Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Prompts that Inspire More than Require

          I believe that teachers enrich lives by offering students choices, not immutable guidelines, and by celebrating innovative approaches, not hunting for mistakes. 

          When I offer writing prompts--usually multiple options based on a single topic--I relish the student who says, "Can I do the second one, but change it so that…?" The students who see their own alternative within the alternatives provided are showing me that they are taking a vested interest in the assignment. Sometimes, I like their prompts better than the options I've offered!  For example, one student took a prompt about exploring a moment in which a character realizes that his win is simultaneously his competitor's loss and she turned it into personal narrative about a tennis match that she won, but felt almost guilty for winning. After she read her story aloud, and listened to feedback from me and her two classmates, she suddenly raised her eyebrows. "Wait, now that I think about it, I didn't really feel GUILTY about winning," she commented. "I mean, I LIKE winning, and someone has to win, right? Actually, I felt SORRY for my opponent because she was crying after she lost, and then her mom lost her temper and actually said 'shut up' when the little brother asked out loud why she was crying. I couldn't believe her mom did that. And the whole thing was really…embarrassing." As I began suggesting ways that the student could show those feelings of shock and embarrassment via mood-setting actions and more descriptive details, she quickly nodded, picked up her pen, and declared preemptively, "Okay, I think I know how to change it." The final draft of her story ended up sparking a discussion about good sportsmanship, parenting, and showing mood in writing with vivid verbs and descriptive details. All in all, her alternative approach to the prompt turned a writing lesson into an introspective exercise for all of us.

          Students grow as learners by considering various approaches to developing their understanding of a topic, and by exploring the approach that most challenges their creativity and interest. They learn more from asking questions than from reciting answers, and retain more from listening and discussing than from writing rote responses or taking notes from a lecture to memorize for a test. The most memorable learning is, at least in part, self-directed, I have found. 

          If you're still pondering that last statement, think about some of the most enriching school work you've done--the assignments you remember best. Did you follow steps exactly or make that assignment unique to you in some way? And did you surprise yourself with your own creative flow?