Keeping it unreal

A student completing nightly worksheets assumes there is a greater purpose. Not so an old teacher like me.

My 8th-grade son delivered his usual stack of homework this week. Two assignments drew my ire, but for different reasons. The first worksheet was focused on participle phrases, an obscure grammatical feature. I would argue that you don’t need to know what a participle phrase is to be a good writer. I would argue that you don’t need to know what a participle phrase is to be an efficient reader. I would argue that because I began this blog with a participle phrase and you didn’t know it.

I wrote more than 1,000 feature stories, magazine pieces, new stories, and columns during my 17-year career in journalism. I have co-authored two books. I have written scores of blogs, hundreds of reports and proposals, and tens of thousands of emails. They are all performance assessments. I have had to communicate effectively to a specific audience and adhere to standards (journalistic, business, grammatical, etc.). But I didn’t need to be able to identify and label a participle phrase in order to be successful.

I found the second assignment even more befuddling. In fact, I found it to be dishonest.

Christian, my 13-year-old son, has a design eye. He can code, write video-game software, render drawings, and produce appealing pieces of art using chalk, charcoal, pastels, and oils. He decided long ago that he would become a graphic designer and chose a Bay Area design school as his preferred destination for higher education.

He came home this week with a writing prompt that asked him to produce a persuasive essay. The topic: Write a piece that convinces the reader why my son should receive a scholarship to a prestigious summer art camp.

I was excited by this assignment. Every summer we send Christian to a computer design academy at a local college. The thought of sending him to a second camp, focused exclusively on art, would be a gift that deepened his skills and furthered his interest.

Christian and I sat together after dinner to create a concept map for his persuasive essay. We came up with a catchy introduction, three solid and highly detailed reasons he should be chosen, and a memorable summary paragraph. As Christian pulled out my laptop and started typing, he turned to me and said, “Dad, I don’t know why you are so excited by this assignment. It’s not real.”

I was confused. “What do you mean it’s not real?” I asked. “You’re a perfect candidate for the camp and this is a good essay.”

“This assignment is not real,” he repeated. “There is no camp and there is no scholarship.”

I was appalled. I didn’t know what upset me more: The fact that he calmly accepted an assignment that appeared to be a blatant manipulation of his passion or the fact that this assignment was emblematic of the inauthentic “performance assessments” we ask students to complete.

The participle phrase worksheet is a minor offense. Kids are used to adults wasting their time in class and at home. But the essay prompt? That is a felony.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidBIE

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