Busy Work or Busy Minds: Creating Assignments that Matter

An education professor once told my class, “If an assignment isn’t teaching anything, don’t ask students to do it.”  This precept has guided my teaching ever since.

First of all, I loathe grading.  Really, what teacher doesn’t?  It’s the menial, behind-the-scenes drudgery that we do because it allows us to do the fun stuff: planning lessons, delivering lessons, talking with kids, listening to kids, making kids laugh, etc.

In order to make my menial tasks less onerous, I have developed strict guidelines for the assigning of work.  Here is the list (as of today):

  1. No assignments that don’t lead to an upcoming skill or objective.
  2. No busy work just because I need a quiet day.
  3. No assignments that I’m not actually going to read.
  4. No assignments that are easy to cheat on.
  5. No assignments that get in the way of something I really want students to be doing (in my class, this is reading the assigned texts.  Nothing (from me) should get in the way of reading.  Nothing.)

So that’s the list of don’ts.   Stated more positively, I believe that all assignments should

  1. Have a clear objective.  If I can’t quickly identify what skill this assignment is asking the student to demonstrate, it has no place in my in-box.
  2. Receive feedback from me or from a peer. I’m sure we have all heard stories of students who write fake information on assignments for those teachers who will not actually read their work.  I once had a student confess to me that she wrote about her softball game in an essay for another class when she didn’t know the material and knew that the teacher only assessed by the length of her writing.
  3. Point students to the reading.  If students are not reading, nothing important is happening in my class, so performance on all assignments must depend on the quality of a student’s reading of the text.
  4. Support and promote my classroom stance (empathy) in some way, no matter how small the connection. 

What would you add to this list? How do you make decisions about which assignments to give? Or, better yet, to leave out?

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