About a Classroom Activity

I returned to the classroom last week, coming in a couple of weeks after school got started and falling into a week more abbreviated than had been expected; Labor Day, I knew was coming, but the closures on Tuesday and Wednesday to get some things done were…surprising. I put them to as much good use as I could, however, and, among others, drafted another example of an exercise I’ve used for years: a riddle quiz.

Not one of these, but like them…
Image is of the Exeter Book, from the British Library, used for commentary.

The quizzes follow a simple format. Students are presented with the text of a riddle into which deviations from “standard” orthography (yes, I am aware the phrase sounds tautological; it’s not, as standards vary among communities and smaller groups) are embedded. They are then asked to identify / adjust those deviations, answer the riddle, and explain from the text why the answer they give is an appropriate answer. Now, I’ve published on the topic of the assignment before. And, again, I’ve used it in my classes for years, both as an in-class minor assignment and, with some small adjustment, exam material. I had great success with it at several of the colleges and universities where I taught, even when the students were not necessarily academically prepared, and even when English was not the students’ first, second, third, or even fourth language. As such, I had reason to believe that it’d go over reasonably well with students at high school–which seemed a good thing, since I had to get materials ready in a hurry, and I have a lot of riddles ready to go.

Accordingly, I gave a riddle quiz to my students on the first day I met them. And it caused some consternation–but I expected that; new assignments always do the first time they come out. I expected, too, that the students would get hung up on getting the “right” answer, rather than working on the proofreading and the explanations; years of experience let me know that it would be so, but that the students would eventually tumble to the fact, openly and repeatedly stated in class that I don’t care about the answer, but about how the answer is explained from the text. It is, after all, the core act of English studies to look at a text, interpret the text, and explain how the text generates that interpretation. What I did not expect, however, is that the exercise would baffle my colleagues–yet it did, as they indicated to me. Given that, and given a somewhat belated review of some of the documentation I ought to have looked at sooner–had I but Marvell’s world enough and time!–I figured out that I’d overshot a bit, and I made adjustments to the grading on that particular assignment.

I’m still going to give riddle quizzes in the future, and I’ll be explaining to students the adjustment to the grading made on the first such quiz. The reminder that I have a lot yet to learn is a useful one; I hope, however, that I don’t need to repeat the lesson too often.

Contribute to my classroom conduct?