Designing Writing Assignments: Defining New Tasks for Standard Writing Activities

The fourth chapter in Traci Gardner’s Designing Writing Assignments focuses on “unusual or new alternatives to the standard kinds of writing that students are asked to complete” (48). Some of my best writing assignments have sprung from planning UbD performance tasks with an authentic audience. For example, two grammar UbD units I wrote concern the use of apostrophes and the use of commas. The performance task for the apostrophe unit concerns writing a letter to an elected official in Arkansas who presented a bill before the Arkansas legislature regarding the use of the apostrophe to form the possessive form of Arkansas. The comma assignment involved creating a comma usage manual for a company who lost over $2 million Canadian when a contract was interpreted in a way they didn’t foresee simply because of the placement of a comma. Both performance tasks have been successful in the past, which is one reason I think writing a letter of recommendation for Beowulf could work (see previous post).

Gardner suggests six questions you can use in framing alternative assignments:

  • Who will read the text? Can I choose an alternative audience?
  • What stance will students take as writers? Can the assignment ask for an unusual tone?
  • When does the topic take place? Can the assignment focus on an alternative time frame?
  • Where will the background information come from? Can the assignment call for alternative research sources?
  • Can students write something other than a traditional essay? Can the assignment call for alternative genres or publication media? (49)

Gardner includes a helpful table on p. 50 that lists potential authentic audiences for writing tasks. It would be a great starting point for any teacher creating a writing assignment or a performance task in another subject area. Gardner describes an audience that caught my attention in terms of being able to adapt it for an assignment in my class: how would one of Chaucer’s pilgrims react to the topic for the assignment? Gardner describes a new rule at school, but it could be adapted for a variety of purposes. How would Chaucer’s pilgrims react to some headline in the news? To a major event in politics? To a work of literature? I teach parts of The Canterbury Tales to students: the Prologue, “The Knight’s Tale,” “The Miller’s Tale,” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” It would be fun for the characters to comment on each other’s tales. I know there is some of that in the prologues to some of the tales, but not in all of them. I have traditionally had students write a compare/contrast essay. I could tell that assignment didn’t go over so well this year, so maybe next year this small adaptation of looking at the stories from a different audience angle could generate more enthusiasm.

In exploring different tones, again Gardner provides a helpful chart on p. 53. Some ideas for adaptation to the Chaucer assignment could be curious, condescending, discouraged, furious, injured, irritated, offended, resentful, shocked, or upset. Of course, some of the characters might feel more amused, which isn’t a choice in the list, but would be good to include in the assignment. Giving students some ideas about possible positions to take would be good exercise for voice and tone, and I have to admit, I don’t build in a lot of opportunities for students to explore different tones. I think I generally ask students write in a formal, scholarly tone, and it’s no wonder they don’t understand tone very well. They don’t get to explore different types of tone enough. In any case, as Gardner notes, I would need to “spend time unpacking the different stances on the list with the class” (52). I really like Gardner’s idea of putting these positions on a continuum given a scenario (such as not receiving a refund for a defective product) in a class discussion—students ranking the positions could see irritation as less extreme than anger, which will inform their writing.

Next, Gardner underscores the importance of freewriting to gather ideas when writing from other perspectives. With interactive notebooks next year, I plan to build in more time for journals and freewrites, and these will be good springboards for writing assignments.

In considering when the topic takes place, I am thinking again of the Beowulf assignment. One of the issues I want to explore when my students study Beowulf is the notion that though we have some ideas about heroism that are different from those held by Anglo-Saxons (or the Danes and Geats of Beowulf), some ideas have remained the same. Joe Scotese has a great exercise on his site that explores the way in which Beowulf is related to 9/11 and how one small act of heroism (that is even murkier because some translations do not highlight it or ascribe different motivations to Beowulf)—saving Brecca—is greater than killing Grendel.

I love Gardner’s idea for a cause/effect essay on p. 57:

If you could look in your crystal ball and determine the most significant thing that happened to you this week, what would it be? Write a cause-and-effect paper that explains what the event is and predicts how it will affect you.

It would be great for ninth graders writing a cause/effect paper. I also love the process of modeling and unpacking she describes for the assignment. I am definitely going to steal that assignment. With so many changes at the beginning of 9th grade—new school, new friends, new teachers, new expectations—early in the year would be a great time to do this assignment. It might even make a good first essay.

The list of alternative genres and subgenres for assignments on pp. 62-63 should be a good springboard for exploring different kinds of writing aside from the standard essay. In fact, Gardner mentions a recommendation report on p. 63, which may be how I can get out of my sticky problem with the Beowulf assignment. If Hrothgar is writing a recommendation report rather than a letter, it might not bother students so much that Beowulf dies at the end. I know writing a letter of recommendation for a deceased person would seem awkward, but a report might be less so.

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eChaucer: Chaucer in the Twenty-First Century

If you are like me, your introduction to Chaucer didn’t exactly warm you up to the guy.  We read the Prologue and probably a couple of the tales (whatever was clean enough for the textbook), but my teacher took no pains to engage us in the material, nor did he bother to make it interesting.  And what a shame!  Chaucer is easily one of the most entertaining poets in British literature!

When I took a sophomore-level survey of British literature (up to 1700) at UGA, I had an instructor who made this literature I didn’t think I liked — not only the Chaucer, but also Beowulf — finally come alive.  We read Chaucer in the Middle English in a text with the original and side-by-side modern tranlation by A. Kent Hieatt and Constance Hieatt that I still like: The Bantam Classics edition of The Canterbury Tales.  I had the translation to fall back on if I just couldn’t figure it out, but otherwise the strategy I used then (which still works for me now when I read Middle English) was to read the piece with the notion that the writer can’t spell a lick.  As with anything, with practice, Middle English can become easier to read.

One thing that has always bothered me, however, is that in a survey British literature course in high school, it can be fairly hard for my students to enjoy Chaucer because they have difficulty reading even the translations when they are in verse.  I do have my students experiment with reading Middle English, but I think for the levels I teach, it would be a disservice to ask my students to read it all in Middle English.  I feel differently about Shakespeare, but let’s face it — Middle English is just that much more difficult than Shakespeare that I think with high school students (with few exceptions), reading it might be more of an exercise in frustration than pleasure.  And I don’t want my students to hate Chaucer the way I did.

I was very excited to find Gerard NeCastro’s Web site eChaucer: Chaucer in the Twenty-First Century.  NeCastro provides his own prose translations of each tale in several formats (and other works by Chaucer), along with a cheat sheet for common Middle English words, and a concordance for each tale and the book as a whole.  It’s an amazing resource, and if you plan to teach any part of The Canterbury Tales this year, I urge you to check it out.  NeCastro’s translations are readable and enjoyable, and most importantly, accessible.

You can give students NeCastro’s cheat sheet and assign them to read a post in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Blogge.  I recommend the posts listed under Favourite Posts to start, but if your students are familiar with the Heath Ledger film A Knight’s Tale, they might also like “Lament for Sir William.”  If you want students to try their hand at Middle English by using Chaucer’s blog, I have a handout you might find useful.  You may also be interested in my UbD unit plan for The Canterbury Tales.  My performance task was altered based on an idea of Joe Scotese’s.

Portrait of Chaucer obtained from Gerard NeCastro’s eChaucer: Chaucer in the Twenty-First Century; from Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes.

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