Shipka’s “goal-directed multimodal task-based framework for composing” instead requires students “to determine the purposes and contexts of the work they produce” (285-286). Ideally these assignments would have students determine their product and presentation, as well as the resources and process needed to achieve those ends. They are responsible for both the ends and the means, rather than simply one small part of only one of those pieces.
Such freedom, she admits, may be daunting and especially frustrating for students who are used to—and thus reliant upon—teachers telling them exactly what is expected, right down to word count and margin widths. I’ve encountered students who are at a loss when given more open-ended assignments, and they do lament that I won’t “just tell me what to do so I can do it!” More often than not, though, I’ve seen students light up (sometimes after a bit of pondering and brainstorming) at the possibility of doing something that truly excites them. After all, as Shipka notes, we are “offering students opportunities to engage with course materials that are, at once, personally and socially relevant and intellectually rigorous” (284).
So when I was asked to assign said paper, I was relieved to hear that the parameters had loosened—at least for teachers. We were free to tweak the assignment to our liking. In thinking about how I might prepare my students for today’s long-form journalistic writing, I thought of what I see most often online. I recalled of some of The Atlantic’s recent hefty and viral pieces, from Anne-Marie Slaughter’s wondering over “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” to Ta-Nehisi Coates making “The Case For Reparations.” Each of these articles had very clearly grown out of the author’s personal investment and connection to the topic, they provided historical context to help us as readers understand the deeper significance of the issue, and had given us something to think about in our contemporary lives—perhaps not quite a “call to action” but some sort of “here’s why this matters now” point. And so came the task I charged my class with: Choose an issue, artifact, or location that is significant to you (to quote the assignment: “There should be a compelling and personal reason for you to be writing about this topic.”), research and describe to us the history of your topic, and finally, “make a compelling case for why this is something of significance to the broader contemporary culture.” This deviation that asked student to choose their own topic of significance excited many of my eleventh graders, and they dove right in, selecting topics as varied and intriguing as “wedding bands,” “income inequality,” “memorializing the dead”…
I was proud of the assignment at the time and felt I had given the students a nice balance of leeway and structure. What I realize now is that while I opened the door to creativity at least a crack, I could’ve probably taken it right off its hinges. In place of traditional citations, I asked them to include hyperlinks—but I didn’t allow them the opportunity to publish their papers online, perhaps on a class blog. Why, if we’re thinking about popular forms of journalism, had I not considered allowing them the freedom to publish a YouTube video? (We had even watched a John Oliver “deep dive” piece in class a few weeks ago!) Or even create a podcast episode? (We’d been listening to and analyzing Serial all trimester!) Or perhaps engage in some photojournalism? (We’d done plenty of visual analysis!) In thinking about how people articulate issues personal to them, why not let students compose a song, or a poem, or a painting? If we’re talking about calls to action, why couldn’t some of them have given a compelling speech, or done a spoken word piece? Why not some combination?