I used to begin each school year by assigning my high school juniors a hefty take-home essay, asking them to consult challenging sources to assess whether the American colonists were justified in seeking independence. At the time, I believed this “trial by fire” would let my students know that I meant business.
For several reasons, that approach was flawed:
- Students took my rigor as a sign that I didn’t care about their success, and only wanted to make them squirm. In all honesty, they were right, as I had done little at that point to prepare students with the skills necessary to succeed with the assignment.
- My students didn’t want to fail, even under unrealistic expectations, and I was complicit in driving them to pursue unethical shortcuts, from lifting whole passages from books or web sources, to enlisting somebody else to do most of the work for them.
- Students also seemed more concerned about meeting the five-page minimum than crafting concise, analytical prose. I didn’t gain an accurate sense of their understanding or writing abilities.
My approach changed after I experienced tremendous success helping students launch The Gator, an online student news site. Rather than immediately throwing those budding reporters into the deep end—as I had done with my history students—I took my time introducing them to important research and communication skills such as finding, evaluating and citing sources, and composing clear, concise writing that avoids repetition and superfluous language.
Student-journalists whom I also taught later in history performed noticeably higher on all sorts of work, including in-class essays. This made it even clearer to me that I needed to change how I taught and assigned writing outside the newsroom to be more like how I taught writing inside the newsroom
With that in mind, I jettisoned the early-fall essay for my history students, in favor of teaching them how to write an opinion piece, the kind one comes across in a newspaper, news website or blog. As though a light had gone on in my head, I realized that if students could master the care and effort that went into writing a concise, persuasive piece 750-850 words long, then more involved writing projects wouldn’t seem as daunting.
Though I didn’t require it, I encouraged my history students to share polished articles on The Gator. For those dead set against the idea, I made clear that they approach the assignment with that goal in mind, as writing for an audience would help them review their work more closely. In my experience, when students know that their work could be scrutinized by others beyond just their teacher, they tend to be noticeably more invested in the writing and revision process.
Moreover, the shorter nature of the assignment allowed me to offer more detailed feedback, as well as meet with more students one-on-one about the strengths and weaknesses of their work. I grew intimately familiar with everyone’s writing style, from work that seemed to represent their abilities more fully. To capitalize on student interest in current events, I wrote a new prompt that drew on an MSNBC interview and asked students to compare President Andrew Jackson and President-Elect Donald Trump.
To my delight, several students shared their work online on The Gator, signifying that they cared deeply about their articles, while also owning their convictions. “Apart from their flamboyant hairstyles, Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson share a variety of frightening similarities — and this could spell more than just a fashion disaster for America’s future,” wrote Sophie Lapat ’18 for her terrific story, “Trump: The New Jackson?”
Lapat’s article didn’t qualify as history writing, but in this case, that didn’t bother me. I cared that she expressed herself clearly, in a way that grabbed my attention. After completing that assignment, Lapat employed similar tactics of clarity and engagement to succeed on more traditional essay assignments, such as whether Truman acted wisely by using atomic bombs to end World War II.
“As someone who enjoys writing, I’ve often felt there is a prescribed way to do research and shape my voice,” Lapat told me. “This assignment gave me a new sense of confidence and provided me with a creative avenue to enjoy history.”
All of this gets back to a critical point: Teachers should do their best to assign work that has intrinsic, authentic value, and that students can complete successfully. In this instance, students saw the benefit of learning to communicate effectively—not just for the classroom, but for a wider audience who would be reading their work online.
If you’re curious to see how the skills fostered during my opinion piece writing assignments led to students’ writing longer, more academic-oriented papers, check out the following links:
- Second Wave of Feminism: Redefining a Nation
- D-Day: The Major Turning Point of World War II
- Reconstruction: Reassessing the Freedmen’s Bureau
Each of these papers contains mistakes or oversights of various sorts, but also represents the vast improvement my students experienced over the year, including becoming more open to receiving and responding to feedback. In large part, this delicate process launched in the fall, when students first began writing and sharing their opinion pieces online.