bored girl in a classroom

Rethinking Reports

By Melissa Thibault and David Walbert


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Every teacher’s toolbox carries a few assignments that are so timeworn, so standard, that merely naming them says all you need to say about them. There are the biographies — the President Report, the Inventor Report, the Famous African American Report, and so on. There are the generic research assignments for science and social studies — the Country Report, the Biome Report, the Animal Report. And then there are book reports.

Each of these reports has the same basic goals: for students to perform thoughtful, thorough reading and research, to learn information skills while they learn the content of another curriculum area, and to improve their writing skills by communicating what they learn.

Trouble is, reports like these usually don’t work. It bores teachers to assign them and to grade them — it’s ok, admit it, we’ve all been there — and, what’s worse, it bores students to write them. You can tell by the tired prose, the sloppy grammar, the dumb mistakes you know they could have fixed, if only they cared.

And why — and let’s be honest here — why should students care? They’re writing a paper on a topic that doesn’t seem to relate to their lives, a topic they haven’t yet learned to relate to. They’re writing in a format — the five-paragraph essay, the book report, the research paper — whose real-world analogues are written and read by only a few practitioners of particular professions. Their only audience is you, the teacher — who already knows this stuff anyway. What they’ve learned is only good (as far as they can tell) for getting a better grade, and the skills they’re learning by writing it up will only prepare them to write for other teachers.

There’s another problem, too: plagiarism. If everybody gives the same assignment, it’s easy to copy it. In the old days (you remember, the mid-1990s) that meant turning in an older brother’s or sister’s paper. Now it means finding a paper on the internet — possibly even paying for it. There are online services dedicated to selling “research” papers on standard topics to various levels of students.

There are also online services that will help you track down the students who use those other services, but do we only want to punish the cheaters? Wouldn’t it be better to remove the temptation, to demand that students actually think for themselves, by designing original and creative alternatives to these tired old assignments?

This series of articles is designed to help you create those alternative assignments. We’ll take on standard research assignments for various curriculum areas and grade levels, providing suggestions for alternatives that ask students to think carefully about their topic, to use their imagination, and to consider their sources thoughtfully. They’ll also ask students to write what they learn in a format that has a real-world analogue they can understand, one that has a real audience — or even a pretend one.