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EL Cover

September 2010 | Volume 68 | Number 1
Giving Students Meaningful Work   

EL Study Guide

Naomi Thiers

"Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." — Theodore Roosevelt

How likely is it that our students come to school expecting the best part of the day to be the chance to dig into schoolwork? As the above quote implies, students won't experience demanding work as its own reward unless they feel in their bones that the work is worth doing. And, according to Joseph and Claudia Allen ("The Big Wait," p. 22), when teachers couch schoolwork only in terms of practice for later life instead of as directly affecting life now, learners may conclude that schoolwork is worth little. Consider the scenario Allen and Allen paint:

One morning you wake up to find yourself living in a twilight-zone world. Walking outside, you see your neighbor across the street, a surgeon, who remarks that he spends his days just cutting up cadavers to practice his craft. As you move through your day, you realize that lawyers now argue only mock cases, plumbers practice repairing fake leaks, and airline pilots fly only on flight simulators. … The meaning of your work is gone, and increasingly, you feel bored, restless, apathetic, and even lazy. … You're experiencing the life of a typical high school student! (p. 23)

For high school teachers:

  • Do you think Allen and Allen's analogy is accurate?
  • Try reading the above passage from "The Big Wait" to your students. Ask whether they feel stuck in this kind of perpetual simulation. What kind of learning situations would help them feel their efforts were pointed toward something more real?

Allen and Allen claim that high school teachers are in a prime position to help "reintroduce[e] elements of real adulthood back into their teenage years." Look over the four approaches they list, especially providing real-world feedback. Discuss as a group:

  • How could you bring authentic feedback from the nonschool world to bear on your students' work? Brainstorm a list of people you could ask for such feedback—such as adjunct professors at local universities or friends with expertise in areas like professional writing or applied science. How might you arrange for them to comment on student work, for example, setting up a "critique night" each semester. (For a model of how to set up critiques, read Cheryl Dobbertin's article in this issue, "What Kids Learn from Experts," p. 64.)
  • If your school has an adult volunteer or mentoring program, consider how those volunteers might deliberately connect students to the adult world by talking about their jobs, their avocations, and how they draw every day on skills that they honed in school.

How Homework Fits In

In "Five Hallmarks of Good Homework" (p. 10), Cathy Vatterott examines whether typical homework assignments would pass the "work worth doing" test in students' minds. She finds the answer is often no. Kathleen Cushman ("Show Us What Homework's For," p. 24) heard a similar message as she surveyed teenagers about whether homework felt like meaningful practice. First on Vatterott's list of five characteristics of worthwhile homework is "the task has a clear academic purpose." Cushman also found students wanted the purpose of homework to be clear.

Check whether your typical homework assignment communicates to learners a worthwhile purpose for their hard work:

  • Select key homework activities you've assigned, review them with your current students, and ask each student to privately jot down what purpose they believe this assignment was meant to serve for you as a teacher and for a student. If your students have already completed this assignment, ask them to reflect on whether doing the work fulfilled that purpose. Why or why not?
  • Swap assignments with another teacher in your study group. Read each assignment carefully; write a few sentences about what purpose(s) your colleague's assignment would serve in terms of student learning and have your colleague do the same. Debrief and give one another suggestions for how to improve your assignments to communicate more clearly the purpose behind the tasks—and to seem more relevant to kids.

Is Student Choice the Missing Ingredient?

ReLeah Lent ("The Responsibility Breakthrough", p. 68) believes student ownership of schoolwork—particularly giving students choice in assignments—leads to meaningfulness. She sometimes lets students fully design their own assignments with such spare parameters as "I want you to read and write something." Lent recommends that teachers "provide as much autonomy as possible in choice of content, task, texts, partners, delivery, due dates, and assessment."

  • Read Lent's description of how she pushed students to take ownership of a nine-week writing project (p. 69). Have you ever tried giving students such broad latitude in a major assignment, allowing each student to choose a topic, presentation method, and timeline of his or her own? What worked well—and what didn't—when you did so?

EL's new research columnist, Bryan Goodwin ("Choice is a Matter of Degree," p. 80), cites research that shows giving students too many choices in schoolwork has diminishing returns. One study found, for instance, that college students who were given a choice of six possible essay topics were more likely to complete a two-page writing assignment than were a group of students offered 30 topic choices.

  • Read the section on "Choice: Can You Have Too Much?" in Goodwin's column and discuss. Do these research findings square with what you've found when you give students broad choice in essay topics or end-of-year projects? Were students paralyzed by too many options? What have students told you about how they experience choice—or the lack of it—in their work?

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