Tuesday, 14 January 2014

I Make Students Do Assignments That I Don't Want To Do Myself

I have been doing some thinking about assignments that students are required to complete in order to earn their credits.  This is especially timely, since we're nearly at the end of first semester.  This afternoon, the tweet below captured my attention and really made me think about what I require my students to do and if I would want to do the same tasks.

In my mind, I went through the assignments that my three classes have worked on over the course of the semester, and I'm not too happy.  My findings are below.

I'm not sure what this says about me or about my teaching.  Am I a lazy person, who just doesn't want to do anything that requires formalized writing and really close analysis?  Am I a sub par teacher, who just has students do assignments because they have always been assigned and why change?

What are the purposes of the assignments I make students do, but would never do myself, unless required to pass a course?  In looking at the English course, I notice that I don't want to do any of the tasks that require essay writing.  What type of English teacher would I be if I didn't require students to write an essay?  Is it possible for students to learn the appropriate skills without doing the essay?

Most dismal is the Grade 10 history course.  I make them do literacy assignments in an half-hearted attempt to get them ready for the OSSLT: a test I am glad I did not have to pass to earn my high school diploma.  The purpose of the weekly quizzes is horrible:  a way to force students to write down their notes.  What on earth am I thinking?  The other assignments are just blah...they measure (hopefully) the students' understanding, but they aren't particularly engaging.  No wonder my history class hates my history class.

The silver lining in all of this is the Grade 12 history class.  There are only two assignments that I would not do...and I already had plans to make those changes.  The pirate photo album will be changed back to the pirate cartoon, which students did the first time I taught the class.  The Vietnam War letter will be changed, because I intend on removing the unit and replacing it with a unit about the War on Terror and a discussion about "enhanced interrogation techniques".

I am left with one significant question: just because I don't want to do the assignment (and believe that students probably don't either) does that mean there isn't value in it?


  1. Assignments I remember liking? Walking tour of historical architecture and having to categorize real buildings by style; visiting a real church of Scientology and inviting a Scientologist to come to my class and co-present with me; recreate a scene from Macbeth (we chose to do the cauldron scene with a real human sacrifice); creative writing portfolio; big fat productions.

  2. Sarah this was very interesting to read. I definitely see your dilemma. But I do believe that there is value in many of those assignments (especially essays in English class). If students had the chance to decide what they WANT to do there would be very little accomplished. Their input is important but also somewhat irrelevant as at the end of the day you are the teacher and you need to deliver the curriculum to them, and assess whether they grasped it. Although essay writing may not be the number one choice for students it does teach them valuable skills and preps them for future writing requirements in university. Although "fun"assignments are probably more popular amongst students, it doesn't mean more learning is being done. And also, in students' future careers choice and "fun"is not always on the menu but the responsibilities to get the job done are.
    [Maybe offer students a list of several assignment options so that they feel like they get a choice and can utilise their strengths (after all, not everyone has the same take on each assignment)].

  3. Assignments I loved?...
    In English class: presenting in role a character from my independent novel study (drama is fun!), creating a poetry anthology on a particular theme (poems by others and my own), creating a script
    In history: a video montage for my ISU of how music changed in the 20th century, writing a letter as a soldier in the trenches back home to family, researching and writing a biography of an influential person/leader in 20th century.... I'll try to think of more

  4. I think a balance needs to be hit. I wonder if "enjoy" is too strong a word, and I worry that if we focus on that we might lose purpose. I do think "value" might be better? I am glad you ended with that question. And as Maria said, ""fun" is not always on the menu but the responsibilities to get the job done are."
    I wonder what @justintarte was thinking about when he tweeted that. Was he looking at worksheet/busy work type assignments? Was he looking at essays? I often think (but don't often do) I should do the assignment before I assign it just to make sure that it actually hits what I think it should. Do the students really need to know or understand what I want them to in order to do the assignment? Does it encourage deep thinking and understanding? Then I should use the rubric to mark my own assignment - am I assessing what I should be? For the physical unit in grade 9 geography I really should have done the assignment before the students did. It would have saved me a lot of heartache marking it. I would have explained it differently for sure.
    I also wonder if you are being too hard on your assignments... Would you really not want to do the ISU on a novel of your choice? We do that (to some extent) in our lives - we read books we enjoy and we talk about what we liked or didn't like about them as we recommend them to others. To me the ISU novel is one of the most "real life" things we could do. I don't want someone recommending a book to me because they just like it, but can't explain why. And you would do the photo album in 2P, but not in 4E? Why is that? Is it relative to the rest of the assignments in the course?
    I love that you question stuff like this and that you share it so openly. It encourages me (and others hopefully) to think about what I am doing and why. You are not a lazy person - as evidenced by you continuing to reflect and grow. Nor are you "a sub par teacher, who just has students do assignments because they have always been assigned and why change" - as evidence again by your reflection and growth. You do not mindlessly do what has always been done. Anyone reading any of your blogs knows this. Keep pushing, keep growing, keep sharing!

  5. Alanna, thanks for the assignment suggestions.

    Maria, thanks for the assignment ideas and the perspective. I agree that "fun" isn't and shouldn't be the motivation for assignments. I see excellent value in being able to write a convincing and beautiful essay...I just wonder if so many need to be written over the course of one semester and every single year from grades 9-12.

    Lisa, I agree that enjoy is too strong a word. I probably should have used "engage" or "value". I don't know what @justintarte was getting at...I thought about the formative work I do in my class, and I think it is meaningful and gets to the core of the summative tasks. The ISU can be "real life", but it isn't. There are specific instructions as to what books the students can choose and it isn't a book recommendation. It is an analysis of culture.

    There is also something to be said for struggling and being proud of the outcome. I didn't want to write my essay on Dieppe or on animal imagery in King Lear, but upon reflection of the process and the outcome, I'm glad I wrote them. Maybe the question is, how can we get students to see the value in what we make them do?