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If you’ve been teaching for some time, I wonder if you’ve seen some of your favorite assignments evolve or change over time. I’m realizing that a number of mine have, almost without my noticing. Right now I’m thinking of my much loved “long sentence assignment.” I started giving this assignment to break up the lengthy research project my students all do, and in particular to focus for a bit on syntax and style. It’s a low stakes assignment, much like finger exercises on the piano, meant for fun and practice, though I do assign a few points to it.
Here’s how it started out: I asked students to write a “perfectly punctuated, 250-word sentence,” providing some models for them from Martin Luther King, Dylan Thomas, Will and Ariel Durant, and others over the years. We spent some time analyzing the structure of the model long sentences—King’s sentence, for instance, is a periodic sentence, built up of a series of dependent clauses and holding the main clause, “Then you will know why we can’t wait,” until the very end. That gave me a chance to introduce the concepts of paratactic and hypotactic structures and give a brief history of English syntax.
Students were horrified at the assignment, saying that it can’t be done. But of course then they found that it can be done and were quite proud of their results, which we also analyzed in class. Then we returned to the research project, looking at some individual sentences and seeing how they could be made more effective. After some years of working with this assignment, I went a step further and asked students to rewrite the 250-word sentence into precisely 25 words. That turned out to be quite a challenge, but fun too, and we worked together to analyze those shorter sentences and to debate which was most effective—and why.
Then came Twitter, and I decided to ask students to take another step and turn their sentences into Tweets. Now we had three sentences on the same subject matter but with radical differences that we could explore together. Most interesting to me were discussions about when and where each sentence might be most appropriate: students had strong opinions about that! Best of all, I could see them paying closer attention to all their sentences, realizing that their rhetorical choices mattered and that their sentences were definitely connected to how an audience received their work.
And today? I now add a fourth challenge: take either the 25-word sentence or the Tweet and illustrate it. I was inspired to make this addition by the animated sentences on Electric Literature. Some of my students do indeed have the skill to animate their sentences, but those who don’t or who don’t want to do so can illustrate in any other way, using crayons or colored pencils, cutting and pasting, or creating digital illustrations. Now we have an added layer of visual rhetoric to analyze and think about, and I find that students especially like rising to this challenge.
So that’s how one of my tried-and-true assignments has morphed over the years, one layer at a time. I’d love to hear how some of your assignments may have changed!
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