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Last Sunday evening, I spent some time talking over the phone with my lovely niece Chloe. Our conversation shifted to the homework assignment she was working on. I know no other 7th. grader who has as much homework as Chloe – here’s what she had for just one night in language arts, day 2 of the school year:
- Write 20 compound sentences beginning with “I am”
- Compose a 20 line poem on any topic
- Write 20 compound sentences using each of 20 spelling words
- Complete 3 pages of vocab exercises (sentence completion, synonyms, antonyms etc) using a completely different set of 20 words to the 20 spelling words
On Sunday night, though, Chloe was grappling with a new assignment: write a four paragraph letter to the NYPD and the NYFD to thank them for their work on September 11th. This seems to be an assignment that crops up at this time of year in classroom after classroom. Children who were not even born then, or who were just babies on that dreadful day, are asked to write letters and essays about the significance of those events.
Chloe had some meaningful things to say, but she definitely struggled – the assignment had to be four paragraphs long. How many different ways to say “thank you”, “I admire your dedication”, “I will never forget”? I saw immediately, of course (as a writing teacher), that the main issue here was that Chloe was struggling to write about something she knew very little about. She’s in 7th. grade, she lives in California, and what she knows about 9/11 all these years later is filtered through images and stories she hears most often just around that date. No unit of study was planned around the event, no thoughtful discussions had been had in class, there was just this assignment to be completed. Perhaps, collectively, these letters would make a nice bulletin board for her class’ back-to-school night? Why do teachers assign these letters?
We brainstormed a bit, and then Chloe was off and running. She wrote her letter. But I still wish she had had a different writing assignment…or had been given the freedom just to read.