quotes, and interpretations. When I think about building towards a literary analysis, this playlist assessment is a way to ensure good bones. 

This simplified approach helps students who struggle to develop their ideas fully by asking them to communicate the absolute essentials through evidence and brief explanation, without getting bogged down in sentence variation or thesis statements just yet. Conversely, it also helps students who struggle to be concise, because it forces them to distill their ideas and be brief. 

All around, this assessment has exceeded my expectations in terms of effectiveness and engagement, which feels especially important early in the year.


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