Recently, I was looking at an old assignment sheet I created for an English essay, and I have to say, I feel retroactively bad for my students. This happens frequently, of course, and is inevitable if you’re a reflective practitioner, but this sheet in particular had me shaking my head.
At about a page and a half, the sheet was at best overwhelming and, at worst, completely bewildering. It was probably pretty hard for my learners to tell what, exactly, they were supposed to write about. After some looking, they might have been able to find a long list of options after another long list of requirements and before some additional reminders.
Reminders aren’t bad- neither are requirements- but I find myself wondering if I was confusing scaffolding for the assignment. I was so worried about supporting students with the prompt that I never clearly stated the prompt. By itself. With what I’ll call “processing space” around it.
I’ll call it one of the hazards of being an English teacher- maybe being a teacher altogether. It’s the danger of emphasizing explanation over simplicity.
Again, I’m not opposed to explanation- but it should probably be done a little after students have had some time to process the prompt and ask some questions- so the explanation comes as a response to their need to knows.
I’d say an effective prompt for an essay or some other written task should include:
- A driving question, as appropriate
- The content students are investigating, including how they’ll be getting the content- e.g. whether they’ll be doing research, reading particular texts, solving a problem, etc.
- A brief description of what students will be doing with the content, including some active verbs that show how they need to think about the information and what they’re supposed to write about
And that’s it. Everything else- reminders, recommendations, requirements, other scaffolding- that’s important too, but it can come later.
That’s why I like the template tasks from the Literacy Design Collaborative so much. Click on the hyperlinks for a description of the tasks and a document with a listing of secondary tasks. They’re fill-in-the-blank, Common Core aligned, prompt templates. They’re simple, and dare I say elegant, and include everything they should, and nothing more.
The screenshot below is an example. Click on the screenshot to see a bigger version. It was taken from LDC’s collaborative, online, curriculum design tool, LDC CoreTools. Check it out- it includes a lot more than just template tasks.
Here’s an example of a completed task you could have students do if you’re participating in NTN’s Global Happiness Project:
- After researching Global Happiness Index data for your chosen country, write a blog post in which you describe what you see. Support your discussion with evidence from the data you researched and/or your mathematical calculations. What conclusions can you draw?
Awesome, right? And will probably require some explanation and scaffolding, but I’d say we just let kids dig into the task for a bit first.
What about you? What do you think should go in the ultimate writing prompt?