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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