Choice in Writing Assignments

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This post was originally published on April 15, 2014.

Jobs Help WantedAt CCCC last month, I found myself in my room one night, reflecting on all the wonderful sessions I’d attended and ideas I’d heard. In one session, Elisabeth Kramer-Simpson from New Mexico Tech and Elizabeth Tomlinson from West Virginia University inspired me with their discussion of internships and open writing assignments in the technical writing classroom.


As I thought about their presentations, I realized that I wasn’t content with the project I was planning to introduce the Monday after I returned from the convention. I had an odd desire to go into the classroom and say, “Let’s scrap the plan for the rest of the term. What do you want to know about technical writing this term?”


I knew it wouldn’t be the most responsible plan, but I was tempted. If students would engage, it could lead to a great series of activities. I wasn’t sure that they would engage though, and I feared that the more structured activities we had completed before I went off to CCCC would clash with such a completely open plan.


I found myself searching for a middle ground. The next project was to be job-application materials. The assignment I had always used was to ask students to find a job posting and write a cover letter and resume to apply for the job. I wondered, though, what would happen if I asked them all to write their own assignment for the project.


I began wondering how opening the assignment to more choice would customize it to what the student truly needed or wanted. If the student was trying to get a summer job, she could write the application materials the job asked for. If she wanted to establish an online portfolio, she could write the texts for that. If she was trying to network with people interested in the same discipline, she could write the documents that would help her do that.


I imagined that the deliverables for the assignment could include all of the following:


  • a traditional resume and cover letter
  • an application essay
  • a personal website
  • a cleaned up public Facebook profile
  • a  Linked In profile
  • a GitHub repository and profile
  • an profile


The more that I thought about the options, the more I found myself wondering why I should be the one to define what they need as job application materials. Why not let them tell me what they needed?           

So I scrapped my original plans and created a new, open assignment that let students choose the project they would work on. The result? Students actually smiled when I explained that they could do whatever job application materials were appropriate for what they wanted to do in the near future. I had students who excitedly told me they never had time to work on GitHub, and that they were so glad that they could do so as homework now.  Other students told me that their academic advisors had been urging them to set up a LinkedIn profile but they hadn't gotten to it. Now they could.


We wrapped up the project last week, and it has been one of the best activities I’ve taught. There was enough overlap in what the different tasks they chose called for that we had plenty to talk about and work on in class. At the same time, they have all had the chance to work on documents they needed and wanted to work on. Why didn’t I  choose this option before?



[Photo: Jobs Help Wanted by photologue_np, on Flickr]

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.