Top Ten Assignments of 2020

Actively Learn
January 11, 2021

In 2020, as more teachers across the country and around the world used digital tools to engage their students, Actively Learn’s assignments played a starring role in classrooms, remote learning, and hybrid learning. Teachers asked for relevant, engaging lessons their students could dig into amid the pandemic, and our data for the year shows us which of our thousands of ELA, science, and social studies assignments rose to the top. Here are Actively Learn’s most-taught assignments for the year, many of them still going strong today.

10. Student Guide: 6 Ways to Build Motivation to Do Your Schoolwork (3 pages, grades 7-10, 1020L)

Like Actively Learn's other Student Guide lessons, the assignment on how to build motivation to succeed in school features expert tips to help students learn and grow. Through reading, answering questions, and reflection, students learn how to block out time, break large projects into smaller ones, set goals, and more.

Actively Learn’s most popular assignments in the spring helped teachers work with students in the new world of online learning. The excitement of learning from home, however, waned as the pandemic wore on. News staff writer Mary Graham said, “Everyone was tired, and this assignment acknowledged the struggles that students were facing and gave action steps to help them to keep going. Teachers used this to motivate students and encourage them to finish a hard year on track.” It’s not surprising that teachers are assigning it now, too.

9. The Science of Superstition (3 pages, grades 5-12, 970L)

We worked with two of our favorite researchers, Neil Dagnall and Ken Drinkwater, to make this assignment a winner for students. The assignment opens with the essential question “Is it beneficial to be superstitious?” and ask students to answer higher-order questions as they read. ELA content manager Tessa Polizzi said, “It’s perfect at any time of year because it gets students engaged with ideas around psychology and how we think, and it discusses things students care about—sports and the ideas of good and bad luck.” And for students who love it, teachers can keep the discussions going with other psychology assignments on why we should laugh more (4 pages, grades 6-10, 1010L), why so many people believe in ghosts (4 pages, grades 8-11, 1060L), and why clowns creep us out (4 pages, grades 7-10, 1020L).

8. An Unlikely Friendship (2 pages, grades 3-6, 530L)

This short, accessible story by Sue Carloni from our partner Teaching Tolerance explores a compelling question for all people: “Why is it important to not judge a person by appearance?” Polizzi said, “Teachers find this text helpful in having hard conversations with students about people who are differently abled, and because of its short length, it is a great text for students to use Actively Learn's powerful accessibility features, including the built-in dictionary, translator, text-to-speech, and annotations.” Students who enjoy this text also like our assignment on “Bullies Don’t Rule,” a longer story by Valerie Ormond about friendships, conflicts, and problem-solving (10 pages, grades 3-6, 670L).

7. Controlling Coronavirus: “Flattening the Curve” Using Social Distancing (3 pages, grades 7-10, 1100L)

Actively Learn's lesson on flattening the curve uses authentic science text, data and graphs, and essential questions to help students grasp key concepts and connect them to other domains of science.

Our most popular assignment of the year with science teachers features engaging text by Matthew McQueen, the University of Colorado Boulder’s director of public health, as well as instruction, notes, images, and a video to help students understand the value of social distancing. Science content manager Rudy Sharar said that science teachers valued this assignment in high numbers for three reasons: “It was super timely when it was published on March 13,” he said, “which was the day Washington State and 14 other states closed school buildings. It also clearly explains the concept of ‘flattening the curve,’ which was new to most students in the spring, and it discusses important actions that students can take to keep themselves and others safe.” Other science texts and videos help students build background knowledge on the coronavirus and look behind the headlines to learn critical concepts.

6. How Some YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok Stars Use Their Influence for Good (4 pages, grades 7-9, 1140L)

This assignment was an instant hit with teachers and students, featuring nods to breakout social media stars Jalaiah Harmon and DanTDM as well as more seasoned influencers like Lizzo, Kourtney Kardashian, and Yuya. Teachers and students were drawn to the uplifting message that influencers can effect positive change in unique and interesting ways. The assignment also engages students by asking them to answer multiple choice questions, analyze a Pew Research Center graph, and use evidence to describe which influencer most effectively uses social media to share a positive message.

5. Thank You, M’am (4 pages, grades 5-8, 640L)

Actively Learn's assignment on Langston Hughes' enduring story asks students to answer the question "What motivates people's decisions?"

Teachers from New York to Alabama, and from Texas to Washington State, assigned our lesson on Langston Hughes’ beloved classic in every quarter throughout 2020. With a line like “When I get through with you, sir, you are going to remember Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones,” how could anyone forget this text? Educator Audra Jones wrote to say how much she enjoyed teaching this short story: “The best thing about this text,” Jones wrote, “is it transcends grade bands.” DeShonda Lee described why she finds it irresistible for high school students: “They absolutely love it! . . . It’s so jam-packed with conflict, literary elements, and themes it’s hard to pass up using such a diverse text.” Tahira Chase attested to its lasting effects: “I believe this short story saved a few of my students.” Few texts are as popular as this one for both middle school and high school classes, and we expect to see it in a top spot in the year ahead. It comes as part of a text set, too, with 10 short stories, 6 related articles, 4 poems, and 6 videos.  

4. Student Guide: 5 Tips for Online Learning (3 pages, grades 6-9, 860L)

It’s no surprise now that this was such a useful assignment; we published it in the early spring, just as teachers and students were scrambling to figure out how to sustain their learning from home. “For many,” Graham said, “it was uncharted territory. Teachers and students were just trying to survive this stressful time, and they appreciated the article’s timely subject matter and slightly humorous tone as they discovered new ways of teaching and learning.” The assignment ends by asking students to write a thank-you note, using proper email etiquette, to one of their teachers. When the fall quarter started, this assignment once again rose to the top of our list and continued to stay popular through October. 

3. TikTok: Is This Popular App for Teens a National Security Threat? (4 pages, grades 8-10, 1260L)

In Actively Learn's assignment on TikTok security, students are asked to apply what they've learned by writing a letter to a friend using evidence from their reading.

Social studies and ELA teachers grabbed this assignment early and often in 2020 to engage their students in examining TIkTok, a platform that grew exponentially with young people. Featuring text by BBC News, full instruction, a poll, a video, notes, and links to related texts, this assignment spurs discussion and promotes critical thinking about a platform many students use every day. “The popularity of this assignment shows not only its relevance to students,” said social studies content manager Cristina Marcalow, “but also its ability to address compelling concerns about the app that aren’t widely understood.” While assignments on the 2020 US elections were more popular with social studies teachers, this TikTok assignment had crossover appeal for ELA and history teachers, and it connected students’ learning to relevant topics. As Marcalow said, “It challenges students by bringing up issues of privacy, national security, and even international relations.”

2. How Old Should Kids Be to Get Phones? (2 pages, grades 4-8, 900L)

Each Actively Learn assignment begins with an essential question. For this popular assignment on phones, students are asked to read the text and answer the question "Does the author present a convincing argument?"

“We all know that students have opinions about phone use,” said Polizzi, “and this assignment challenges them to evaluate the author’s take on the issue.” Featuring an opening poll question and thoughtful text by Fashina Aladé, a professor and researcher on advertising and public relations, the assignment helps students think critically about the best ways to develop healthy phone practices. Great on its own, it’s also part of an engaging debate text set: “Are Mobile Devices Helping or Harming Us?”

1. Everything is Canceled: Teens Cope During Coronavirus Crisis (3 pages, grades 7-9, 960L)

Our top assignment for the year hit home for numerous students in 2020 and still resonates today. As one of our social and emotional learning assignments, “it was especially popular because of the student interviews, which reflected how students talked and felt,” Graham said. “When students read words from their peers, they feel seen and heard.” Through shared annotations, students are able to describe their experiences and reflect on how they’re coping during the pandemic. Even more, they get encouragement and learn tips on how to acknowledge their experiences of loss and move forward in the new reality.  

Actively Learn's text sets enable ELA teachers to use nonfiction, fiction, and video assignments to build units and enrich their students' background knowledge.

As we start 2021, we’re seeing new and classic assignments assume the top positions, on New Year’s resolutions, snow, blue sharks, the events at the US Capitol, and our text set of The Great Gatsby, which just entered the public domain and is embedded with Actively Learn’s flexible instruction. It remains to be seen which news, literature, science, and social studies assignments will engage the most students in the year ahead, but we’re excited to work with teachers and administrators to bring assignments that students can relate to right away, all year long.


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