Character Poems // How can Empathy be Assessed?
As their final project for the unit on Of Mice and Men, students were asked to write a poem from the point of view of one of the characters in the novel (examples above). Throughout the unit, students had been studying characterization and the ways in which character traits are directly and indirectly revealed in literature, and this assignment gave them the opportunity to apply what they had learned to their own writing. In addition, taking on the persona of one of the characters could enable students to empathize with and form a deeper understanding of the characters they chose. Since empathy is an aesthetic experience, it could be argued that the assignment (right, top) could be useful in promoting an aesthetic stance.
If the goal (or one of the goals) of an assignment is to promote an aesthetic stance toward a text, then this should be represented in the assessment of the assignment. The rubric for this particular assignment (right, bottom) does not take elements of an aesthetic stance into account. The first criterion by which student poems were graded was the demonstration of a "full understanding" of the character. This suggests that there is a correct (and an incorrect) interpretation of the character, which contradict's Rosenblatt's idea that meaning constructed from an aesthetic reading is personal. If that is the case, then any interpretation of a character presented by a student shows his/her understanding of that character and cannot be "wrong."
Looking at the other grading criteria, similar problems arise. For example, in an aesthetic reading, character relationships and dreams can be understood in various ways. Furthermore, using textual evidence to "prove" your interpretation of the text requires the organizing of ideas that is inherently efferent and moves away from the raw, unprocessed aesthetic reaction to the text.
How, then, might I replicate an assignment like this in the future while avoiding the pitfalls that come with trying to assess empathy? It seems to me that the best solution would be to do away with the rubric scoring system for an assignment like this and grade the poems holistically. Furthermore, I might revise the assignment itself by giving students more freedom in terms of what they wrote about. The point-of-view poem could be one option, but other students could perhaps choose to write any poem inspired by their reading of the text.