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Scavenging for Assignments

posted: 1.21.11 by archived

As a writing teacher, I do a lot of reading. Much of it is student work, of course, but I also read (or scan) more professionally published essays and articles. I read these as a scavenger, looking for topics my students might read and talk and write about and for forms my assignments might take.

For the past few years, I’ve used a typical summary-and-response assignment (disguised by the more poetic name adopted by UMass-Amherst: the text wrestling essay) each semester. I typically select four or five articles for students to choose from—both so that I can set the length/difficulty level of the articles and so that I can be reasonably familiar with them (to help students identify main ideas and any paraphrases too close to the original). I select articles that are available online, from sources such as the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Atlantic, the New York Times Sunday Magazine section, and Arts & Letters Daily, trying to pick a range of accessible topics.

But it’s the reading I do that provides me with ideas for assignment forms, or genres—I’m not quite sure of the best word here—that most interests me. Here are two old assignment examples, plus the brand new one I discovered this past week.

Argument against convention. Born of my frustration with student essays that tackled such noncontroversial claims as “smoking is bad for you,” this assignment demands that students argue against the majority view. (This requires quite a bit of classroom discussion of suitable claims, as well as assurances that it is possible to argue a claim one has not personally adopted.) The idea came from one of my weekly reads, the Ideas section of the Sunday Boston Globe, which often presents such arguments against convention (boredom is productive, plastics are environmentally friendly, slums are a good thing, and so forth). Here are some of the articles I’ve collected that can serve as examples for students.

Annotation project. This assignment comes from Harper’s Annotation feature: a two-page spread (usually) of a central image surrounded by discrete blocks of text that deconstruct portions of the image or provide researched information about some angle or aspect of the image. This nonargumentative research project, in my theory anyway, addresses several of the problems I had found with the traditional FYC argumentative research paper assignment. It encourages students to broaden their topic selection beyond their first impulses toward death penalty, abortion, legalization of marijuana. Moreover, it allows students to focus on the process of generating research questions, finding and evaluating sources, and constructing coherent paragraphs (a quality of student writing that in my experience sharply declines as students first struggle to integrate sources).

Collaborative writing. As I wrote last week, I’ve been thinking about ways I could get my students to work together on larger writing projects that perhaps allow a diversity of voices. This week I discovered the New York Times feature Room for Debate, which could be a model to work from. This section of the Times collects individual pieces on a single topic or issue, sometimes drawn from personal experience, as in “Teenage Drinking Diaries,” but more often argumentative, as in the current hot-button question “More Guns, Less Crime?” The main site provides a handy list of general topics such as education, immigration, and technology, which would help students find topics that interest them. (I foresee that topic selection would be a major challenge for this approach. I would expect to spend quite a bit of time brainstorming topics and might even consider giving students a list to choose from.) As a scaffolding assignment, I would ask groups to report on one of the issues on the site, giving summaries and analyses of the various positions taken. In particular, I’d encourage students to reflect on how the writers seem to have formed and supported their claims (what balance of personal experience, values, and evidence they employ) and to locate their areas of agreement and disagreement. This project might be enlarged with a group annotated bibliography such as I described in last week’s post. In addition to their individual contributions, students might work collaboratively to make sure a range of views are represented, to peer review work in progress, to choose an editor and proofreader (or to divide up the work), and to select a presentation format.

I’d welcome comments on how you’ve used outside reading to design assignments—or any suggestions you can make about how mine might be adapted and improved!

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Holly Pappas
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