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Engaging Students with Writing Assignments that Outlast the Semester


I’m certain I’m not the only teacher who has given an assignment with hopes that students would find it interesting enough to do their very best thinking and writing only to discover that students did it at the last minute and learned very little from the process. Over the years, I’ve learned that making assignments more than school exercises to be tossed away the moment they’ve been graded takes time and thought, but the results are worth the effort. Ric Smith from Communication and Journalism has crafted a meaningful assignment that students take seriously because it has a life beyond the classroom, and he uses strategies that might well be adapted by others.

Ric Smith's poster about the Chattahoochee Heritage Project

Ric Smith presented the above poster about the Chattahoochee Heritage Project assignment at the 2015 Conversations in Celebration of Teaching

Regular readers of WriteBites Online will remember Sharon Robert’s public health announcement assignment, or Becky Barlow’s assignment that has forestry students teaching elementary students, and in future postings we will feature other examples of writing assignments that ask students to address real audiences, not just the teacher. Professor Smith’s assignment adds the interesting element of asking students not just to imagine that they are writing for a real audience, but actually contribute to an on-going project, The Chattahoochee Heritage Project. Each semester, students write feature stories and create multimedia articles that preserve the rich history of this important waterway and the people who live along the river. At the end of the term, students present their work to the community they’ve been working with and publish their work on the Project’s ever-growing website. As Smith explains in this month’s video, students take pride in their work in part because they see that their writing has a life beyond the classroom and represents real people and real communities.

The experience of getting out into the world is surely important for journalism students, but writing for real audiences is a strategy that works to engage students in other disciplines as well. Likewise, having students contribute to an ongoing project, even if that project is as simple as an annotated bibliography or a database that gets used by students in subsequent classes, can provide the motivation to do the work with more care and attention because it has a purpose other than demonstrating that content knowledge has been mastered. Finally, publishing student writing makes their attending to details and undertaking revision much more likely. These three strategies – writing for the real world, contributing to an on-going project, and making writing more visible through publication – contain promise because all three let students experience writing as a meaningful activity and not just a school exercise. If you’ve created an assignment that uses any of these strategies, we want to hear about it.


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