They Don’t Know

In a stack of papers called Writing.

  • Apr
  • 23
  • 2009

Sample videos. Model paragraphs. Professional sentences. Anchor papers. Published works. Student drafts.

Students read them. They vote on which is best. They talk about why they like them. They find identifying characteristics that explain what one does better than the other. Dead silent classes and phrases straight off a rubric that are meaningless, this almost never changes the way students create whatever I’m asking them to create. And, almost as often as not, students vote in droves for the weakest example provided.

If students don’t know why sentence A is vastly superior to sentence B, and even believe that the opposite is true, what do I do about that? If that’s the case, why even bother showing models? Why not resort to direct instruction on one version of a successful sentence? Why not simply have all examples be high marks? Am I going about this wrong by showing highs and lows? Am I expecting too much out of my models? Maybe a long view is in order and the fruits of these labors will come to at a later date. Or maybe those fruits are even impossible to see.

An example: I’m using AFI’s curriculum, as I’ve noted already, with my Speech class. On the first day, we had five videos in the room to look at. I tried my best to just facilitate the group’s discussion of the videos, hoping that they would naturally reach conclusions about why one product was better than another. According to the class, all of the videos did the job, had the right number of camera angles, the correct tone, and pulled it off.

Of the five videos, one had the actor laughing the entire time (the scene is meant to build tension and anxiety), another had one steady shot the whole way through (the requirements stated five shots as a requirement), and a third was the exact same movement over and over filmed from five different angles. There was one video that clearly was better than the rest, but the students didn’t see it quite that way until I pointed a few things out. And at that point, the criteria becomes teacher centered, not student generated. I think that’s the exact opposite of the purpose of models. They have no ownership of that so it likely matters far less than if they reached those conclusions themselves.

I have a hard time separating myself from the use of models, but I also have a hard time gathering up data to advocate for their use. What has your experience been like? And I’m talking any “text” here, not just literature and not just writing. Art, math, science, history, what have you. Drawings, video, labs, live performance, what they do.


These are some of the things I’ve used that come from student models.


1. Simon Oldaker says:

[4/24/2009 - 1:22 am]

This is interesting, given the pressure we are under to include pupils in the evaluation process, encourage self-evaluation, involve pupils in planning how learning goals are to be acheived, etc. The problem is, as you say, they don’t know. Get into a second or third language and they know even less.

This is a dilemma I feel more and more. I want to take the time for my pupils to figure things out on their own. The time invested should pay off, because they have to practice thinking and then feel that they own the result. This should pay off in all kinds of ways.

Trouble is, I often have your experience. They simply don’t have the background to respond to models the way I want. Maybe I have to go small. Take things one tiny step at a time so that they can slowly build up the skills and insight I’m looking for.

…can I use your handouts? Good stuff.

2. Tom Hoffman says:

[4/24/2009 - 5:56 am]

What do you see as the primary difference between the “passing” and “non-passing” examples? The distinctions in your models are much more fine than I used in my (urban high school) English class. Skimming through them it seems that, notwithstanding usage glitches, the level of formality and academic style is the main distinguishing feature, and it isn’t that surprising that kids would, left to their own devices, like a less formal style.

3. Todd says:

[4/25/2009 - 12:28 pm]

Simon, of course you can use my handouts. I post them for exactly that reason and I’m glad you see some possible use here. I think a few of the intro model paragraphs come from Writers INC. books, but other than that these come from my students. And even the Writers INC. stuff comes from students.

Tom, the main difference in those body paragraph models is that the writer has done their primary job of both having a point (there’s no thesis in that first paragraph; it’s all summary) and explaining the ideas (something paragraphs three and five fail to do). It’s not about academic style because we cover that elsewhere. They already have a fairly strong grasp on that and I don’t think any of these examples break that too much. It’s about whether or not the paragraphs even work. Quotations unexplained, focus changed midparagraph, incorrect details, missing information, evidence that does absolutely nothing to further the point, these are the things I tend to find work to exemplify at both ends of the spectrum.

4. Nancy says:

[5/6/2009 - 12:06 pm]

I’m guessing you teach high school (or maybe middle school)–here’s what I think. Kids do not THINK, they do not know how to think. Elementary schools are so routinized that kids are told what do do, what to write, to expect the right and only answer. By the time they get to high school they are zoombie-like. Maybe it would help to teach ‘thinking’ at the beginning of the year.

5. Kirstie says:

[10/31/2010 - 5:20 pm]

Perhaps looking at models has another type of value. I think of models as threads in the tapestry of students’ prior knowledge. Models help solve the lack of student ‘experience’ Simon writes about.