When Good Classroom Assignments Go Bad

As an English teacher, I rather love this assignment for 9th graders reading Romeo and Juliet:

Choose a character from the play.

Write a short monologue–20 lines or so–exploring that character’s feelings about a particular moment, or another character.

Be sure to write in iambic pentameter.

This assignment lets my students explore a character’s point of view in thoughtful detail. It encourages empathy and imagination. And, it allows them to play with a poetic meter that’s been at the rhythmic heart of English literature since we had English literature.

So, again, as an English teacher I love it.

But as someone who knows from cognitive science, I fear it’s simply not going to work (for most 9th graders on the planet).

Good Intentions Meet Cognitive Limitations

Regular readers know that students use their working memory all the time to grok their classroom work.

Working memory is vital to all classroom learning. And, alas, we just don’t have very much of it.

And, this assignment (almost certainly) places far too great a demand on my students’ WM.

Students must use their WM to…

…choose among the characters of the play. (Yes: choices take up WM resources.)

…choose among the dramatic events their chosen character experiences.

…create a wisely empathetic response to a dramatic event. (Yes: creativity requires working memory.)

And, on top of that, to…

…express richly Shakespearean logic and emotion within a tightly structured, largely unpracticed poetic meter. (If you doubt that writing in iambic pentameter takes working memory, try rewriting this sentence in iambic pentameter. Your prefrontal cortex will be aching in no time.)

So much cognitive load will overwhelm all but the most inventive of students.

Solving the Problem

Given that this assignment could be so powerful, how might we adapt it to fit within working memory limitations?

Two strategies come quickly to mind.

Firstredistribute the working memory demands. That is: don’t have them do all the WM work at the same time.

In this case, that suggestion can be easily implemented.

First night’s homework: choose the character, and describe or outline the dramatic moment.

Second night’s homework: write the monologue in modern English.

This approach spreads out the working memory demands over time. All the choosing, and some of the creativity, happens on the first night. The rest of creativity happens on night #2.

Secondreduce the working memory demands. Unless your students have practiced with iambic pentameter A LOT more than my students have, they’re likely to struggle to compose 20 fresh lines.

My own teacherly instincts would be to have them experiment with existing poetry. For instance, a fun sonnet might serve as a scaffold for early, tentative work.

In sonnet 130, Shakespeare famously laments the use of extravagant metaphors to hyper-praise women:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red.

And yet, by heav’n, I think my love as rare

As any she belied with false compare.

Can my students devise their own version of these sentiments? And, can the preserve the meter?

My boyfriend’s eyes are not as blue as sky.

For reals, his abs just aren’t what you’d call “shredded.”

And yet, by heav’n, I think my guy as hott

As any bae that Beyoncé has got.

Of course, scaffolding is called “scaffolding” because we can take it down. So, once students can manage iambic pentameter with this level of support, we can prompt them to devise more and more free-form iambic creations.

With enough practice, they might–some day–be able to compose 20 fresh lines of their own.

One Response to When Good Classroom Assignments Go Bad

  1. Sue says:

    These suggestions ( and the astute observations) are helpful! Only suggestion I might add is to use groups to do each task and then collaborate on putting it all together. Also I think the technical part – writing in iambic might be done as a separate assignment(S) ahead of time, untethered from its deployment in the R& J assignment. I might have them try and create an iambic verse ( that is not too rude🥴) about their friend or a pop star etc. Friends might have the opportunity then to reply ( in iambic) and so provide another technical practice session. I am thinking the iambic tool then could be used without overload as the whole thing comes together.

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