Thursday, July 25, 2013

Teaching Outside The Box

I was always known as the English teacher who gave strange homework assignments. I would tell my students that there was a method to my madness, and that my job wasn't about telling them what to think; it was about getting them to think, especially for themselves.

As a teacher, I wanted to reach the whole student. Sure, I followed the principles of Bloom's Taxonomy when developing lesson plans, but I believe education is much more than remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing information. It's about making connections to worlds other than one's own.  And by the end of the year, my students felt that they had learned much more about themselves and others because of my "crazy" assignments.

Oftentimes, I received phone calls and emails from parents, thanking me for such assignments because it allowed them to reconnect with their children and with themselves. Here's a list of some of those assignments.

Assignment 1: Learning gratitude. Imagine what your life would be like with no elbows.  Immobilize your arms in such a way that you cannot bend your elbows. Try to perform an activity like washing a plate, or changing your clothes. Journal about your experience. Thank your elbows and show them some love by rubbing some lotion on them as you give thanks (replace elbows with knees for another variation).

Assignment 2: Learning POV (point of view). Write a letter from the perspective of your hair. Think about what your hair goes through on a daily basis. What would it tell you in that letter? And what will you change as a result?

Assignment 3: Learning symbols. Anything can be our teacher when we contemplate it long enough. Sit under a tree, facing it preferably. Study it. Listen to it. Touch it. Ask what it can teach you. What could a tree represent or symbolize in life? Journal about your experience.

Assignment 4: Learning responsibility. Adopt a plant. Or plant a seed and watch it grow. Give it sun. Give it water. Play music for it. Notice the changes that occur over a few weeks.

Assignment 5: Learning appreciation. Gather all of your electronic gadgets and have a party for them. Give them a good dusting and cleaning. Check to see that the cords are in good shape. As part of the party fun, give out awards according to their "personality," like "Most Likely To Be Borrowed By My Brother When I'm Not Looking."

Assignment 6: Learning organization. Spend some time making your room a more soulful place. Make simple changes that are more reflective of your attachments, interests, and commitments. Books on the Chinese art of feng shui explain this system of gauging energy flow in an area and making changes using plants, mirrors, wind chimes, arrangement of furniture, a water feature, and other elements. Note how you feel after making these changes. How does your room feel to you?

Assignment 7: Learning comparisons/contrasts. Have you ever been in a place that you felt was "sick," ill, or negative? Describe its symptoms. How would you help it "heal?" Compare/contrast this kind of place to one that you felt was healthy? What did you notice?

Assignment 8: Learning connections. If you were a color, what color would you be, and why? Explain in one to two pages. How does this color represent you?

Assignment 9:  Learning characterization. Make a collage that captures your understanding of your family. Use images to capture each family member's personality. Explain why you chose those particular images.

Assignment 10: Learning teamwork. Plan a menu with your family and cook a meal together. Who will be the head chef? Who will be the sous chef (assistant)? Assign a role to each family member. Document this with photos and create a booklet that tells the story of the evening.

My goal was to design assignments that created meaning, assignments that took students beyond the four walls of a classroom. I wanted them to develop "heart knowledge" as well as "head knowledge."

I've always believed that learning should be a fun but challenging process. To students, these assignments took them out of their comfort zones, but they allowed students to open up to the world and to themselves, getting them out of their own little universe. These activities were about expanding their awareness.

Of course, these activities are not just for students. Anyone can work with them, especially if they want to get in touch with the depth of their souls and the breadth of their connections with others.

Give them a try, and see what you discover.


  1. Hi Penny. Thanks for this great post. I live in a beautiful forest area and I am surrounded by trees. Each day, I perform PUSH-UPS against my favorite Tree because it is an excellent source of HEALING energy. In the Taoist view, trees are the most SPIRITUALLY advanced plants on Earth. Not only can they change carbon dioxide to oxygen, but they are able to TRANSFORM sick or negative energy into HEALTHY energy!! I love my energy tree!

    1. This is a wonderful testimonial about the power of nature and especially of trees. When we open ourselves up to nature, we can learn so much about ourselves. Thanks so much for sharing this. I appreciate your comments!

  2. Dear Penny,

    These are wonderful assignments for anyone and everyone to do. Any time you can a mind and have it look at its world in a new way, it opens up all sorts of things but in addition to that, all of these are spiritually expanding exercises without being "religious". I LOVE IT!!!

    I wish you could teach all teachers to teach like this.

    Maybe some day....

    Thank you,



  3. Kathy, thank you for your response! You hit the nail on the head with your comment about these exercises being spiritually expanding without being "religious." When I started teaching over 20 years ago, I introduced meditation to my students before the writing process and before exams. They loved it! And they performed so much better than those who did not. I've done it ever since, and have provided documentation to those (parents/administrators) who questioned it. You're not the only one who has suggested that I teach teachers how to teach like this. That is definitely on my project list. Thanks for the confirmation (and the compliment).

  4. Great lessons and words to live by.....

    1. Thanks, Liz! When teaching teenagers, I always put myself in their position when it comes to learning. They want it to be fun and engaging, instead of sitting there listening to someone run her mouth, lecture after lecture. They are full of enough angst with all the hormones, and I wanted to show them ways to get in touch with who they are. Thanks for stopping by!