The single most important element of a successful classroom is a teacher who designs assignments that keep the students engaged in learning. It helps if these assignments are also fun to complete. Disciplines issues including acting out, tardiness to class, and even failing students can be minimized and maybe even eliminated IF you, the teacher, think innovatively and make a focused effort to keep your students actively engaged in the subject matter and the learning process. Oh yea, it will make you an even happier and more productive teacher as well.
But how? How in this world of standards, standardized testing, exit exams and formative common assessments is there any time to spend on being creative when designing assignments for students? I’d like to suggest that you can both meet the objectives and be creative in your assignments. Here are few things to think about.
Authentically challenge the students.
Regardless of ability or learning level, all students can be challenged to improve, even within the same assignments. First, their assignments must be meaningful to them. As their teacher you need to learn about who your students are as people. This might be challenging to do at first, but the more time you spend working in the same teaching assignment with a similar population of children, the more you will get to know who they are, what they love, and how they work. Once you do, you can begin to tailor the work you give to fit the interests and experiences of the kids. For example: if you are an English teacher assigning a biography essay allow the students to chose subjects that they relate to. Sure you may end up with a dozen biographies of 2-Pac, but that’s acceptable so long as the kids are writing and completing their essays. In a history class you might allow the students to research their family history. In math you might take them outside and have them measure whatever they see. And the list goes on.
Second, you the teacher must set the achievement bar as high as possible and really challenge them to reach it. Don’t make the work too easy. If the student is not challenged to grow they will not grow. Embrace the standards and show examples of truly outstanding student work. Share your confidence in their abilities and urge them on to greatness. But your job does not end at the distribution of the assignment.
Give them support.
As your students strive to reach their goals, help them along they way. I often describe myself as just another human being on the road just a few more steps ahead of my students. My job is turn back and help guide them along the path a little ways. It’s important that your students believe that you believe in their abilities and potential to succeed. Of course, in order to be convincing, you really do need to believe in your students’ success. You can bet that they will know if you are pretending to believe in them, and they will resent it, and you. Good luck trying to motivate that classroom. But support is more than just motivation.
Teachers support their students by guiding them through step by step processes that will successfully lead the students to their goal. Some educators criticize “spoon-feeding” their students. I believe in it. By giving the pupil just enough for them to swallow or absorb instead of bombarding them with instructions and information works very well. Plus, by leading the kids step by step towards success, they learn the process well enough to repeat it on their own. This method also works with a variety of different learning levels. Students can work at their own pace when they know where to place their next step. The longer I teach the more I breakdown my assignments to smaller and smaller pieces. It might be micro-managing, but I watch the kids get better and better at learning each year. And they retain more too.
Hold them accountable.
Assessment is important. Meaningful assessment is even more important. Sure, there are times when a check plus, or a check minus is appropriate, but most of the time, students need more feedback then that. I like to write notes all over the margins, between the lines, and anywhere else I can fit them on my grading rubrics. I make sure that every aspect of the assignment is worth some points, even if it’s only one or two points. That way when the students study their rubrics they know that there is no area to fudge and no corners to cut. I don’t assign “busy work” either. Meaningless work equals time wasted on meaningless grading. Students resent wasting their time as much as teachers do.
Consistency is also crucial. Sticking to hard deadlines and subtracting a percentage of points for late work tells the students that their work matters. Holding your self accountable is important too. There is no excuse for not returning graded work to students in a timely manner. The best is a 24 hour turnaround, but that can’t always happen. All teachers were once students and we all know how annoying it is for an instructor to sit on your work and not hand it back within a reasonable amount of time.
In my opinion its important that kids enjoy school and that they have fun learning. It’s equally important that the teacher enjoy teaching and sharing their wisdom and the learning process with his or her students. If the teacher hates the assignment they give, there is no way the students are going to embrace it. Even the work that is mandated by the district or the course scope and sequence can be made to be engaging if the teacher is willing to find out how. Students who are engaged in their assignments will work harder to complete them and put forth their best efforts. The result will be smarter students, higher test scores and happier teachers.