Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Best Writing Assignments: The Real Ones

My 13 year-old son, who attends the small school where I teach, hates homework.  He declared last night, "it's by far my least favorite thing about school."   Yet I watched him eagerly working on an assignment last night.  No, it wasn't the pages and pages of algebra problems.  He was writing an article about a recent change in a studyhall policy our director announced to students the other day. Aside from the excitement and pride he exuded, I loved that he was writing it to fulfill his current events assignment.  His humanities teacher assigns traditional bi-weekly current events: students look through newspapers and choose an article to summarize. They then use these summaries to discuss national or international news in their 7/8th grade classroom.  A fine assignment, but nothing mind-blowing.

However, this week, my son asked his teacher if he could use the new studyhall policy as his current event.  I'm guessing that many teachers would simply tell my sometimes flippant, sarcastic son, no--that's not a "true" current event, and of course, there's no article about it.  However, this wise humanities teacher said, sure you can--but you'll have to provide the article.  So my son has spent the last two days as a journalist.  After he shared an initial draft of his article, his teacher told him he'd need to provide some quotes from actual interviews.  So my son talked to teachers and peers, recording their interviews on his Ipod.  He then came home and transcribed them, while also talking to me about how to work direct quotes into his article.  In other words, he is writing much more than a summary. What could have been an obligatory reading/writing assignment became an engaging, valuable writing exercise.

I commend my colleague for being flexible, and realizing that it can be valuable for teachers to put aside our expectations for an assignment, and really think about what a student will gain from a slightly (or even drastically) different version.  In this case, the teacher quickly surmised that my son would follow through and write an article if he told him that this would be the only way to cover that  current event.  And he also knew that there was already more interest in this particular "event" than a more national event that my son might have chosen, just to get the assignment completed.  In the end,  my son is learning that writing has purpose--and potentially, power.  Afterall, his article is already creating more dialogue about the new policy and he's learning about how to listen to differing perspectives on an issue.  You can't ask for much more than that from a homework assignment.