No Such Thing As Forced Empathy

In a stack of papers called Unorganized.

  • Jan
  • 19
  • 2006

I posted yesterday about the basic composition problems that are plaguing my juniors and seniors. Laurie wrote a comment that I’ve been thinking about ever since, but I don’t really know how to do it. How do we create writing prompts that students care about in response to texts that they don’t? And don’t give me anything about teaching other novels outside the high school canon; you and I both know that I’m locked into a limited palette determined by not only what’s approved, but by what’s actually on the bookshelves of our school. So I can’t teach Tupac’s poems, nor Jose Canseco’s memoir. As far as repro is concerned, there are logistical issues there, too.

There are certain texts that are required; regardless of whether or not we buy into the canon, it quite simply exists and there are times when we must cater to it. So how do we create topics that students want to respond to? And more than that, how do we create an assignment that allows students to really care about what they write? Do they care when I am the final person to read the assignment and they won’t have to do the assignment again? No, but they also know that that’s the terminal state of all writing they’ll complete in school. Given the current high school literature, works that most students don’t care much for, how do I create writing assignments that the students will want to take pride in?

Even more frightening, I don’t know what to do about the problems I’m seeing in some of these papers.

They read as if, even though I saw students spending time and energy writing the papers, these were just the product of a single draft of writing. So do I tell everyone that a second draft is due? Do I encourage a rewrite for a better grade on last semester? Do I make it a new assignment for this semester? What about my new students who did not have this assignment? What about students from last semester who were failing and didn’t do it but want to start over this semester? What about my sanity in that if I read these papers again I’m going to scream (I’ve read 120 of them in the last 56 hours)?

So many of these papers were average (earning 75%) because they did everything that needed to be done, but did not excel in doing so. They accomplished the mission, but there was nothing spectacular about the results. The language use was ordinary, the reflection tepid, and the storytelling drab. So maybe this is where a second draft would come in to help them recognize where they need to improve their writing.

Another thing I’m thinking of is creating several short writing assignments (for some, moving them back to simple paragraphs is a must) with a singular focus. There are several of them: spelling, grammar, sentence variety, formatting (of titles, quotations, references, heading, etc.), plot, reflection. It’s just that I know that’s what happens at the English 1 and 2 levels, papers that are more singular in focus and encourage layering those… foci in a more complex paper. So I know that students understand what I mean when I say reflection. I can see it in these papers. It’s just not very well done.

Here’s an example of an average reflection:

  • What I learned from these experiences of mine and Mary Warren’s was that I should speak my mind instead of dodging the subject or waiting till the last minute to tell, only making it more risky and troublesome, something I should have done in the first place. With life, I learned that it is better to be safe than sorry. With what Mary went through, doing what she did affected everyone badly in the long run. As for me, the effect of my actions was short-termed. I have always thought of myself as a person who would not be rebellions, but I’m wrong. This was something profound that I could not see and now that I know that, I am going to make an effort to change myself.

Aside from being a rather pat ending (“And with that, I’ll change! Really!”), there’s just not much explanation there and no exploration of life and literature. The sentences do not jump out as great prose and the vocabulary is rather limited. That’s fine for a 70-75%, right? I mean, to write that, that seems like what an average junior should be able to do, right?

I’ve posted the semester final essay, both for you to look at and for you to copy if you’re into that kind of thing. It’s a Word document, so be prepared to download, not just link to it.

I think that the more technology I’m bringing in will provide excuses for caring about what’s written and add a sense of livelyhood to what we write. Rushton said something about this, the use of technology to motivate. How do I get students to care about their writing so they will want to take the time to improve it?


1. Laurie says:

[1/19/2006 - 9:38 pm]

You know you are more right than wrong in your ideas about how to make students care about their writing. We are stuck with the literature at our disposal. I have been thinking about Lord of the Flies and what kind of writing I might ask them to do. Do I have to make them write a 5 paragraph essay about the true leader? Or would I be better off having them write a more personal response if that means they think more deeply about the text? What I do know is that it is good for me to think about what they write, how they write, when they write, where they write, and most importantly why they write. Thanks for that.

2. Ben says:

[1/20/2006 - 9:05 am]

That’s a tough order to be certain Todd. My teaching partner has the same trouble while grading papers in language arts, but since we’re dealing with sixth graders he gets sentence structure and grammar from what looks like 3rd graders or worse at times.

I think you’re right about introducing some more technology tools to get them motivated. However, that will only go so far. Once the novelty of it wears off, you’ll be back at trying to come up with ways that themes or events in the text reflect their everyday lives. Would connecting older texts like Shakespeare be possible through modern day interpretations like Leanardo DiCaprio’s “Romeo and Juliet” or “10 Things I Hate About You” which roughly follows the same premise as “Taming of the Shrew”?

3. Matthew Brown says:

[2/12/2006 - 7:04 am]

In my discipline (history) I face a similar problem: Most of the reading I assign is not well written. History books are written by committees, for the most part, and so lack any strong prose. At their best they are clear; attempts at any real prose style fall short.