All About Adolescent Literacy

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From the Lunchroom to the Classroom: Authentic Assessment and the Brown Bag Exam

A Brown Bag Exam uses found objects and images to help students activate prior knowledge and creates a framework for students to express their understanding. Students work individually and in collaboration to create concrete connections between the reading and the Brown Bag items. Unlike traditional assessment, the Brown Bag Exam is an exam filled with conversation, idea exchange, and learning.

I had no idea my students knew so much. We learned more about what they got from The Giver, in one brown bag morning than from a hundred tests." Cathy, a preservice language arts teacher, offered this declaration after conducting her first brown bag exam with a class of 7th-graders. A brown bag exam? What on earth could lunch have to do with testing students on a Newbery Award-winning novel?

In this article, I will review several characteristics of traditional and authentic assessment and then introduce the concept of one particular authentic assessment technique: the brown bag exam. While most pre service language arts teachers are familiar with authentically assessing students through the writing process or portfolios, they often return to the traditional one-shot matching, multiple-choice, true/false test when asked to evaluate students' grasp of a short story or novel. "What else is there?" they ask. And so I introduce my education students to brown bag exams as we begin exploring traditional and authentic assessment.

Learning through collaboration

Although high-stakes testing and standardized placement begin early in the elementary grades, the pressure to standardize is extremely high at the middle school level (Linn, 2001). Furthermore, the pressure on teachers to convert student achievement into a single number or grade places them in the unenviable position of collapsing an infinitely complex set of behaviors, abilities, and proficiencies into one score. Young teens who consistently face the disappointment created by this system are extremely vulnerable to further marginalization in their middle school years. For this reason, Stevenson (2002) maintains that the learning conditions educators create in the middle grades represent a critical element in determining students' perceptions of success and failure:

Because students are at developmental extremes during the early adolescent years, their classroom performances will be likewise variable. In the midst of teachers' efforts to keep students productively involved and socialized, it is not surprising that student achievement becomes equated with what they appear to know or don't know according to conventional measures. (p. 256)

Teachers can work within the extremes of adolescence, however, by creating opportunities for authentic learning experiences through meaningful interactions with content, peers, self, and the world.

One of the keys to developing our students' awareness of themselves, their peers, and the content we teach in our classrooms is through collaboration. Atwell (1998) explains that the status quo in most schools "regards collaboration as cheating and learning as a solitary, competitive enterprise. Even though junior high students spend most of their day sitting with groups of 25 peers, they spend most of their time working alone" (p. 68). This isolation is heightened at test time.

During the typical classroom test ... time is carefully controlled; no help is allowed from peers; learners are not allowed to consult dictionaries, textbooks or their notes; and calculators and spell checkers may be prohibited. What is required may be known only on test day, and the scoring criteria may be clarified only when the test is returned. (Tombari & Borich, 1999, p. 3)

Tombari and Borich argue for authentic assessments,rather than the traditional test. Such authentic assessments can be used to examine and reinforce the thinking, problem solving, and social skills abundant in teens' lives. "Authenticity involves testing what was taught and practiced in class and asks learners to use the same skills, knowledge and thought processes ... presented in class" (Tombari & Borich, 1999, p. 4).

In the following pages, I present the procedures for uncovering what students have learned about a particular topic (in this case, a novel) through a brown bag exam. I provide two lists of brown bag exam items for novels widely read in middle school: The Giver (Lowry, 1993) and Holes (Sachar, 1998). I also include a student example developed after reading The Giver. My students tell me that one reason they enjoy this assessment experience is because they are free to use multiple resources — notes, books, peers, even teachers — to explore and help clarify their thoughts. I have used a variety of assessment strategies with middle, secondary, and university students, and believe all learners benefit from dynamic and engaging environments where we spend time demonstrating what we do know.

It's in the bag

The specific procedures teachers follow during a particular brown bag exam will be adjusted with each class of students. Some classes will work better in think-pair-share groups from the outset, or need more specific guidelines for discussing the items. Depending on class size, a brown bag exam usually takes two class periods, with additional time spent at home (or in a third class period) writing a brown bag write-up/journal entry.

Before students enter class, I have already bagged and placed the exam items on students' desks, along with specific instructions to please refrain from opening, shaking, or sneaking a peek. I tell the students they will need the novel, their journals, and a pen or pencil. They will also be allowed to use their notes from class. By the time students have collected those materials, anticipation about opening the bags is quite high; I continue to build that anticipation by explaining that each bag contains a surprise item related to the novel. The thinking behind some items might seem obvious, while others may require more thought and discussion. Once the bags' contents are revealed, each student has 8-10 minutes of personal time to jot down any ideas that s/he associates with the object. To get them started, I tell the class that the items could belong to any or all of the following six categories: plot, setting, symbol, character, themes, or "potpourri." Students are to spend this first block of time listing ideas and associations. They do not need to write full sentences; the goal is to get as many ideas on paper as possible.

Once students have spent a few minutes noting their own ideas and associations, I put them in think-pair-share groups to discuss each person's object and to add another student's ideas to their own. The think-pair-share discussions usually require at least 10 to 12 minutes, which usually provides each student enough time to share his/her item, ideas, and connections. After their discussions, I ask the students to find and copy at least two passages from the novel connected to their specific object (this step takes about 12-15 minutes). Time permitting, we then go from item to item, with each student sharing what was hidden in the brown bag and their ideas connected to it. I also ask the class to offer additional associations for each surprise, which can stimulate lengthy, but engaging, class discussions. Once we have shared, discussed, and identified passages for each item, students then choose which of the brown bag objects they would like to explore more deeply in a journal entry. Any number of students can elect to write about a particular item. For example, an entire class could choose to write about the "stirrings" pill (although this has not happened, yet).

Jason's apple: Food for thought

I am often surprised by the students' initial reluctance to use ideas gathered from class discussion. They ask if flit's okay" to include another classmate's comments in their notes. As products of traditional schooling and, therefore, personal achievement, many of us have been taught to value individual knowledge over community knowledge. In the example below, the student distinguishes his ideas from those of his discussion partner and the rest of the group, even though making such distinctions is never mentioned in class. The following example is transcribed from a student whose brown bag contained a red apple.

In the current climate of standardized and high-stakes testing, authentic alternative assessments, such as brown bag exams, provide students with multiple opportunities to make meaning and express personal understanding beyond what is possible through traditional test items. Additionally, the possibilities created by a brown bag exam can be extended well beyond the language arts classroom. In mathematics and science, teachers could create brown bag exams for units on geometry in everyday life, the natural world, elements of the Periodic Table, and theorists/inventors.

In an online discussion, Stacey, a third-year teacher who took her first brown bag exam in an adolescent literature workshop, writes,

I'm a believer. Last year, after finishing Holes, I had my students write final essays about characters and themes from the novel. I thought it was a big deal that they weren't taking a fill-in-the-blank test, but I was disappointed in their work. Looking back, we hadn't spent time really talking about what they knew. We had filled out graphic organizers and completed a study guide, but I didn't take that last step. If we had done a brown bag exam, they would have physically touched the objects, discussed their meanings with other students, found passages from the novel, and then written about it all — once their ideas had been cooking for a while.

Brown-bagging it with Jonas and Stanley

Below are two lists of the brown bag exam items for Lois Lowry's The Giver and Louis Sachar's Holes. Both novels are widely read by teens, and they provide complex dilemmas for students and teachers to unearth, discuss, and debate. The lists are by no means exhaustive, but offer teachers an inventory that they can continue to develop as ideas and items emerge.

About the Author

Dr. Denise Ousley-Exum is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in secondary teacher education.  A former high school English teacher, Dr. Ousley-Exum enjoys working with teachers at all career stages, and is an enthusiastic presenter whose motto is "Everything matters." She specializes in interdisciplinary teaching methods, alternative assessment, young adult literature, and collaboration. Dr. Ousley-Exum's work been published in English Journal, Focus on Middle School, and Teaching and Teacher Education.



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Atwell, N. (1998). In the middle: New understandings about writing, reading, and learning (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton / Cook.
Linn, R. L. (2001). A century of standardized testing: Controversies and pendulum swings. rI£ducational Assessment, 7(1), 29-38.
Lowry, L. (1993). The giver. New York: Random House.
Sachar, L. (1998). Holes. New York: Random House.
Stevenson, C. (2002). Teaching ten to fourteen year olds (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Tombari, M., & Borich, G. (1999). Authentic assessment in the classroom: Applications and practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

This article was first published in Focus on Middle School, a publication of the Association for Childhood Education International.

I LOVE THIS IDEA!! What a creative and motivating way for the students to share what they know and gain knowledge and background of others as well!! I'm going to start creating lists for each book!
Posted by: Kenessa  |  April 07, 2011 02:24 PM
I like it, but how do you gather all of these items? With 25 kids or more in a class, this would be difficult. The assessment is effective and I would enjoy teaching this way.
Posted by: MaryEllen  |  April 13, 2011 07:58 AM
I'm wondering if you could have multiple kids on the same object in each class at the start.
Posted by: Pippa  |  August 29, 2011 08:06 PM
I think this is a wonderful way to both assess and spark good discussion. I am going to try using this myself.
Posted by: Mr. R  |  April 03, 2012 10:35 PM
Although not as effective as a bag for every student, a "real bag" with real objects could be shared by small groups or whole class. Individual students could have bags with "felt" or "paper" models of the same objects. I think I wouldn't replace the realia with models. I think they need to be combined. However, I am just trying to think of how a teacher could easily afford this for a large class.
Posted by: D Austin  |  February 06, 2016 05:26 PM
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