Every so often, I get an email from a parent asking about a particular assignment. Often, they’re just asking for the details of the work so that they can ensure that their children are completing it properly, but sometimes they want to know the rationale behind the assignment.
I’m never bothered by these “tell me why” requests. I want both the kids and their parents to understand that I don’t give busy-work; everything I ask the kids to do has a meaning and a purpose and a place in the larger arc of the class. Being able to articulate the reasoning behind an assignment – what skills the work is designed to practice or what concepts it is intended to reinforce – helps to keep me thinking about the purpose of the work I ask the kids to do. I remember wondering “what’s the point” about a lot of the work I did as a student, and I really wish that someone had taken the time to explain to me what I was actually doing – even if I didn’t understand it at the time, feeling like someone had a handle on things would have helped, I think, to ease my teenaged angst.
Anyway, here’s the email I sent back to the dad. I feel like I did a good job at explaining, in clear terms, why I want his kid to do this work.
As for the short story assignment: the students were given class time in which they were to go to the website I gave them and read TWO of the short stories offered (there was a list of about 50 from which they could choose). I handed out a two-sided worksheet that required the students to discern details and nuance about the “elements of fiction” ideas – character, plot, setting, that sort of thing – and to make assertions and articulate comprehension of the theme(s) of the stories. They didn’t have enough time to finish both stories, so I set the remainder of the assignment as homework; I put both the web link and a PDF of the handout on the assignment.
This assignment was given as part of a lesson arc designed to get the kids thinking in terms of story construction. We’re working on getting past the “what happened” ideas – they had plenty of that in middle school – and moving on to the “how did it happen” ideas; the ways in which writing is crafted. I know that kids tend not to think about writing as a process, and that’s what I’m trying to get them not only to see, but to be able to use in their own writing practice. This assignment, and several others like it, was designed to get them to start seeing the “strings” as it were, to discern that there is purpose behind the choices a writer makes, and to start thinking about – and using deliberately – the choices they make in their own writing.
I hope this helps.