We are just wrapping up a unit in both my courses where students had to write a paper. In my Honors Nine class, the students wrote their first of many literary analysis essays. In my English 10 course, the students are finishing up their reflective essays. I’ll be spending the final weekends of the trimester grading all these papers in a coffee shop where distractions are few.
However, that is not the point of this week’s message. I’m here to spread other joyous and profound thoughts to you. If you can remember how it was to write a paper and then to finally submit it for evaluation, you might appreciate this week’s edition a tad more. Or perhaps a tad less, depending on your experience.
This specific literary essay is the easiest analysis they’ll do this year. The topic is simply, “Is Odysseus an admirable character?” based on the reading of The Odyssey. They don’t have to create a topic from thin air. There’s only two ways they can go with it. “I do,” or “I don’t” think he’s admirable. The challenge, of course, is to prove their position on the question.
The reflection essay, however, has different challenges. Reflection for sophomores is a difficult task. It’s not impossible, but it stretches their thinking. Unfortunately, they’ll share an event from their life in narrative form until their conclusion when they write a solitary sentence which starts something like this: “Now, when I look back...” I stress how one sentence does not a reflective essay make. They want to summarize but reflection is higher level. I mention “time-outs” and how they’re in-tended to make the child re-flect about their be-havior and why it’s unacceptable. Sometimes that analogy works in helping clarify. Sometimes, it does not.
In any case, because I am passionate about writing, I tend to get animated during my days when I’m teaching either/any essay. I suspect my fervor could be misconstrued by the underdeveloped brain of a tenth grader as yelling. I’m not. Rather, I’m being loudly emphatic.
One approach I’ve been able to adopt over the last number of years since technology has introduced the doc camera into our classroom is modeling. I simply place an essay by a willing student beneath the camera lens of this helpful technology, and as the classroom sees it on the screen, I proceed to point out problems as well as strengths with the writing. I’ll ask the students to bring in a solid paragraph from their paper. I then give them the opportunity to share the paragraph with the class by allowing me to demonstrate the good, the bad and the ugly of their work.
The challenge is making it fun without being overly destructive. So, I roll out my “self-esteem” lecture regarding the notion I have no power to destroy their self-esteem. Nor do I have the power to fill it. I ask them to lighten up and let it just happen. The point I make is they win by having a solid paragraph once I’m done with it. The class wins because they see similar problems in their writing that I pointed out in the student’s paragraph I was given to share.
I will try to show them my drafting process as well. They know before I send my column to the paper, I draft, I edit, I revise and finally, I send it to a trusted colleague who will be totally honest with her reaction to both the content and the mechanics of my weekly edition. I try to bring humor into it. Reverse psychology, if you will. “Normally, the student doesn’t weep too much while I’m tearing their example apart in front of the class. Now, who wants to volunteer to share their paper with the class and me?” That normally brings a smile or a chuckle to four-fifths of the class. Believe it or not, students DO offer up their writing as the sacrificial lamb.
I know I’ve gotten somewhere when I have a student return to my classroom after two years asking, “Will you tear my college admissions essay apart?” Seriously. It happened again recently. They know I’m on their side and will do whatever I can to help them.
Writing is a personal act. People generally feel attacked no matter how I react. I try to alleviate that paranoia as much as possible through humor and honesty. It’s a hit-and-miss proposition.
Now it’s time to revise this edition. I am sure there are students who would be happy to do it for me. In some countries, they would call that payback.
Chuck Brooks is a teacher at Rosemount High School. His column appears every week.