We always talk about giving the students authentic assignments in the classroom. I have yet to fully master this skill, although I do see improvements happening every day. The ability to create assignments that students see as meaningful comes from an understanding of your students and what they value. I am finding that the more I think about my experiences in high school, the more I am able to think of the types of assignments that will interest students.
We just finished watching My Sister´s Keeper, which brings up some very interesting controversial discussions, personal opinions, and emotions. Yes, I made my students cry. No, I don´t feel bad about it. In fact, it was the best thing I have done all year. My students are passionate about the material they are studying in class. They can make personal connections and relate to the characters. Outside of the classroom they are talking about it to each other, to other students, and coming to me at lunch and at break. Everyone admitted that they were moved by the film. We had a good conversation about how different people respond differently to the film depending on how they can relate to it or what their personality type is. There is no right or wrong way to respond. I told the students how hard the film is for me right now: I just lost a friend to the same type of cancer that one of the characters has.
In the story, Kate, a girl who is extremely sick with cancer, makes a scrapbook for her family while she is in the hospital. Today in class, I told my students to think about the type of scrapbook or memory book they would create, either for themselves to look back at, or for a loved one. I wanted them to think about the types of memories they would want to portray, how they would portray them, who they would give the book to and why. All they had to do was to think about it. Of course, I had it in my mind that they would be actually creating a page or two from this scrapbook over the rest of the term, but I didn´t tell them this at the time. I wanted them to feel no pressure in thinking about it. Immediately, I had half the class asking if we would do scrapbooks as a term project and they were so excited! How could I say no? One girl said she was really looking forward to doing it since she had always wanted to create a scrapbook, but had never had the time or a particular reason to do so. I don´t think it is fair to require all the students to finish the entire scrapbook (or even make a traditional scrapbook so to speak), but I would like them to be given the chance to create their own way of keeping memories that is meaningful to them. I really hope this assignment is one that they do for themselves, rather than for me. I am providing freedom in how they create the items (photography, collage, writing, drawing, painting, etc), but will have them write reflections about the process and the final product, telling me what they like or what they would change if they were to do it again.
My classroom has photos on the walls that I have taken and the students always ask me about them. They know that if I only put up four photos, they must be important to me. I love seeing my students looking at them and talking to each other about them. Just before remembrance day I put up three photos of my grandparents on the wall behind my desk, and the students have paid more attention to these than I could have possibly imagined. During the war, my grandfather wrote letters to my grandmother while he was at sea. When my grandfather died, my grandmother´s Alzhiemer’s became so bad that we had to put her in a home because with my mom working 12 hour shifts as a nurse, my grandmother was home alone so often that it became extremely dangerous. When we moved her, we discovered these letters that she had kept this whole time. Sadly, she had no idea who her husband even was half the time. So I decided to create a book using my grandfather´s letters and photos to keep the memories alive. The photos on the wall behind my desk are composites I created in Photoshop with the letters in my grandfather´s handwriting behind photos of him in the navy, and one of him and my grandmother on their wedding day. The one I did of their wedding day I blew up and printed on canvas for my aunt and mom. The words of the letter are actually my grandfather hinting to my grandmother that he wished he had told her he loved her before he left for the war and that he wanted to marry her. I originally made this for myself, but then shared it with my family, and now my students are enjoying it too. I hope the work they create in my class will be enjoyed by many.
The students finally shared their work and I must say, it was incredible! One student wrote about how she found the work to not be an academic assignment, but a moral assignment. She said that through thinking about her life and her accomplishments she realized that she is important and that she is doing worthy things in her life. What a great lesson for a student to learn. How come she didn’t do anything that helped her know she is important before?!
It took two lessons for the students to present all their work and I was blown away. The students put so much thought and effort into their work and learned so much about each other in the process. The work was so personal and emotional that almost half the students presented projects that made the entire class cry. Of course it was not a requirement that students were sentimental, some were very humorous; but it gave students and outlet to think about process different events in their lives and I feel lucky to have been able to give them this opportunity. I recommend a similar assignment to every teacher who wants their students to see value in their lives.