Doing Your Own Assignments

Jane S. Hancock

“What do you mean?” they asked. In my seventh grade class we were studying artists. The students were to research an artist of their choice and prepare a 3 to 5 minute monologue as that artist. “We don’t know what to do,” they whined. “Okay,” I said, I’ll demonstrate. I’ll be Van Gogh so none of you can choose Van Gogh. I’ll do one for you and then you will understand.”
What was I thinking! I poured over encyclopedias (note: this was long before the Internet), I re-read huge portions of Lust for Life, I checked books out of the library and studied the art work in them, I visited the Norton Simon Museum and stared at the Van Goghs. I found a theme: failure. I found a costume: my husband’s old white dress shirt which I daubed with paint. I cut out a piece of cardboard in the shape of a palette. I mounted a print of Van Gogh’s last painting on another piece of cardboard to carry with me.
Presentation day arrives. I’m wearing the shirt and an old straw hat. My notes are on the palette—a list of the seven times he was a failure in his life. Shaking, I enter the room, talk to an imaginary friend I meet on a country road in Arles, tell him how depressed I am because I am such a failure, going into detail about each one. I finally walk out of the room and kill myself.
When I walked back into the room, completely exhausted, I met complete silence. And then suddenly a burst of applause and a standing ovation from my class. They now understood what to do and I understood it was too big of an undertaking. Three-to five minutes is an eternity on the stage by yourself. So we shortened the monologue time and I gave them more time to prepare. I’ve been doing that same assignment (not necessarily with artists) ever since and it works.
It seems so obvious that teachers should do their own assignments, either before they make them or at least along with the students . I can’t complain because it wasn’t obvious to me in my early years as a teacher. Yet when I figured it out, it was one of those “duh” moments. How come I didn’t see this before?
My hunch is that art teachers, before asking young artists to carve a bear out of a block of Ivory soap, have carved one themselves. Think about it. Literature teachers read the books and stories and poems and articles they give their students, don’t they? They do, don’t they? History teachers study the material they give their students, don’t they? Would science teachers ask students to embark upon experiments without first trying them out for themselves? So why is it so difficult for English teachers to write to their own assignments and write side by side with their students? Yet it is. When I do professional development workshops and ask the teachers, they admit they don’t. They don’t have time. They have to “monitor” what the students are doing. They need to correct papers during writing time. I’m always delighted when I find that once they start making time to write with their students, it seems the natural thing, the right thing to do.
And what are the benefits? “Writing teachers who write with their students learn more about the process of writing and teaching writing than any other methodology could offer,” says Susan Strauss, a high school literacy coach. “When I write with my students, I feel more of a bond. It sends them the message that whatever I make them do, I am willing to do myself,” says Heather Ellman, an elementary school teacher. We commit to the process. The act of writing makes us better teachers of writing; the act of writing with our students makes us a member of the “club.” As we share with them our struggles, our successes, we build that community of writers.
I want to share with you one more example of writing to my own assignment. This was early in my teaching career and I was not yet to the place where I saw the value of doing it all the time. We had read in class The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico, one of my favorite short novels, because in addition to being a great piece of fiction, it adds the non-fiction setting of the evacuation of Dunkirk, also memorialized in a poem by Robert Nathan. In one of those serendipitous timings, a television drama of the story premiered at the same time we were reading it. So I assigned my students the task of writing a review of the television show, comparing it to the book. When I read their essays, I found that every student– every single student–thought the dramatization was wonderful. They raved as only eighth grade students can rave. I didn’t like the movie at all so I wrote my own review, tucked it in among the student papers. In class I announced that I was going to read some of the papers out loud, at random, no names. After reading two or three I found my own in the pile and read it out loud. Carol’s initial reaction was, “Somebody’s mother helped write that one.” But Matthew’s reaction was, “The writer didn’t like the movie. We thought we were supposed to like everything that the teachers assign us to read or to watch.” It was a great teaching moment. I confessed to being the author, told them why I wrote it, and explained that when I ask for an opinion, I mean it.
I enjoy writing more in a community of writers, surrounded by people who are writing. So many of the writing assignments given by teachers to students are those to be worked on at home, in solitude. When I give my students time in class to write, I write with them. If there is an extra chair, I sit with them at one of their tables instead of at my desk. That way they see me scribble, hesitate, cross out, draw arrows, keep going, get frustrated, get excited. Or I sit at my desk at my computer and when writing time is over, I ask for volunteers to share and I’ll share what I have written as well. Most of the writing in my class does not involve a specific prompt because I allow for choice but if we are writing to a specific prompt, by writing along with the students, I can sense where they might struggle, what they might not understand. I can sympathize, empathize.
And, best of all, because I write with my students, I write. No excuses. If my students are writing, then I too am writing. What more could I ask?