The reading assignment had been very much about the labels we use to identify ourselves: "I'm an American," or "I'm a son," or "I'm hearing impaired." So I asked the students to spend the last part of class writing something that put forward their most important label. I said, "Make sure you identify yourself as something, just like the examples in the text. Don't just tell me a story, or tell me what you were like as a kid. Find examples that prove you are this thing, this label."
They set about the task, grumbling, obviously, but when it was all over I flipped through a few in my office. They were great. People really got it and I felt as if the assignment had been a great success.
Of course the next day I was sitting there and the second paper I graded was by Tom. Tom is a full-on time suck. He is there ahead of class with questions, and stays afterwards. He's in the hallway outside my office, and he asks the same questions. He's not ADHD; he doesn't have Asperger's. He's just used to a lot of attention.
His paper was nothing like the others, and not at all what I asked for. It was a pretty enough story about a tree swing his grandpa built for him when Tom was little. He loved his grandpa. That's about it.
I gave it back with the lowest score possible on my grading scale; it equates to about 55%. It means it's not quite an F, but it's not going to help him get on the Dean's List. He stared at it hard most of class and then met me in the hallway outside my office afterwards. Before he let me get my key in the door, we had this discussion.
"I don't understand why I got such a bad grade."
"Yes, Tom, I felt badly about that, but you didn't at all do what the assignment asked. I really sort of thought you deserved 0%, but I gave you some credit for writing something."
"This is the best thing I've ever written."
"I'll take your word for it, but it's not at all about your identity, or the labels we used to identify ourselves."
"My grandpa built that swing with his own hands."
"Yes, still, that's not what I was asking for."
"This isn't a writing class."
"Well, that's not true, we write all the time."
"I'm not an English major."
"Okay, again, I'll take your word for it. We read and write in class all the time, and your ability to..."
"I was the editor of my high school newspaper."
"I don't doubt it," I said. "But this assignment was about showing me you understood the essay we read in class about identity."
"That essay was stupid."
"Regardless, I asked you to write your own essay, showing your identity."
"My grandpa's dead now, out there on that farm. And that swing is still there."
"That is a really nice story. But how is it about your identity?"
"I won a prize in high school for an essay I wrote about Bruce Lee."
"Again, I'll take your word on that. But that's got nothing to do with..."
He turned and walked away down the hallway, and then turned back. "My senior English teacher would have given this an A." Then he kept going out of the building.