I’ve been talking a lot about reducing the picky and endless details of the assignments in order to get the students to dig deeper and think more holistically so the whole experience becomes more meaningful. But what does that mean exactly? How do I know if the assignments are meaningful? Certainly, I evaluate by deeply subjective measures: the extent to which the students seem to care about it and if it engages their classmates and me, the degree to which it seems to strike an emotional chord with the students, and whether or not the assignment is personal, unique to that student.
We’ve had lots of these so far, many many more than in my traditional semester where I give them fewer options. The poems were all personal as were the presentations of their creative work, and obviously so was the explanation of the “23 and me” results. This came from a student who had always thought she was simply Dominican. She displayed the chart that showed us she was made of DNA from three continents. She had just received the results the day before and was still stunned.
And the student who read her aunt’s letter to her mother from 20 years ago blew me away. It could have been on NPR. Her aunt had just married, was sent to live with her husband’s family as is traditional in that culture, and was terribly lonely and upset. She wanted to go back home to her mother and eat her mother’s food. I’m not sure how the class processed it, but I was deeply moved by this beautiful and heart-breaking letter. So I counted this as a meaningful assignment because sometimes it’s about me. (I told you the criteria are subjective.).
I also deemed the student-led conversations as quite meaningful. One was on the effects of technology and children, one on the ethics of zoos, another on cryptocurrency. While not necessarily personal, they did a good job of getting their classmates to engage in the conversation and a number of students had excellent questions and insights.
Ultimately, however, the assignment is meaningful if the student finds it meaningful. And the only way I know if that is true, is by asking the students to reflect on their experience. “Describe what you did and tell me how you felt about it in two pages, typed, Times New Roman, 12 point, one-inch margins.” (OK, sometimes I like lots of detail and specificity; I’ll work out the contradictions later.)
These reflections work on at least two levels. The obvious first level is that it allows me to see how they understand the assignment, what they got out of it, if they took it seriously, etc. For example, many of the students wrote about how nervous they were expressing themselves in this new way in front of the class. Exposing something they cared about (the poems, the art work) felt very risky to them and they all wrote about how relieved and grateful they were that the class responded to them so positively. The Trump Tower assignment was a very powerful one for the students. They were really nervous about reading out loud, being videotaped for a public facebook page and felt the gravity of the political moment. One student wrote that he was proud to be part of history.
But the next level is that the reflection creates the meaning. It’s one thing for them to present a poem or read at Trump Tower and then go on with their lives. It’s something else altogether for them to stop, get clear about how they understand the experience and then explain it to me. They could very well do the assignment, find it meaningful and then not look back. And so that meaning can be lost in the hustle of their days. But if they write about it, that reflection anchors the meaning deeper into their consciousness. Or better yet, they may not have even realized their understanding of the assignment, until they have to write about it.
As we say in the biz, “meaning is socially constructed.” So one way I’m trying to construct meaningful assignments is to let the students create them and then reflect on the experience.