The Joy of Creating Assignments

I remember a few years ago when I was working in my classroom  one day after school. There was a substitute custodian who was in emptying the waste baskets and we started talking. He asked me how long I had been teaching. “Twenty years,” I told him. “It must not take you long to do your work. You must have things down to a science!” If only that were true….. 

Yes, I have definitely found  some– many, actually– ways to be efficient, but  the reality is that teaching in general– especially high school English– is time consuming.   And it is not only because correcting writing assignments is time consuming. It’s the time it takes to read and reread the literature  we are considering teaching or will teach…..It’s reading student work- often more than once- to figure out what students think about a topic and determining if they clearly articulated their ideas by supporting them with relevant evidence… Assessing student work is certainly the most time-consuming element in the life of an English teacher and- some might argue– the  most important part of what we do. Of course we need to give students feedback so they can improve. I think, though, that instruction– how we deliver the curriculum- and the assignments we give are equally important and have an even bigger impact on student learning which is why I devote so much time to planning lessons and creating assignments, which- besides interacting with the students- are  my favorite parts of teaching. 

At the risk of sounding old, the internet did not exist when I started teaching high school in 1994.  Actually, that’s probably not exactly correct. It probably existed, but it was not accessible the way it is today. Students could not find everything they needed on-line with the click of a button (a topic for another blog post) ….and neither  could teachers. If a teacher wanted to find teaching resources, their main options were 1. to hope there was enough money in the budget to buy “unit plans” and other materials for a specific title– usually through a catalogue– or 2. create their own for free, which was what usually happened. 

Needless to say,  times have changed, and we have easy  access to endless on-line free, excellent  teaching materials. 

Over the years, I have found some incredible resources– usually created by other teachers- that have saved me hours of time, have been engaging, and have ultimately made me a better teacher. Besides the creative, effective ideas that colleagues in my own school share  or ones that we develop during our weekly common planning time, resources — ones that are Common Core aligned- are just a click away… And I am grateful for all of those….We need to use the work of others; doing so gives us a different perspective and pushes us out of our comfort zones. It makes us better. This is what we ask our students to do all of the time. 

However,   while I am grateful to find valuable resources from others, perhaps because for many years I had to create almost all of my materials,  I find real joy in creating assignments. In fact, I would even say I am passionate about creating assignments. Here is why:

Creating our own assignments helps us connect with our students

The handout that we give to students or post-on line is not merely a document for them to tuck away in their notebooks. It is a printed conversation- between the students and me and between the students and themselves. They hear my voice as they read the questions on the handout,  and they hear their voice as they respond, as they try to figure out “why they think what they think.”

Creating our own assignments allows us to personalize our instruction. 

Like many teachers, one of the first activities I do at the beginning of the school year is give an open-ended survey on which I ask students about how they feel about learning in general and English specifically. Knowing that a particular group has particular strengths or weaknesses, I can modify assignments to address those. At the end of the day, it is essential that was ask ourselves how we can best serve the students– the ones we know best– that are sitting in front of us. 

Creating our own assignments allows us to incorporate key components of our philosophy or education.

As a firm believer in helping students develop study, organizational, and time management skills, I  try to embed them- sometimes subtly, sometimes explicitly- into all of my assignments through my instructions,  the physical layout of the assignment, or even through bullet points or font choice. 

Creating our own assignments allows us  to connect our entire curriculum. 

When I was in graduate school, my  professor who taught Victorian Poetry and Prose regularly talked about “the condition of England question”  In other words, no matter what we discussed, he always directed us back to that idea– what we would now call an essential question.  When we create our own assignments, we can include language, questions that we know will be overarching themes of our instruction, the “condition of England question,” if you will. 

Creating our own assignments allows us to connect to titles/ideas taught in our own departments as well as in other  departments which reinforces the importance of what we are doing. 

As part of the  sophomore curriculum,  our students read Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The year before, they read Romeo and Juliet.  Two years ago, the sophomore team created a writing assignment that includes an excerpt from both plays. We ask students to write about Shakespeare’s views on love based on both passages.  One of the reasons I love (no pun intended) this assignment is because it references something students already learned and it allows them to bring that knowledge with them the following year. It reminds them of what they did as freshmen, and it builds on that. It continues to teach them about Shakespeare, showing them that Shakespeare writes about love in his tragedies as well as in his comedies. 

Creating our own assignments is an investment in our teaching, challenging us to do better. Over the years, on a regular basis I have asked students for feedback on assignments. I have asked them what was clear and what was confusing, what we helpful, what was not helpful, what worked and what didn’t. By listening to them, I have kept some assignments, modified some, and scrapped some. As I look at the assignments collectively, I notice patterns to the feedback. Then, as I create new assignments,  I know what to duplicate and what to avoid. Although it can often be time consuming to create or revise assignments, it is worth it because, ultimately, it makes us better for our students and better for ourselves.  

At the end of the day, it’s essential to have a balance in the types of assignments we give- some created by others and those we create ourselves and then, no matter which type–, always ask ourselves, “What can we do to make this better?” Teaching – no matter the subject- is a demanding job in which there is never enough time. We need the help of others. We need  to use assignments that have served others well, but we also need to build our own library of original assignments that allow us to personalize our instruction and connect with the students sitting in front of us each day. 

Food For Thought: What types of assignments do you like to create? What types of  assignments do you struggle to create? What is the most challenging part of creating an assignment? What is the most rewarding part of creating an assignment? What have you learned over time as you have revised assignments? 

If you are looking for free or inexpensive teaching  ideas, specific assignments, or a variety of helpful resources,  be sure to check out Teachers Pay Teachers….. Or even consider sharing some of your original assignments  with others….


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