Designing Writing Assignments: Designing Writing Assignments

Designing Writing Assignments Book CoverThe title of this post is not a typo or hiccup. The third chapter of Traci Garder’s book Designing Writing Assignments is titled “Designing Writing Assignments,” too.

In this chapter, Garder addresses the reason why students might fail to meet our expectations: we didn’t communicate what we thought we did. I am guilty, as Gardner says, of simply trying to provide an assignment sheet, but we need to do more. First of all, when I define tasks, I’m not sure I have thought of “suggest[ing] steps in the process that students can complete” and “indicat[ing] different ways that students can work,” though I do usually “schedule multiple opportunities for students to write as they complete the assignment,” particularly if it’s a lower level or lower grade—9th graders versus 11th graders, for example (36). I think I should give all of my students more opportunitys to write in class than I currently do. It’s all about the balance of time, isn’t it?

In helping students comprehend our expectations, Gardner suggests we

  • unpack the meaning of the assignment, as described by Jim Burke, by explaining the assignment to create a shared understanding of the activity
  • provide model responses and demonstrate how to read and compose example texts
  • share rubrics, checklists, and other resources that highlight the requirements and goals for the assignment (36)

I do share rubrics, but I need to be more consistent, particularly as I use rubrics to grade. Checklists, my students also have. Models are an area in which I feel I’m weak. I do some modeling, but usually after the first draft. When I asked students to write a poetry explication, they asked me for models, and though I pointed them to one I found on the web, it didn’t appear to be enough. Over and over students told me they weren’t sure what to do. Jay McTighe describes a teacher who had a target on her bulletin board. A-papers were in the middle of the target, and B- and C-papers were farther out. Students could see exactly what they needed to do to earn the grade they wanted. On the other hand, does that encourage too much imitation and not enough creativity? It’s something I wrestle with when I use models.

Next, Gardner describes the importance of support and resources. When I have designed UbD units, my performance assessments have typically been really good in terms of support and resources, but I haven’t done it for all of the essays. And why not? I have a blog and a wiki! I can gather all kinds of resources for students to use with Web 2.0 tools.

Gardner models the process for creating three types of writing assignments, ending each vignette with an assessment of how well the assignment meets the criteria set forth in the General Writing Assignment Design section (defining task, expectations, and support and resources). In the vignette on expressive writing, Gardner mentions blogs. It sounds like she has used LiveJournal (she describes being able to add emoticons and what music the writer’s listening to, both LJ features) with students, but Ning would be great. It can be closed or open, and students can all be blogging in the same space. I can’t decide if I’m going to do some blogging with all my classes. I am already launching interactive notebooks, and I just don’t know. I don’t want to do too much that’s different or I’ll go crazy, but Gardner makes a good point about the audience for expressive writing being narrow if it’s just the student and me who read it. I really like commenting, too. Now if my students all had the same note-taking tools (like Curio, perhaps), we could probably make the interactive notebooks more of a shared item. I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.

As I read Garder’s process for reflecting on how she has met the criteria for designing assignments in each of the vignettes, I’m reminded again of the UbD process for designing any assignment—the filter in particular. If you want to see one of my filters, I created one for Beowulf when I wrote my UbD unit plan. As a side note, what’s great about the essential questions for that plan is that when I discovered Joe Scotese had some good close reading assignments for Beowulf, I was able to use them to explore the same questions even deeper. I need to revise my unit to include Joe’s ideas. I actually had an idea as I read Gardner’s description of her persuasive writing assignment. I have asked students to write Beowulf’s résumé in the past; I think a persuasive essay in which they are trying to convince someone to hire him on as a hero, perhaps even written from the viewpoint of King Hrothgar? Something’s always niggled at me about that résumé in the past. I worried that though it’s an authentic task, it wasn’t all that challenging, which is why I added annotations. A persuasive essay would definitely make me feel better about the performance task and make it more of a writing exercise. What do you think? If I remember right, Jim Burke even has a great graphic organizer for constructing an argument that would work well.

Let’s see, this kind of assignment would include an authentic audience—someone in need of a hero who has asked Hrothgar for a recommendation. Students are experts: they’ve read Beowulf and seen him in action (of course, he dies, so I could ask students to complete the assignment before we get to that part or they’ll bring it up for sure). Then again, I might be able to get around that snag by having Hrothgar write to the Geats to explain why Beowulf should be made king. It will set the letter more firmly at a certain place in the story. What do you think? They’ll need to interact with the text to provide examples of Beowulf’s heroism. How about choice? Well, they need to decide which acts are heroic enough to include and leave out things they don’t find heroic. Models. I don’t have any models on this particular assignment. I could provide them, but given the narrow scope, could I get away with sharing recommendation letters? I can include suggested steps in the process on the assignment sheet, and I can create peer review sheets that help the students with structure and audience/purpose. Graphic organizers and a cheat sheet for the grammar handbook students use might be helpful support as well.

I think I have just begun planning a writing assignment.

P. S. If you are a regular visitor or even a vistor whose been here before, you may notice a few differences in this site’s functionality. I was going to tack the description of some changes I’ve made to this post, but I decided they really merit a separate post, which is forthcoming.

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7 thoughts on “Designing Writing Assignments: Designing Writing Assignments

  1. For the models for recomendation letters, could you use a movie that they've seen? Perhaps even a popular children's movie? That way you could show how to use concrete examples from the "text" to support in the letters in a way that would be closer to what you're expecting them to do. Or, perhaps it would be good to show both these kinds of letters and some traditional letters. I love this idea by the way.

    • Could you explain how I would use the movies? I'm afraid I didn't understand. I could probably find some sample letters of recommendation that are NOT based on this topic.

      • I was thinking of a movie with a hero. What acts of heroism does he/she perform that could be used in a recommendation letter? For example, I like to use Zathura with Beowulf when we talk about Campbell's monomyth theory. We've watched parts of it to show the stages of the hero's journey and compare this to Beowulf's. Why couldn't you use a movie like that one to write sample letters of recommendations for its hero? That way you could have samples without using all the examples in Beowulf. Does this make sense? When we watch that movie, we even discuss the unlikely hero, the younger brother. We talk about what makes him the hero. We even discussed ways both he and his older brother are heroes. These lead into discussions of heroism with connections to Beowulf.

  2. Hi Dana: My kids and I have been blogging for two years and it is a great way to get the resistive ones to write. They do not seem to notice that it is writing! (see blog address above-it is my class blog). I , too, am starting interactive notebooks this fall, and I think that they will mesh. I am planning on using the Interactive notebooks with the juniors, whose notetaking skills need shoring up. I will include a section on each page for their blogging ideas. So far, I have generated the topics on each blog. Next year, they will be doing some of that and the notebooks will help.

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