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How Have Your Assignments Evolved?

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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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The assignment reminds me of things I used to do. I had a variation where students had to write a single sentence that was ten lines long (standard font, 8.5x11 page), which I picked up on after reading some of the exercises in John Gardner's The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers in 1992. So the book came into my hands when I started really learning how to teach writing professional via the U. Mass Writing Program.

I used to do other things too, along these lines, things to encourage play in language, experimentation, and to push skills. On Valentine's Day or near it, I'd share Ambrose Bierce's definition of love from his Devil's Dictionary (and then have a limerick contest to see who could, in a 20 minutes, come up with best limerick that plays off Bierce's definition.

I'd offer prizes like a free Ticonderoga 2 Word Processor.

Another activity that's fun, but works best on days when you open the window and go outside is one I read about in '89 or '90 in the Boston Globe or its magazine (I've not been able to find the original source to cite this better).  A story profiled a poet who taught a poetry writing course and he did an assignment where he would bring in onions. Students each got one, and they had to take as many notes, make as many observations about the onion as they could in 10 or 15 minutes. They could cut the onion if they wanted to, write about scent, texture, shape, taste, and so on.

Then he'd collect the onions and their writing assignment was to write a poem (I would say write a page, about 250 words), comparing their mothers to the onion.

It really taught observation and note-taking, metaphorical thinking, creative analysis, and other wonderful things. I still use that.

Now as to morphing -- each of the above shift some based on the students at hand, the writing technologies in the room . . . so instead of a limerick, or in addition to it, the students might write a tweet-length message (I don't require them to get a twitter account.). Or they might choose to do an all and only emoji version.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.