How long does it have to be?

giraffeflickrdocnic.jpg  Probably one of the most frequently asked classroom and library questions about a project, paper, or even when a student is asked to check out book is–“How long does it have to be?”  There are lots of things embedded in that question that bother me.

First off, there is the notion kids have that length equals quality.   I’m sure we’ve enforced that notion ourselves by assigning lengths for papers, powerpoints, # of pages read, etc.  in our attempts to satisfy the students’ “need to know.”   Kids like that concrete definition and aren’t very satisfied by a vague answer.   So they pad their papers with inane expansions of their topic, find thin books with large type so that the book is “long enough,” fill their powerpoints with unnecessary bells and whistles so that they have enough slides, and on and on.   We all know that drill, and it can get downright amusing at times.

Secondly, their question bothers me because of the word “have.”  Students don’t ask us how long it could be, but how long it HAS to be.   The whole question doesn’t conjure up the picture of an assignment in which the students are so engaged that the idea of length doesn’t even occur to them, but rather the image of something onerous, something imposed on them from “above,”  something that as dutiful students they will try to fulfill, without really understanding the why of it.

One of the things I think is really valid about using blogging with students is that the writing is authentic.  Sometimes you have something brief to say, and sometimes it’s lengthy, but always, the length is determined by the content, not the other way around.

Which brings me to the real point of this post, which is brevity.  I’ve really been thinking about lately how we could use brevity and design better in schools.

Can we design mission statements that are short and easy to remember, more like a slogan than a statement?

Can we give students assignments where brevity, clarity, or simplicity of design are the point?    I have in mind assignments like Dan Meyer’s Four Slide contest (where participants were asked to represent themselves in just four, well-designed slides), or assignments like creating a sixty second video message, like these Library of Congress PSAs on literacy.   Or a story in a touching, but brief slide show like Alan Levine’s of his dog Dominoe(using

   dominoeflickrcogdogblog.jpgThe point is, we teach students how to expand on their ideas, how to find lots of sources, how to write longer essays, how to read longer books, but when do we teach them the real power of brevity?   

Have them represent themselves in one slide, not four.   Have them read a one page short story or a picture book if they are in high school and consider how shorter stories still manage to convey the whole narrative.   Have them write a story that has just two words.  Have them create a brief public service announcement, a one page ad for a magazine, a powerpoint with just four slides….you get the idea.

If part of web 2.0 is helping our students become effective communicators, then we need to teach them the power of the blank slide, like in the Dominoe movie, or the power of silence, or spaces between things, and how that also conveys something about our human story.  These are things that good storytellers just know. 

Image credits:

8 thoughts on “How long does it have to be?

  1. Carolyn,

    There is something wonderfully focused about a blog posting. As you noted, the object is to let the content determine the length; padding and circumlocution become immediately obvious and detract from the power of the writing.

    My students asked to do a PowerPoint project, and I set a number of slides – not as a minimum, but as a maximum to keep this from turning into another endless, rambling presentation. Then I asked each member of the class to complete a reflection page. Question 1 was: name 3 specific things that you did well. One student responded: the beginning, the middle, the end. We’re still working on our analysis and communication skills!

    I like your idea of a 1 slide project. It will be interesting to see how they define themselves.


  2. Connect them with twitter and the 140 character limit! 😉

    On another note, what about using good rubrics to reinforce quality versus quantity…or at least, provide students with the criteria for assessment! Too often, I think we assume that our students understand our expectations for projects/assignments. Rubrics can not only serve as an assessment tool, but a teaching tool, as well.

  3. One of my favorite poems says a lot in only eight lines. William Meredith died in May 2007. About 10 years ago I attended a Bread Loaf Vermont reading when he struggled mightily and read this poem.

    A Major Work

    Poems are hard to read
    Pictures are hard to see
    Music is hard to hear
    And people are hard to love

    But whether from brute need
    Or divine energy
    At last mind eye and ear
    and the great sloth heart will move.

    ~ William Meredith (1919-2007 )

    “Meredith began to suffer from expressive aphasia after a stroke in 1983. This means that he has lost the ability to express himself at will. As the poet Michael Collier explains in his foreword to Meredith’s most recent publication, Effort at Speech: “Trapped, as it were, inside his body, which has profoundly betrayed him, for the past decade and a half Meredith has remained occupied with the poet’s struggle—the struggle to speak.'”

  4. It’s not just children! The first words out of my adult learners ‘ mouths on discovering they are expected to prduce a “project” are the same!

    I’ve tried a number of things t overcome it, since the simple fact they can do it on anything like like doesn’t seem enough.

    As Marie comments, getting the learners to understand the standards we’re marking to would be an excellent start. I’ve tried several things to try and aid that, from examples of good completed projects, to simple language explanations of the handed-down-from-on-high “standards”.

    Mixed success but I’ll keep at it. Would be interested to hear from anyone who has successfully helped students get to grips with assessment criteria.

  5. Your wonderful post reminded of a passage for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which Pirsig discusses a rhetorical writing assignment where a student is blocked until she is asked to focus, and I’m paraphrasing her, “on one brick above the door of Bozeman Opera house”. At that point she turns in a 3000 word essay. One point here is that students are taught to give teachers and parents what they want to hear, in a certain approved format. While I understand the need for structure, it seems that the original voices of the students can be lost trying to meet the criteria of “how” a project is presented and that what they need to be encouraged to do is to think about the “why” of the subject.

  6. Great post! I can really relate to this as a high school English teacher. I know that from personal experience when I was met with a page minimum I would typically fluff what I had in order to make the cut. I recall one of the hardest assignments I ever did was for a class I took overseas because they had a MAXIMUM word count. I really had to be concise and figure out what was the most important thing to discuss.

    It’s similar to the old myth that paragraphs need to be 3-5 sentences. I had a grammar professor in college disprove that edict by showing us essentially any page of dialog in a novel. Paragraphs can be one word if they are a complete thought.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *