More from NCTE: Jim Burke + Assignments

For the last session of the conference, I attended a session with Jim Burke, Jeff Wilhelm, and Alan Sitomer geared toward secondary teachers.  It was excellent, so excellent that I took 13 pages of notes!  Over the next few days, I plan to process some of what I heard.

Burke shared his guiding principles for designing effective writing assignments:

  1. Clarify purpose and expectations
    1. Provide examples
    2. Demonstrate
    3. Demystify
    4. Write with them — Do the assignment yourself
    5. Model every step, every aspect — for all levels.
  2. Make it meaningful and challenging
    1. Connect the assignment to students’ lives and interests
    2. Create authentic opportunities to write
    3. Incorporate new skills they can learn in the context of the assignment.
  3. Place it within a larger context of your curriculum.
    1. Consider cognitive demands
    2. Arrange steps of the assignment
    3. Embed within each assignment the skills and knowledge your students need.
  4. Align assignments with your state and district standards
    1. Consult the state and/or district standards
    2. Use the academic language appropriate to these standards to ensure students learn it
    3. Integrate standards into your assessment criteria
  5. Convey criteria for success

My Thoughts:

This is aligned very neatly with what I currently do when designing writing experiences for students.  Still, the thing that struck me the most and is sticking with me is the idea that assignments should be challenging.  I think we worry about making things too difficult.  Often I hear teachers say something along these lines:  I just don’t understand why they don’t do this — it’s so easy!  Perhaps that’s the problem.

There is a fine line between making assignments too difficult and too much and making them too easy.  It is an art to develop experiences that are challenging and meaningful.  This is something I have resolved to commit too — creating challenging and meaningful assignments.

  1. Clearly list the criteria for success on the handout
  2. Provide examples (use text book; past students; yourself)