I’d like to turn more decision-making power over to my students. In particular, I’d like to give students more choices about their reading material and their assignments.
One teacher in my department allows students a choice of six different novels for their final reading, and orders six copies of each for the bookstore, ensuring that each of the novels will be covered. I find this intriguing, and may try something like it.
It is tricky, when “competencies” have to be fulfilled, to allow a lot of latitude about assignment topics. Students in our post-intro courses have to complete a 1000-word essay, for example, and it has to meet certain guidelines; to prepare for this assignment, they need to complete other assignments that build toward it. For one or two assignments per term, however, it is possible to offer a range of options, from the strictly academic to the more creative.
The final reading in my personal narrative course this past term was the graphic novel Persepolis. My original plan for the final assignment was a short in-class response worth 10% of their grade. (In all my courses, I try to assign the major essay at midterm, to lighten my and the students’ end-of-term workload and to allow for rewrites.) I decided to transform that assignment into something slightly more flexible that they could do at home. I offered them the option of writing either a brief thematic analysis, a short personal narrative related to an experience in the memoir, or a character study of the narrator. These were all forms that I had asked them to produce throughout the course, and they were all quite different; students could judge their ability and interest based on their previous performance, and choose their assignment accordingly.
When I received the assignments, I was very pleased. Not only did the variety of forms make for much more interesting reading for me, but students had, for the most part, chosen the form they understood best, and so were able to produce works of higher calibre.
The personal narrative essays, in particular, were striking in that they allowed me some more insight into my students’ experiences. They had written personal narratives at the beginning of the term, and they were great, but the exercise of comparing and contrasting their experiences with that of a non-fictional character opened some doors they might not have otherwise opened. One student, for example, wrote an analysis of his relationship with marijuana, and a couple of girls wrote about the experience of being cheated on by their boyfriends. I recognized in these essays a phenomenon that I noticed when I was still a child and obsessed with books: if you read about someone living through something that you have lived through, your experience somehow becomes more valid and less painful. In these essays, I saw evidence that the memoir had been meaningful for these students, and that, whether or not they had learned something academically “literary” by reading it, they had learned something about themselves.
I intend to continue examining the assignments in my courses to determine whether I can allow students more latitude in the ways they demonstrate their understanding. Perhaps this way, I can give students a chance to show me what they do best, and they too will recognize more clearly that they have really learned something.
(An earlier version of this post was originally part of a personal response for an MEd course.)