First of all, readers, I get it: it’s been a long time.
Some of those reasons (pandemic teaching) you can probably guess, others perhaps not, but my point is that I am fully aware that every time I write a post, I promise that I’m going to update more regularly, and every time, I don’t. So I’ll dispense with the empty promises and stick with one I’m pretty sure I can keep: I will update when I have something to write about, and I hope that you will continue tuning in, however often that might be. The best ways to make sure you don’t miss a post are to subscribe to DATW on WordPress and/or follow me on my also quite inactive Twitter.
Now, let’s move along to the teaching of writing, shall we? Today’s topic is: brilliant ideas Dr. Albert had for assignments on her morning commute. Well, one brilliant assignment idea, anyway.
It was late August or possibly early September, and we were beginning our eight-week intensive writing unit for our grade 9 students. This unit is my pride and joy: I love teaching it, and I love watching my students watch themselves improve as writers. But any successful project needs buy-in, and generating buy-in from students who (to put it mildly) are not bursting with excitement to be in English class can prove a tricky proposition.
So there I was on my commute, thinking about how to convince them to care. As any good writer does, I think always of how to serve my audience. The facts in which I deal are simple: by and large, the students who attend my Esteemed Place of Employment do not aspire to be poets, novelists, and essayists. No matter how much I might wish they did, a teacher must teach the students in front of her, not those she wishes were there. On the other hand, these students do often aspire to be business owners, entrepreneurs, and investors. How could I illustrate the writing principles and skills that we discussed in class in a way that would persuade my students that they really would need and use them down the line?
And then it came to me: company mission statements. Those catchy little one-liners that are supposed to sum up your company’s entire purpose in the length of a bumper sticker slogan. Good ones are tough to write, and bad ones – often for great companies – run rampant. Because they are so small, and because their job is to convey a lot of information in very little space, they turn out to be a gold mine for writing instructors. Plus, if your students are anything like mine, they can instantly see why this genre (which they’ve never thought of as a genre of writing before) is relevant to them, their lives, and their plans for the future.
The mission statement analysis assignment requires very little prep time, very few materials, and very little setup. In other words, it provides maximum benefit to the teacher and students for the price of very little time spent on the teacher’s part. Here’s what you have to do:
- Gather some company mission statements. I used the ones in this blog post, because it contains a lot of examples from well-known and successful companies.
- Ask students to evaluate the mission statements as follows:
- Choose their three favorites, and write briefly (a sentence or two will do) about why they liked those.
- Choose their three least favorites, and write briefly about why they didn’t like those.
- In class, compare students’ notes on their favorites and least favorites.
Here’s a sample of commentary from my students on different mission statements:
From the Favorites:
Uber: “They tell you exactly what they do, but in a way that makes it sound cool.”
TripAdvisor: “It’s really simple and direct and you can remember it.”
Whole Foods: “I liked how it focused on how they help people and not just on stuff like ‘customer satisfaction.’”
Doctors Without Borders: “Because it tells you what they really do.”
Ferrari: “I can picture a Ferrari when I read that, even though I’m not totally sure what a Ferrari looks like.”
Google: “I don’t think I could have said what Google is in one sentence, but they did.”
From the Least Favorites:
Alibaba Group: “It doesn’t help me understand what they do.”
The Walt Disney Company: “I think of fun and happiness when I think of Disney, but their mission statement makes them sound like a bunch of robots.”
Sony: “It doesn’t say what they do and it sounds kind of fake and cliched.”
RedHat: “I don’t understand what it means to be a ‘catalyst in communities.’”
Proctor & Gamble: “Doesn’t every company provide products and services?”
MoMA: “It’s just a really long sentence and by the time I got to the end I had forgotten the beginning.”
Across the board, students learned that they liked mission statements that were simple and straightforward and told them something concrete about what the company does or sells. They did not like vague and generic mission statements, mission statements that provided no usable information, or mission statements that felt insincere or seemed to be trying too hard to impress them.
I also pointed out to them that the mission statements they liked almost always contained strong examples of at least one of the clear writing principles we had been learning: concrete nouns, active verbs, human interest, simple words, and short sentences.
They could now begin the follow-up portion of the assignment: rewrite one of the “bad” mission statements to make it better, using those same principles. Their attempts ran the full spectrum of quality and success, but here are a few goodies:
Sony: “To be the world’s best manufacturer of electronics and digital media.”
Coca-Cola: “To make delicious drinks that can be enjoyed anywhere in the world.”
The Walt Disney Company: “To create joy and make dreams come true through entertainment.”
Starbucks: “To ethically produce and serve the finest coffee in the world.”
Southwest: “Dedication to the best air travel experience for our customers delivered with warmth, friendliness, pride, and company spirit.”
If you’re at any of these companies and looking to hire, might I suggest a few of my students?
Students loved this assignment. It had a very low barrier to entry – even those still struggling with active-versus-passive-voice understood what they needed to do – but it made them think and think hard about the ingredients that go into an effective piece of writing. And best of all, it might just have convinced some of them that they really ought to take this whole writing thing seriously after all. Also, they got to make fun of Starbucks.