Tasks to Inspire

Where as writing teachers do we go for tasks that inspire, motivate, and engage students?  In my research on this question I came across several sources that offer great advice on the subject.  One such work is Erin Gruwell’s Handbook for Teachers.  She found her own student’s journals to be a valuable source.  In fact Gruwell states that she “derived some of the activities published in her book from student journal entries.”  Yet many considered her students “too stupid to read.”  How could their journals be a source of inspiration?  Gruwell saw her students in a different light.  She needed her students to also see themselves differently.

In her introduction Gruwell notes that her students faced obstacles she was not prepared to deal with like gang violence, juvenile hall, drugs.  Most of her students had given up on education as offering any rewards like college or a career.  The rewards of an education seemed ”remote even alien” to them.  In order to change their perspective on education, she needed to relate the work to their lives.  Her educational philosophy became one of tolerance; she encouraged them to rethink their beliefs about themselves.  Her writing tasks are centered around this philosophy.

She talks about “internal motivation” and the need for her students to feel a “sense of choice.”   She states “I think the key is to build on what they already know. . . . They’re a walking encyclopedia when it comes to pop culture, quoting lines from their favorite movies verbatim or reciting every lyric from the latest cd.”  She used this knowledge to bolster self confidence in her students.  To achieve this her first goal became to help them answer the question “What makes them unique?”

One such task or project is called the “Coat of Arms” which she describes as an introduction to journaling.  The shields are divided into four sections that “express the students’ goals, their favorite things, someone they admire, and something that makes them unique.”   Following the steps, Gruwell lists vocabulary words related to the lesson pan and includes a section on self assessment. Gruwell goes on to state that “by fostering creativity and self-expression in the classroom, you lay the groundwork for your students’ journey toward finding their voices through writing. . . .  The Coat of Arms project prepares students to reflect upon themselves and their lives through journal writing by having students tell a story about an experience in their lives that illustrates one aspect of their shields:  What makes them unique?”  She points out that the purpose of the activity is “to engage students in the process of self-reflection with as much confidence and candor as possible.”   Her ground rules for journaling point out the the “journals will not be graded on spelling, grammar, or content, and will not be shared with classmates.”

She lists other games like “Getting to Know You Bingo,”  the “Line Game,” the “Peanut Game”, the “Crayon Game.”  At the conclusion of the five games there is a vocabulary review of the 25 words generated by the activities.  Two additional activities are listed to reinforce their comprehension of these words:  a crossword puzzle; Bingo.  Check out her book for more detail.  All Gruwell’s tasks meet NCTE standards.


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