Assignment Design

Another crucial part of my WID experience was the realization that the way I design my assignments could go a long way toward having students produce more interesting, better written, and more polished essays.

I’m interested in exploring two things in particular in more detail in upcoming classes: having students write in different genres, and having students conduct more research.

Using Different Genres

I find myself more and more dissatisfied with assigning and reading “standard academic essays.” We are all familar with these beasts. The five paragraph essay, with a thesis statement, topic sentences, evidence, and a conclusion. Never use the passive tense. Avoid using the word I. Make it sound like every essay you’ve ever written in school.

Although the standard academic essay is an important and worthwhile genre, I don’t necessarily think it’s the one that allows my students the creative space to best flex their critical thinking muscles. The problem with this type of essay is that it is specific to one context: school. It doesn’t have its tentacles wrapped up in the real world in a tangible enough way. The only people who read such things are teachers. In a way, by its very nature, it can discourage original thought and expression.

I think it’s more than possible to hit all the critical thinking objectives set out by the education minister by using alternative genres. Bean is big on using different genres: “acroos the curriculum it is possible for instructors to assign a range of genres that allow students to learn not only academic and progresssional forms of writing but also alternative genres that draw on different talents, passions, and ways of seeing” (53-54). By having students write in forms that they may actually encounter in the real world, I hope that their level of engagement will naturally go up. The mantra that “there is more than one right answer to any analytical question” becomes easier to grasp when students are allowed to express themselves in a style that is more true to who they are. Defining an audience and a real-world context for a piece of writing makes it much easier to complete, and motivates writers to put their best into it.

Some of the genres that I thought could replace the standard academic one include blogs, letters to the editor/editorials/opinion pieces, podcasts, magazine-style articles, an essay written from a character’s perspective, news articles, short stories, poems, marketing strategies, etc. I’d have to think more about specific genres, but role playing and problem solving seem like important elements in using different genres.

Here are the topics I proposed for an essay in class where I tried to adopt a role-playing technique, and have students address a specific problem:

Essay Topics

Here is a creative assignment I assigned to make students more engaged with metaphor, imagery, and some of the themes that came up in the literature we were reading:

Community Poem Project


A key element to getting students engaged in a project is having them relate it to their own lives. I see research as something that has potential to be able to do this.

Bean opened my eyes to different ways of thought on this topic as well. He talks about different types of research besides going to the library or online journals. Research is anything, really, that brings different ideas and points of view to the table. A novel is not a self-contained world of ideas that are floating in some imaginary universe of pure abstraction. A novel has deep and fundamental connections to the world; otherwise, it would not be readable. The more connections the students can make between the literature and their own lives, their own experiences, and the world at large, the better equipped they will be to look at it with a sophisticated critical eye.

Some ideas of real-world forms of research include a connection to current events, an examination of social trends, interviews, and–perhaps most interestingly–real world experience. I don’t know–as I’m writing this I realize that my conception of what research is is still pretty limited. I’ll have to meditate on this some more, but bringing literature down to the level of things that students can see, smell, and feel seems to be a productive way to get their minds working in new and exciting ways.

In the Community Poem Project posted above, for example, there was a strong research element: observation.

This was meant as a fun, creative exercise where I had students write poems about their communities. Much of what we talked about in my Montreal Jewish Writing class had to do with the idea of community. I wanted to the students to consider their own relationships to community, and to attempt to write a poem, a form many of them claimed “they couldn’t understand” before we started reading some poetry in the class.

I was pretty floored with the results. The students’ definitions of community were very wide (as I encouraged them to be). Some of them wrote about where they grew up, some wrote about online multi-player role playing games, some wrote about their sports teams, many wrote about Montreal. Many were funny, insightful, touching, and vivid in their use of imagery. And they were so good precisely because the students cared about what they were writing–they were writing about their lives. And there was a strong research component to this exercise: observing their surroundings. Many of the poems were incredibly astute in their observations of people, institutions, and social patterns. I didn’t use it this way in this course, but these kinds of creative assignments can be helpful springboards to longer assignments that respond to a work of literature.

Up until now, I’ve considered research in my classes to be reading works of literary criticism. That’s certainly a crucial form of research, but perhaps not so much for my students. Broadening my own definition of research can go a long way toward inspiring students to relate what we’re reading to the real world, and to their own lives.