My Favorite Writing Assignment
I was an English teacher for 31 years, and I had a lot of writing assignments I liked. What follows is my favorite.
Not the best or most important, actually. The best one ran for three years when I had my 9th grade English Honors class create, each year, an entire novel. I used song lyrics to get the juices flowing.
The first year I used Kenny Loggin’s “I’m All Right,” which proved to be an inspired choice when I learned the he was one student’s uncle! I wrote him a letter asking for permission to use the lyrics, which was probably not necessary, and he wrote back promptly with an enthusiastic assent and asked to be sent the final product. That got the students really committed to the idea.
We brainstormed some characters and conflicts on the board, and then I went home and divided the plot into 28 or so equally sized chunks. Today that strikes me as a Herculean task, but I was very eager. The students picked their favorite chapters from the typed list, and we were off.
The reason I used the Honors class was that I had to be confident that each student would finish her or his chapter. If 27 students did their work and one did not, it would be a disaster, especially for that one student.
In my experience, the biggest difference between Honors and other students was attitude. Honors students were willing to attempt any whackydoodle concept I came up with, and their parents were also supportive. More on that later.
This was a great assignment for teaching continuity. The students had to discuss and/or read each other’s work to check for consistency. What were the parents like? What kind of car did they drive? That sort of thing.
As we got into it, I explained that this was to be a real novel. I wanted the characters to talk like real teens. As an example, I asked the students to imagine what they would say if they were in a hurry between classes and slammed a locker door closed on a finger. What words would be said? Those were the words I wanted to see, not a long like of asterisks and exclamation points.
This was before the age of the computer, so the idea was that the final draft had to be typed, and using parents was OK. I would then copy each page about 30 times and everyone would leave 9th grade with a copy of their own novel.
One student had his mother hand him her typed copy of his chapter, and (she told me this later), she watched as a look of horror came over his face. He looked at her and said “What have you done?”
“Well, I took out all the bad words you used that Mr. Preston would not want to see.”
“Mom! Mr. Preston is the guy who taught me to put them in!”
She typed it all again, laughing.
So that was a great assignment. I did it for three years before transferring to the high school.
Best editing assignment came from the stand-up comedy class I taught for one year. I had a local pro comic by the name of Ross Shafer that I found out about somehow come in as a guest speaker, and he was brilliant.
He explained how comedy worked in Vegas. You were hired to do 30 minutes, for example, and that meant not 29 or 31, but 30. A digital clock set in to the stage helped. And there were management types in the audience counting the number and duration of laughs. Most importantly, he explained that if he thought of a new joke, he would include it somewhere. If it did not work, he would listen to a recording of his set and then edit the joke to make it better. If he tried to make it better twice and it still did not work, he would toss it, even if he thought it was hilarious.
That was the only class I ever taught where many of the students actually perceived the value of editing. Some of the jokes they wrote were really good. Usually after two or three edits and advice from their peers. Alas, they were high school students, and almost all of the “good stuff” was entirely inappropriate for school. And – Mr. Naïve was creating video- taped evidence that would end his career in about 30 seconds if almost any administrator saw it! I wised up and only taught it for two semesters.
But the most fun assignment was: “Persuade Your Parents to Buy You a Car – Using Logic.”
This was in the junior high teaching years, when most students were frothing at the mouth to get their driving license. Interesting side bar: when I was 15, the insurance rates for boys were much higher than for girls. No sexism: data. In 1972 along came Title IX, and the opportunities for sports and a lot of other things came to girls. Girls learned they could work hard at a sport, and could also compete. In a few years they learned that they could drive just as foolishly as teen boys, and their accident rates soared and became virtually equal to boys. Progress!
The unit was on writing essays to persuade. You can use emotion, or logic. A turning point in my own life came in 9th grade when I realized that my parents, both mechanical engineers, could be persuaded by logic, whereas emotion, including earnest pleas, begging, and tantrums, did not affect them at all.
For the assignment, I took a local publication of used cars and cut it up. Each student got a page with picture ads of local used cars. The student was to pick a favorite, and then write an essay to persuade the parents or parent to buy that car for the student’s use – using logic.
The Honors’ students got an even more fun assignment. Same deal, but in their case their parent or parents would write an essay in response, and then I would grade – both of the essays. It was awesome! Imagine the conversations when both essays, graded to the same standards, came home! I never had a parent get angry at this. Wonder if I could do that today?
Best one was a girl who picked an MG Midget. There are very few reasons to purchase an MG Midget, even when new. It was small, cheap, and got good gas mileage. Plus, no room to carry a bunch of friends. That’s about it.
Her father took this to heart, and went to the library and got all kinds of information, most of it negative, on the MG Midget. Frequency of repair (often), reliability (scant), safety features (none) and on and on. She handed in her well-written essay, and his. His was three pages of detail, where he utterly destroyed every single point she had made. She was not really at peace with her A, since her father got an A+.
That was my favorite of all time.
What was your favorite assignment in English class?
Copyright 2021 David Preston