Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Why Johnny Can't Write a Term Paper.

Bumped to the top of the queue from July 2010:

Joanne Jacobs passes on a Jay Matthews article about kids not ready for college writing because they have never written long papers.
Now, when nearly every student is expected to go to college, they spend more time writing personal essays in journals than they learning how to research and write a college-level paper.
I see the same thing up here in the mountains. I'm not sure that it's laziness or reluctance on the part of the teachers - grading a fifteen-page paper is actually much easier than grading ten page-and-a-half short ones.

I think part of the reason may lie in the detail-oriented, bite-sized education our State DOE is pushing. Standards list the many things those English faculty should be doing. There is emphasis on touching every kind of writing instead of trying to master any one long-form type. We have "writing across the curriculum" which strives to get every teacher writing in their curricular area.

Calvin has a piece of it, too. Some teachers are too full of themselves to do something as pedestrian as a research paper. I won't even discuss the puerile drivel of a book report.

What of the rest of the building? What of Literacy across the Curriculum?

Math teachers (Hi!) try to avoid set pieces and stick to paragraph-sized explanations. If you push us (and many principals do), we'll do the useless 1-page biography of a math person. Since we're not comfortable grading such, the students aren't pushing their envelope and it's a useless exercise. I try to do 30-word abstracts of Scientific American articles - that's tough - but it's not research. I don't have time to divert them from parabolas to writing papers. Besides, I want them to write Math, not words.

History teachers are doing 1- to 2-page factual "research papers" at the longest. Answer this question or explain that, but not much more. Science teachers are doing lab reports, lazy science teachers have them fill out pre-printed ones.The music teacher has them writing, too ... on staff paper.

Because the non-fiction is being done elsewhere, I think the English teachers are pushing short essays and creative writing. If they go anywhere else, it's journalism.

Is this wrong? I don't think so. We're being increasingly held to these standards that do not address long-form writing.  No one should be surprised that English teachers are ignoring it. 

I think the only way to really bring out the research paper is to put it alongside senior English ... and call it "Research Seminar" or something.

Years ago, my school had a "Senior Seminar" class that consisted of SAT/English prep first trimester, college essay and application writing second trimester and, for the third trimester, a 30-page research paper. This seminar was a graduation requirement in addition to 12th grade English. I've been trying to get it implemented at my current school, but no dice.

My thought today, mirroring the school's thinking then, is that the process can't be relegated to a single week of an otherwise busy English class. There is too much to be done for it to be anything less than the sole point of 3 months of class. Notes, research, outlines, drafts, false starts and restarts, time management.

In the incarnation of twenty years ago, the teacher had a list of topics from which to choose, already had a (minimal) list of books that would be appropriate, and basically knew the topics well enough to recognize cheating and/or plagiarism. She didn't just drop them in the deep end and cackle evilly, she had the time and the resources to work through the whole process. Even the ESL kids here on I20 visas, the remedial kids who read very slowly, and the the lazy kids, all had enough teacher time to do it right.

Added from my later comment:

You can call it an English elective. One research paper is not enough for a whole credit so make part of the class into SAT or PSAT prep (or NECAP or whatever) focusing on vocabulary and basic grammar and sentence formation because you know they probably still don't have that quite right.  (Read Embedded content and the Foreign Language Paradox for more on grammar.) 

Spend time with the computers and formatting and MLA and footnoting and all the stuff.

Then patiently start the process of research and reading and library search and proper Internet research. This will take a month in itself. Outlines, note-taking using Keynote or something similar, such as, *gasp* note-cards.

Diagrams and images and photoshop. Spend a few days with the AP stylebook and reading "Eats, Shoots and Leaves."  Can they make proper footnotes in their Word Processor of Choice? Bibliography? Pull-out quotes? Binding allowances? Hell, you can even get the damn thing published and sold through Amazon.com or Lulu with a print-to-order option if the student really wanted to shine.

Open your imagination - what would you do if you had a group of kids whose sole focus was on writing a long-form research paper without ANY references to standards, no limitations or requirements to teach "The Lottery" and no literature to read because that's happening somewhere else?

What if your graduation requirements included "Four years of English" and "Senior Research Paper"?

Stop drooling.  You can thank me later.

8 comments:

  1. As an English teacher, I've been told by two different principals to nix the research paper-or make it so short it's a joke. Gotta love it

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  2. As a middle school science teacher, I try desperately to get them to write at least 3 paragraphs for background research and 2 paragraphs for the conclusion. Of, course in between there is the data collection table, the equations to solve, and the graphs to make. You would think that I am suggesting that they kill their dog, the groans and moans are excruciating. But I persevere only to find out that at our high school the science teachers do not make them do this. I scaffold the learning over two years and I share many examples and walk them through it. Some are more successful than others and everybody could do it if they took the time. Wish me luck I am going to focus on it again this year. Keep up the great blogging.

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  3. Excellent points. I am currently working on my Master's Degree through an online program. It is amazing to me when we have to do group projects how poorly some of my peers write. Many of these people want to be special education teachers but don't even have the simplest understanding of how to reference things, let alone the idea that a whole page of just block quotes is NOT acceptable! I like your idea of a whole course that just focuses on paper writing. Unfortunately, the class you are suggesting should take place in either the Sophomore or Junior year since SAT and college essay writing often occurs prior to 12th grade.

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  4. So do that. The students as that school needed the help as seniors because they were so far behind the eight ball. If your school works better with this at the sophomore level, then that's what you should do.

    You can call it an English elective. One research paper is not enough for a whole credit so make part of the class into SAT or PSAT prep (or NECAP or whatever) focusing on vocabulary and basic grammar and sentence formation. Spend time with the computers and formatting and MLA and footnoting and all the stuff.

    Then patiently start the process of research and reading and library search and Internet. This will take a month in itself. Outlines, note-taking using keynote or something similar.

    Diagrams and images and photoshop. Spend a few days with the AP stylebook and reading "Eats, Shoots and Leaves."

    Open your imagination - what would you do if you had a group of kids whose sole focus was on writing a long-form research paper without ANY references to standards, no limitations or requirements to teach "The Lottery" because that's happening somewhere else?

    I'm just a math teacher. Come on, you English types!

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  5. My excellent high school had the research paper-writing in History classes, not English. In English, we learned proper usage, vocab, sentence structure, etc, but our writing was interpretive, not research, since the topics were literature and ideas, and building a case was not as complicated as it is in a research paper, and did not involve library research. I would argue that in the area of research papers, the student's interests should play a legitimate role, and that is why having a separate class for the research paper is a good idea, Curmudgeon. History as a topic works well for many students, but others would do a better job of researching their topics of they were more current: technology issues are very researchable (thought the teachers who grade the papers, of course, need to be at least conversant with the subject matter).

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  6. An English teacher suggested recently that math teachers should encourage "writing across the curriculum". I told her I'd assign writing assignments when she assigned math problems.

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  7. What a horror that would be. Most math teachers I know are pretty good with basic grammar and writing. Most English teachers can't make the same claim.

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  8. Aside from the fact that this seems an overly broad generalization about the math skills of English teachers, there is a funamental difference between language aquisition and development and content-based skills. It really doesn't matter that a Math teacher might be unable to identify and analyze instances of anaphora or epizeuxis in a Shakespeare soliloquy any more than it matters that an English teacher would be unable to remember the formula to solve for the area of a polygon. The reason why literacy skills have to be taught across the curriculum is that language development has to happen in context. If one wants kids to read a math textbook, one must teach them how to do so. The same goes for writing. If students aren't taught how to write for a given subject, one can't assume that they will automatically be able to transfer skills from another discipline and apply them appropriately. The idea of a senior research paper is great: this is something that IB schools do in the form of the Extended Essay, but the skills must be taught, and not just by English teachers, much earlier than the final year of high school.

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