Towards the end of the summer term last year, the head of English at my school emailed me a link to a story about an Italian teacher who had set his class an unconventional list of tasks for them to complete over the summer.
It was a wonderful article to read, and the teacher’s list was suitably Mediterranean in feel. “Be as happy as sunlight, as untameable as the sea,” was one of the instructions.
It was an evocative love letter of an assignment, and felt a million miles away from the target-driven work that teachers the length and breadth of this country had been relentlessly bombarding students with over the previous 10 months. It resonated with me strongly. Despite its floweriness, it reflected the ethos that encouraged me to sign up to teaching in the first place: it was about empowering students, about helping them grow up to become decent adults.
I couldn’t help but have a go myself. I wrote a summer holiday assignment that I believed in, one that I’d want my own kids to do. I wanted it to be sneakily inspiring, help the students grow, be something that all students could access, and something that would have the potential not only to make a difference to their own lives and outlook, but to have an impact on those around them, too. Most of all I hoped my assignment would be an antidote to the excesses of what it means to grow up in the 21st century.
So what did I set? Here are 10 of the 30 tasks my students had to complete (the full list can be downloaded here):
- Sort out what you don’t need and give it to charity.
- Walk a journey that you would usually take by car.
- Handwrite a letter to someone special and post it.
- Try a new food you can’t pronounce.
- Learn a poem by heart.
- Lie on the grass in summer and stare at the clouds.
- Speak out when you see something you don’t think is right.
- Talk to an older relative about your family history.
- Pick up someone else’s litter.
- Grow something that you can eat.
What happened next, I hadn’t anticipated. After setting all 180 of our Year 7 students the task, I thought nothing more of it. A parent though had other ideas. She photographed the list and posted it on her Facebook account. At the last count, she had something like 9,000 shares.
I have no idea what the students thought of the assignment but adults seem to have loved it. In droves. They tweeted it and retweeted it, and metaphorically signed up to complete the assignment themselves. It was never my intention but it somehow spread across the globe.
It has been so encouraging to read the positive reaction that this assignment has generated. As teachers, we need to be reminded that the work we do is always under scrutiny, but that sometimes our best work is talked about with an enthusiasm and support that we didn’t realise would be possible. It’s not why we do it, but it’s lovely when it happens.
Tom Christy is head of art at Chenderit School near Northampton