Once, when I was doing my student teaching, I created a test for a “Business Communications” unit. Now you have to understand that this was in 1993. Back then, word processing was still pretty cool, and the Internet just a novelty. Also, back then, as far as teaching went, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. I was a young energetic teacher who still thought he could change the world. So, naturally I titled the test, “The Greatest Business Communication Test Ever” or something just as ridiculous because, in my mind–I was the Muhammad Ali of teaching.
These were seniors at Elk Mound High School. The best and the brightest. We’d covered the material inside and out, and we’d done it with gusto. It was a fun class. The students loved me—because I was awesome. I expected each of them to knock the test out of the park. Not because it was easy–but because they knew the material, and I was the greatest teacher to have ever lived, probably.
Heh . . .
Anyway, naturally, I thought it was a pretty great assessment. After I’d given it, and began correcting it however, I soon realized that something was terribly wrong: students kept repeating variations of the same wrong answers. It was weird. And they were bombing it. Like Sherlock Holmes, I dug deeper. Then it hit me. Many of the answers weren’t really wrong!
As it turned out, a lot of the questions I’d developed were vague enough to allow two (or more) different answers! It all depended on how the question was read and from what source the answer was drawn-–lecture notes or the book.
So there I was, 20 tests graded, 20 terrible scores–I’m talking D’s and F’s for students very used A’s–and me with no clear path out of this mess. I was a little over half way through grading. The tests were already marked up. Worse yet, after reading the questions over again, and again, and again, and then reviewing the book and the variety of answers — I was starting to get confused myself!
Still–I couldn’t backtrack now and change all the marks and grades–that would only make me look stupid–thus creating an unsolvable paradox in the students’ minds: How can somebody so brilliant be so stupid?
And yet . . .
Then I had a brainstorm.
This was a communications class. We’d studied all kinds of business writing and persuasive methods. So I made a decision. I’d continue to mark them all wrong. Everything I could find. Basically the entire class Failed. The looks on their faces when I handed those tests back: priceless.
“Grades are final,” I said. “Unless,” I paused for dramatic effect. “Unless you can craft a letter persuading me to change my mind. Be clear, concise, and explain your point of view. Provide ample evidence for your argument. This won’t be easy. But if you can convince me to change your grade–I will.”
The letters had to be professional in tone and style–typed, signed, the whole bit.
It was great.
I tell you I’ve never seen letters so well crafted. It was a thing of beauty. All the anger, confusion and negative emotional energy gave the letters a sense of urgency and purpose. The assignment gave students a sense of control and power. No longer were they helpless students at the mercy of an all powerful teacher authority figure. That day, the spotlight shifted from me to them.
Anyway it worked so well that I still use a variation of that assignment today with my eighth grade students. Don’t want a detention? Explain to me in writing why you don’t deserve one. Think you should have gotten more time to complete that assignment? Convince me in writing.
When it comes to teaching students effective and compelling persuasive writing, over the years, the persuasive letter has been one of the best tools in my toolbox—not only because it’s one of the most authentic assignments I give, but because it puts the power back in the hands of the student. As it turns out, I learned a valuable lesson myself with that test back in 1993. Good teachers understand that real learning is not bestowed upon, but inspired within.
Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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