Sleeping Bear Dunes, Dan Pink, and Cranes: How to Use Student Choice to Improve Instruction and Assessments


I spent last weekend camping with my advisory at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, and while Northern Michigan painted with fall colors left an impact on me (see above), what struck me even more was seeing my students outside of the classroom setting. Even though we do a trip like this every year, I always forget how different students can be once removed from the four walls of a classroom. I saw numerous students who are relatively passive during class sprint up and down the sand dunes, giving off intermittent yelps of joy, while other students who never speak during discussions captivated audiences in the bright glow of a campfire.

The lesson these kinds of trips always remind me of when it comes to my practice is that context matters. Different situations can cause the same person to behave in strikingly different ways, which is something we as writing teachers need to take note of when creating our assignments. While there are no perfect assignments, some prompts are better than others at inspiring our students to write well. And while there is no magic formula for what makes a strong assignment, there is one element that makes it far more likely that students will have the context needed to embark on papers that they are actually inspired about: choice. Continue reading “Sleeping Bear Dunes, Dan Pink, and Cranes: How to Use Student Choice to Improve Instruction and Assessments”

How College Essays Taught Me the Importance of an Authentic Audience

It is the heart of college application season in my school, which means one thing: college essay after college essay after college essay walking through my door. It would not be hyperbolic to say that I have looked at well over 100 different college essays in the last three weeks, many of them two, three, or four times.

Further, I have seen many seniors pour themselves into these essays–often revising them more than ten times–in ways that I’ve never seen them approach work in class.

And when I ask them why they work so hard on these, they almost always give me the same answer: because this actually matters. Or put another way, while I understand how this will change my life, I don’t really see how most of the writing I do in class will significantly impact my life. Continue reading “How College Essays Taught Me the Importance of an Authentic Audience”

To Rubric or Not to Rubric?

After nearly fifteen years in classrooms, I have a good sense for where I stand in most of the major English academic/pedagogical arguments. I know if I use the Oxford Comma (look to the end of this sentence to find out), whether I fall in the prescriptivist or descriptivist camp (descriptivist), and how I feel about the five paragraph essay (it’s too complex to get into here, but a post is definitely coming). But the one debate that I still grapple with on a daily basis is how I feel about rubrics. Continue reading “To Rubric or Not to Rubric?”