Tuesday, February 22, 2011

That Essay

So, here's the challenge.

My American Literature students, love them as I might, have honed some bad habits: so much of their education has involved 'worksheets,' that they've learned how to scan scan scan to find the answers answers answers.

I know how this works: sometimes I get pulled into tutoring and when the student pulls out the worksheet, he needs to fill in those blanks. He can do this by scanning the text, usually for something in bold print, and copying a nibble of information onto the paper. Sometimes, he has to convert it into a complete sentence; sometimes he doesn't. But the job gets done by a quick, out- of-context, scan.

There are reasons that education has devolved into Worksheet Filling Out. I'll discuss that elsewhere.

However, when it comes to literature, the quick scan does not work. Students need to (gulp) actually READ the entire selection and then digest the material from its context. It's a skill that I sometimes must teach from square one, even with juniors in high school.

An effective way for me to do that is to require students to write about what they have read. Scanners lack the context meat to write a coherent essay. I can tell them that; often they have to discover it through tries that fail. In my American Literature class, we've had several opportunities to make this discovery.

We now come to the end of our study of The Scarlet Letter, by Nathanial Hawthorne. I may be a fading breed: I insist that we plod through this wonderful, difficult piece of fiction. My students, by now comfortable with their teacher, moan a bit but they rally, most of them, by the end of the novel. I tell them that The Scarlet Letter (by Nathanial Hawthorne) is the Mount McKinley of literature. I tell them that they've given their brain synapses a workout.

And from the start of our study, I tell them that they will be writing an essay, with a three-point thesis, using this novel as source. THIS will be a first for many of them, even those who have just finished our junior-level, college-prep. composition class. So, I don't leave them floundering. We begin discussing good, manageable essay topics from the first day. We continue to discuss the essay during the three-week study. I remind them of the essay, its due date, and how they could start roughing it out early. I given them examples of the cover page; I show them how I want them to cite from the novel. I give them the rubric that I will use when I read their essays.

And today, 2/22, when they take the test over The Scarlet Letter (by Nathanial Hawthorne), they will have no other homework for American Literature, except to write that essay.

No matter, some will procrastinate until next Sunday, then puke out something and try to get it into shape to turn it in.

(Ok, all you former high school students: you smile. You say to yourself, "I always procrastinated." You may even pat your procrastinating student fondly on the head. There are some common reasons why folks procrastinate. It all culminates the same way: a rush rush job, not one's best work ---- no it ISN'T --- and then a cringe as one turns it in)

And some will recognize, on Monday morning, that they cannot GET it into shape by 3rd period. So they'll unearth their tried and true, perfectly acceptable (to them) reasons to turn it in late.

THIS instructor takes a hard, cold, inflexible stand on late work: when they've had three weeks, plus one week of uncluttered time to get it done. So,this is the dialogue we have when they approach the subject:

ME: Your essay is due 2/28 when the tardy bell rings.

“How much are you taking off if I turn it in the next day?”

ME: All.

“I have it right here on my flash. Can I print it out?”

ME: Yes. Go find a printer and get a tardy pass. (not excused, no matter what your pass says)

“My printer ran out of ink.”

"We had no paper at home."

ME: Find out before 2/28.

ME: Find out before Monday 2/28.

“I couldn’t figure out how to double space.”

ME: Figure it out before Monday 2/28.

“I couldn’t get page numbers on the pages.”

ME: Figure it out before Monday 2/28.

“I couldn’t figure out how to single space the cover sheet.”

ME: Figure it out before Monday 2/28.

“I couldn’t figure out how to change the font/point.”

ME: Figure it out before Monday 2/28.

"How many quotes/cites do we need?"

ME; Grrrrrr.

"What if I fill in the blank with some ommision/commision that doesn't sync with requirements."

ME: Grrrrr.

"No, I mean, how much will you take off if I......"

ME: I have NO idea. This should make you very uncomfortable.

Essays are due 2/28. We'll see.

1 comment:

  1. Lynne:

    Feel free to tell them that when they graduate, finish college, move back home, and start their first real job, if they don't complete their assignments on time, as their boss, I will fire them!

    The real world of business offers no extensions, no do-overs, no "my printer's out of ink/paper" excuses.

    And, in the world of business, we need people who can study something and synthesize a competent and analytical response. Much like their essay for Junion English with Mrs. Bolinger!