By Shveta Miller, published on Edutopia, May 2020
With students currently at home because of the pandemic, it’s helpful to provide learning opportunities that get them talking about what’s happening in the world with trusted adults and peers.
These ideas for home assignments build connection and help our young people process this difficult experience while developing their writing skills.
11 WRITING ASSIGNMENTS FOR THE CURRENT MOMENT
1. Interview senior members of the community: With our older community members at higher risk, hearing their stories has increasing significance. Generate interview questions with your students, and conduct a sample interview as a model.
Students can interview family members, senior members of the school staff, or others through handwritten letters, phone calls, or video chats. When students write up and share their interviews with the class, they will get a broader, more nuanced view of older generations’ experiences.
2. Folding stories: In the traditional version of this activity, one person writes a sentence or two on a piece of paper and then folds the paper so that only the last word or phrase can be seen. The next person continues the story for a few sentences before again hiding all but the last word or phrase and then passing the paper on.
To do this remotely, set up a randomized list of all of your students. The first student sends you their contribution, and you send the last phrase of that to the next name on the list. Compile all the contributions in order in a Google Doc to create a single story. Once everyone has contributed, share the whole story with the class.
The format may allow students an imaginative outlet for anxious thoughts and predictions about the future, and the result is almost guaranteed to be hilarious and inspiring to both eager and reluctant writers.
3. Dialogue journals: A journal in which a teacher and student write back and forth to each other is an ongoing communication that helps teachers build relationships with each student while they model writing and observe students’ progressing skills. Start this off by writing a first short entry for each of your students in separate Google Docs, choosing topics you already know they’re interested in and offering personal details about yourself.
You can ask each student to write something once a week—and you’ll respond to each entry, so this does entail a time commitment on your part. The benefit in relationship-building, so difficult to do in distance learning, makes this worth the work.
4. Student-to-student letters: Organize pen pals or small letter-writing groups. Ask students to write back and forth to one or more peers using provided prompts and sample questions. Teach students to consider their audience and to keep a written dialogue going over several letters as they write to different peers. Encourage students to include self-created activities in their letters to peers: They might make a crossword puzzle using the class vocabulary words, create a maze, or share a recipe or a silly joke.
5. Write to an author: A professional writer may be a great correspondent for a young fan, offering insight into key aspects of a favorite book. Follow #WriteToAnAuthor on Twitter for access to mailing addresses of authors who are standing by for letters from young readers. Provide your students with prompts, templates, samples, and feedback to support them in writing thoughtful letters.
6. Adapt a text to reflect current conditions: Lately any story we read or watch can be a painful reminder of how much is changing. Characters are dancing, hugging or shaking hands, and talking to each other in public places. Some students find it comforting to be immersed in that world, but others find these moments upsetting. Assign students the task of rewriting a scene from a story, show, or movie, considering what needs to change for it to be realistic in our current situation but still retain the original essential themes and meaning.
7. Letters to the editor: What do students think about our leaders, policies, and proposed solutions to this pandemic? Guide them through the art of writing a well-crafted letter to the editor, and post submissions on your district, school, or class website, if privacy policies permit that. Give your students guidelines that specify word count, style, and topics, just as official publications do.
8. Student-created blog: Begin by sharing strong examples of student journalism as mentor texts. Invite students to brainstorm ideas for articles and columns. Some students can assume the role of section editors—News, Features, Arts—and others can write articles, take photos, and work on the design and marketing of the website, which students can build using Edublogs.
9. “Slow looking” documentation: Shari Tishman describes “slow looking” as prolonged observation that occurs through all the senses. Students can use a variety of slow looking strategies to observe their setting and sketch or write about their observations. There are seasonal changes to observe, among other things. By practicing slow looking, students may learn to see things they never noticed before. When they share their observations with the class, everyone gains a broader perspective of how the larger environment is changing.
10. Covid-19 comics: The genre of graphic medicine—which uses comics to explore the physical and emotional impacts of medical conditions—shows that comics can be a good way for students to explore troubling experiences. Share comics related to Covid-19 that engage with the wider implications of the pandemic, such as feeling increased isolation, processing conflicting news, and coping with social distancing or unemployment.
Invite students to explore their experiences through an intentional combination of words and pictures. Make it collaborative by having students write text for a peer’s drawings. Students can use Canva to make comics, or draw them on paper and then take photos to upload to the class learning management system.
11. Pandemic journals: A pandemic journal invites students to process their feelings and document their experience for future generations. To structure the assignment, provide prompts and templates. Suggest to students that they layer in artifacts such as news reports, a note received from a friend or neighbor, a copy of an online school schedule for a day, a snippet of an overheard conversation, or a sketch of a parent hunched over a laptop.