Tuesday, February 1, 2011

How to confuse a middle-schooler

Here is how a teacher can confuse a middle school student and her parents.

Assign a "character cluster" in English class and provide these three slightly different sets of written instructions:
  1. Create a character cluster for Tom and Willie using a minimum of three character traits.
  2. Please create a character cluster for both Willie and Mr. Tom, that utilizes a minimum of three character traits.
  3. Create 3 character clusters for Mr. Tom and 3 character clusters for Willie ( beginning - middle and end)
The first instructions were written on the classroom board and copied by the student.  The second were on the English teacher's web page and the third were on the resource teacher's web page.

When the student asked her mom for help in figuring out the assignment, mom could not assist because she also was confused by the instructions and had her own set of questions for the teacher.
-- What is a "character cluster"?
-- Should one cluster be created for both characters or should three be created for each character?
-- How many traits should be included, three for each character or three in total? If three in total, should both characters share these traits?
The student finally figured it out and wrote her own instructions:
Create two character clusters, one for Mr. Tom and one for Willie, with 3 character traits for each.

It seems ironic that these instructions were written for an assignment in English class, where the teaching of clear writing is an important objective.


  1. This was a middle school assignment? If it were me, I'd probably have spent at least as much time trying to figure out the assignment as I would have in actually completing it.

    I hope you gently suggested the teacher proof-read her instructions in the future.

  2. I still don't know what a character cluster is. Did the teacher think all of the students knew?

  3. It seems to be a jargon term used by the teacher - but the short hand becomes opaque to the student and the parent who is receiving the information second hand through the student.
    I googled it and found lots of lesson plans using it without explanations and also serious literary theory texts using the term so it is a buzz term in literature teaching.
    Interesting to see this introduced without a little bit of parent preparation - as it is not hard to see it as a great idea once you have understood the idea and it can be used at every level too.

  4. What would we do without Google? I found this site that explains a whole slew of graphic organizers, many of which I've seen in my time as a public school parent.

    Graphic Organizers

    Perhaps this type of information should be distributed to all parents when their children enters kindergarten?

  5. Jargon and imprecise or incomplete instructions can be challenging to students and their parents.

  6. The biggest problem of jargon is that you can so easily forget you are using jargon when you use it every day in your professional circles.