Last week in class, we discussed the ways in which classes could connect with the community and send writing assignments to appropriate organizations, like articles to local newspapers, historical writing to a historical society, and book writing assignments to the school library for checkout. This made me think of a pretty unconventional assignment that I had in 4th grade when we studied space and the planets. My teacher presented a project where we had to incorporate our knowledge of planets and space, persuasive writing and creativity to write letters to a major candy company with three new ideas for a space-themed candies. One of mine was an “Asteroid Belt” candy made of fruit leather and chocolate sprinkles (not particularly appetizing in retrospect). Others described chocolate and gummy balls with different fillings to demonstrate various planets or chose to represent comets with fizzy candies that left colors in your mouth.
Our assignment was incentivized: we were told that the last time our teacher had done this project with a class, the candy company had sent a giant box of candy in reply, including chocolate balls covered in foil that made them look like little earths. At the end of our project we did send off our space-candy ideas and sure enough, we received an enormous box of candy in reply (think half the size of a refrigerator box).
I do not love the idea of incentivizing writing, and one would certainly not be able to feed children large amounts of candy at most elementary schools now. Even awarding prizes for writing, to me, negates the idea of celebrating the creativity of the writing process. However, what I do love is the idea of choosing projects outside of the everyday writing that have a very specific creative purpose. Creativity is an important part of writing and I love the idea of kids creating a prototype, of designing something new as part of a writing project. Designing a candy is a relatively easy way to do this, because the category of what can be called candy is broad, but easily grasped. What if students were able to write letters to the principal with new designs or plans for the school garden? What if students did research and wrote letters to the school board about the best formation of cafeteria tables for community-building?
I was also inspired by the idea of creating insect information brochures for a local park or hiking trail, a project that was mentioned in class the other day. With a project like that, students would gain the extra benefit of being able to show their families their work in action outside of the school setting. I imagine a child would be so excited to take their family to a park and show them the informational brochure that they had helped create and was now available to the public. In school, the successful implementation of a new plan for what was being planted in the school garden based upon the persuasive essays of a class to staff would have amazing potential for motivation.
There is something innately exciting for students about sending your ideas out into the world and receiving a reply. In our class discussion tonight, we talked about the idea of “authentic audiences” and this is what I am trying to get at. It doesn’t have to be something as “out there” as sending space candy ideas to a candy company, but giving students the opportunity to be recognized by an audience upon whose work the assignment has some bearing is a real incentive for learning and writing.