The best assignments are those that move students from where they are to where they could or should be, but how does the movement work? Is it akin to traveling on a road, making a series of stops, or is it more a snowball effect, creating mass? Most teachers “get” that a high-quality assignment incorporates critical thinking and standards, and that rigor equates to challenge. However, we sometimes get caught up in creating individual challenging, rigorous lessons without determining how and where they impact the whole.
If we consider every assignment as a singular event, we create a linear experience. The assignment may be high-quality and may even be rigorous, but if it’s developed with point A to point B thinking, we are buying into the mile-long, inch-deep approach.
However, if we consider each assignment as a connective transition, we don’t move linearly; we create an expanding sphere of knowledge and practice—a fusion of ideas that creates meaning for and from a larger whole.
Consider the following assignment, which was part of a unit on Evil, which was part of a year-long English curriculum designed to help students contemplate the question “What makes us human?”
They read Shelley’s Frankenstein and created collages representing their analyses of the symbolism in the novel. Use of a non-text response to a print medium is challenging on many levels, and I could have had them simply present their work and stopped there, assigning them a grade, which would’ve been an “okay” assignment.
High quality? Sure, if you consider the multitude of standards embraced by it. Rigorous? Yes, at least according to what research has to say on this sort of thing.
However, by understanding the idea that an assignment is a transition of thought, designed to expand thinking in connection to the next assignment (or unit), we can craft more in-depth, challenging coursework.
We created an art gallery and moved from picture to picture, discussing the works, but the artists were not permitted to speak about their own designs. They had to listen to how viewers interpreted their non-print symbolism analyses; thus, the assignment garnered analysis on two levels: from the spectator p.o.v. as well as self-reflective and evaluative levels (How well did I succeed in conveying the meaning?).
Then the students presented their intended meanings. The class took notes on the intentions, and wrote a rhetorical analysis. How and how well did the artist convey his/her argument for the symbolism in Frankenstein?
So, for those keeping track: the students have analyzed for their own purposes (creating the collage), analyzed another’s purpose, evaluated, and self-evaluated. Here’s where we really make the biggest impact, though.
While we’d been working on these collages in-class, the students had read their next text: Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called ‘It’. We had our standard discussion, ensuring comprehension and garnering reactions.
However, the students then had to select a poster (not their own), originally designed for Frankenstein, that they felt best represented an argument in It. They made extremely powerful, emotional connections between Shelley and Pelzer, the Creature and David as well as Victor and Catherine, which further deepened their understanding of humanity.
To arrive at the sort of assignment that quickens the intellect, teachers need to have the end in mind, but we also need to understand that the end isn’t a destination. It is a state of understanding that has been reached through a series of expanding, spherical layers. The destination is already inside the student, and purposefully layering assignments to help him/her attain a personal depth of understanding is what a truly rigorous curriculum does.Mindy Keller-Kyriakides is the author of Transparent Teaching of Adolescents: Defining the Ideal Class for Students and Teachers. Become part of the conversation!