Online finals: Providing flexibility & opportunities for creativity

By Ileana M. Rodríguez-Silva, History

For last spring’s HSTLAC 289: The Cuban Revolutionary Experiment, I initially planned to offer a final exam, similar to the mid-term, but changed my mind. Instead, I asked my 26 students to do a final assignment. In the last week of class instruction, I made the final assignment optional in order to accommodate the needs of students impacted by the protests. Because I designed the class with a good number of short assignments, and because the mid-term exam went well, I felt comfortable making these changes.

The mid-term was a great success for the majority of students. The first part included a set of multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, and true/false questions. The other half consisted of three short writing exercises where students were presented with a scenario to respond to. Using knowledge from the class, they had to go on a Twitter rant, write a film review for their student group blog, and compose a Facebook post. The exam was all on Canvas, open book, and not timed. Students had four days to finish it (so they could come in several times to address the different components of the exam).

The final was going to be the same, but honestly, we all were very tired. Earlier in the quarter, we had a very effective short assignment in which students crafted a quiz based on the assigned reading and then had a class peer answer it. Because students had more autonomy, they engaged with the material differently. Inspired by that experience, I shifted the final exam to a final assignment.

The final assignment prompted students to pretend to be a TA for an upcoming study abroad program taking a group of Environmental Studies undergraduates to Cuba for two weeks. They were asked to create a one-hour presentation, based on our course, introducing students to the projects and struggles of the Cuban revolutionary experiment of the last 60 years. As TAs, they were charged with preparing the study-abroad students to understand with historical nuance the socio-political dynamics they would encounter in their visit to the island. They had to prepare 8-10 slides discussing at least five major points (three of these points had to be based on matters explored in the second half of the course). I provided some tips on what makes for effective slide presentations to help students think through the medium strategically. Their slide presentations were evaluated mainly on substance, completeness, coherence, creativity, and originality.

These changes to the course assignments resulted in the students experiencing more joy and creativity in learning, which is what I think we need most.


Ileana M. Rodríguez-Silva is a Giovanni and Amne Costigan Endowed Professor in History and associate professor of Latin American and Caribbean history. She is also the current director of undergraduate studies in the Department of History at UW-Seattle. Her research focuses on the production of race in the Americas, slavery and post-emancipation racial politics, and comparative colonial arrangements in the configuration of empires. She is the author of the award-winning book Silencing Blackness: Disentangling Race, Colonial Regimes, and National Struggles in Post-Emancipation Puerto Rico (1850-1920). Her scholarship appears in several academic journals such as the Hispanic American Historical Review, positions: Asia critique, Journal of Modern American History, and NACLA: Report on the Americas.

Teaching Spanish: A multi-day “finale” instead of a final exam

By Samuel Jaffee, Spanish & Portuguese Studies 

This spring quarter I’m teaching Spanish 302 and Spanish 303, both of which guide students in developing writing strategies in Spanish (creative fiction, business letters, reportage, argument and counterargument, and literary and visual analysis).

In lieu of a final exam, both classes will enjoy a multi-day “finale.”

Students in Spanish 302 are collaborating during Week 10 on synchronous debates (using Zoom, with a mix of speaking and writing). These debates are design-centered and inquiry-based activities that ask students to engage critically with current events and rely on the skills built during the course. In the debates, students propose a political, social, and economic future for Venezuela that responds to that country’s ongoing, years-long crisis. Students also debate Mexico’s “Day without Women,” a social movement from March of this year, and develop plans for a mobile app that would spread knowledge of the Mexican women’s lived realities.

During Week 10 in Spanish 303, students will collaborate one day synchronously (on Zoom, mostly speaking) and one day asynchronously (in writing, via Canvas Discussions) on creative activities that allow students to rethink, rewrite, and build upon four stories read in the second part of the quarter, in order to make the characters’ identities and lives experientially real. Students recently completed a formal literary analysis essay, a comparative analysis of two stories by Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Julio Cortazar. In this project, students will have a chance to play with the readings — perhaps writing a sequel, changing the protagonist, introducing a new conflict, or clarifying what is left unsaid in the original. In these creative tasks, students have the freedom to focus on aspects of the stories that were confusing to them and keep “thinking with” the characters (and their classmates’ ideas).

I have studied the work of linguists Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger, and Claire Kramsch, and artist-scholars Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), and I use their approaches to invigorate my assessments. The SPAN 303 course methodology is anchored in the scholarship and practice of Pre-Texts by Doris Sommer (Harvard University) and the work of Sommer’s Cultural Agents initiative, which offers educators programming, training, and workshops — most recently, an April webinar via Zoom in “Social (Distant) Practicing” — that I have found inspirational for my course design.

These design-centered activities encompass methodologies that democratize learning for the current generation and make the class a lot more dynamic. After all, who wants to learn Spanish in order to take an exam?

“Finale” project examples

Two students in Spanish 303, Kamryn Bodholt and Zachary Chambers, submitted dueling songs to the Canvas Discussions — songs that do much to clarify the turbulent emotional state of the protagonist of Argentine expatriate writer Julio Cortázar’s classic story “La noche boca arriba” [Headstrong into the Night].

Kamryn and Zachary were also my students in Spanish 302 in the winter quarter of this year. Here, they describe how the two-course Spanish writing sequence helps their intellectual and creative development as they gain fluency in the language:

Kamryn Bodholt:

I am a sophomore and am double majoring in Spanish and English: Creative Writing. Spanish 302 and 303 have been my favorite Spanish classes at UW so far (especially 303) because I have a lot of interest in creative writing and short stories, so in a way this class has been a combination of my two majors. Reading the stories alone builds my vocabulary (having to look at the definitions in the margins or the dictionary), and the homework questions help guide my thinking by hinting at the deeper messages in the story. I like how there can be multiple interpretations of each story, and that we have the freedom to explore our own interpretations as well as our classmates’ through class activities and discussions. Reading the articles written by literary critics has helped improve my professional/scholarly tone when writing in Spanish, and I have noticed these improvements in my speaking as well. I also enjoy the opportunities we have to be creative during class, like creating an Instagram post from the perspective of a character in one of the stories, drawing pictures of characters/plots, and writing songs, to name a few. Practicing my reading, writing, and speaking skills through these various activities has made me a more well-rounded Spanish student, and I can see these improvements in my writing when I compare essays from past quarters to ones from this quarter.

Un accidente de moto
ha hecho a mi cuerpo roto

Desperté en un hospital
y la ayuda médica para salvar mi vida fue vital

En la selva en mis sueños
tenía que correr de los enemigos
 
Había una enfermera vestida de blanca ropa,
y ella me dio mucha sopa
 
Un enemigo me apuñaló con un cuchillo
Esto también sucedió en mi sueño
 
El conflicto con los enemigos fue una inconveniencia
pero habló con otro paciente, y tuvo la misma experiencia
 
Estaba atrapado en la silla y escuché a los tambores
y sentí la celebración de mi muerte de los aplaudidores
 
En el hospital no pude abrir los ojos
Ya mi vida no tenía despojos
 
Alguien se le había acercado
Con un cuchillo en la mano
 
En este momento gané una nueva perspectiva
En la posición de la boca arriba

Zachary Chambers:

I am a sophomore pursuing a double degree in Biochemistry and Spanish. During my past two quarters in Spanish 302 and 303, my knowledge of the language has grown exponentially. I have really enjoyed these courses more than my previous ones, because they have been structured very differently. Instead of focusing on the smaller aspects of grammar and stressing over tests, I have been able to learn the language in a much more engaging and interesting way. As a matter of fact, the assignments always stretch my thinking and sometimes leave me pondering over a story for many days. They are always very creative, unique and thought-provoking. Because of this, I feel that my Spanish writing skills have tremendously improved as I am able to analyze texts from multiple perspectives before making a final decision about the characters, themes, hidden messages, etc. All in all, I have really liked these courses and have grown greatly as a Spanish writer because of them.

La mujer con quien me choca
En la ciudad hermosa
Ojalá viviera allí
 
La camilla de que me ponen
Incómodo, pero reconfortante
A saber que el otro era una pesadilla
 
La selva que huelo intensamente
En que corro para escaparme
De la guerra florida
 
En la cama, me siento
Ojos muy abiertos
Y como la sopa que me pone tranquilo
 
Regreso a la selva
Todavía corriendo
Puedo ver sus antorchas
 
¡Fiebre! Me despierto en la espalda
Con una tos y bebo agua
Para ponerme de nuevo a dormir
 
Los gritos que oigo
Me están acercando
Hasta que me llevan y me toman
 
Me despierto por la última vez
Y sé que la realidad no era lo que pensé
Este es la verdad
 
Las hogueras que me circundan
Y los aztecas que me miran
Me dicen que este es el fin
 
Me acerca con el cuchillo
Que tiene la habilidad de asesinar
Yo boca arriba

Samuel Jaffee, lecturer, UW Spanish & Portuguese StudiesSamuel Jaffee is a lecturer in Spanish & Portuguese Studies and teaches courses in writing, literary studies, and visual culture. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine, with a specialization in Andean literary and cultural studies from the colonial period through the present day. He presents widely and leads workshops for high school and college instructors on strategies for teaching classes of heritage and second-language learners, writing pedagogies, and incorporating less-commonly taught languages, such as indigenous languages, into a Spanish curriculum.