Friday, July 11, 2008

Reading, and Writing, and Logic, Oh my!

Our English department is going to a new textbook this fall, so this July I’m making myself go through it page by page. I even went online and registered for the online enrichment aspects, and guess what? Much of this content looks really, really, good. It looks much like some stuff I’ve made myself, only fresher, with more recent cultural references and better visual interfaces.

So what’s my problem?

Well…ummm…I didn’t make it. Listen, I always use the book like a good team player, but I tend to customize my course with lots of my own stuff. It’s hard work, but then I know the ins and outs of what I’m asking my students to do. (Does that sound persuasive? Because I suspect I may be full of bologna...)

The truth is that the publishers are catching up with me and passing me by as they do. I know this should be good news; this means I don’t have to revitalize the stuff I’ve made. Instead, I can really focus on the holes still left in my curriculum which need more interactive, inventive lessons and activities to get the concepts across.

So what’s my problem?

Oy—what’s left is the really hard stuff! If I spent a chunk of time this summer upgrading the parts of my lesson I know are working, I could get a cheap sense of satisfaction of having worked hard. But it turns out the publisher has done that for me…It’s like coming home feeling put upon because I have to make dinner and finding a family member smiling in an apron saying, “Guess what? I made dinner so you have time to organize the garage like you always say you want to do!” The garage? Tonight? Really?

In truth, I’m writing this piece instead of confronting this curriculum challenge. Here are the two major questions it seems I cannot pretend I don’t have time to think about:

How can I allow students a degree of choice in choosing their research topics while still monitoring that they actually read the articles they find? How do I monitor that they read the articles accurately?

I don’t want to narrow the pool of topics too dramatically, but if I allow 125 students to all write a topic of their choosing with 5 to 7 sources each, how do I monitor the reading comprehension? Currently, they fill out a reading guide sheet for each source, but I’m discovering that these sheets aren’t done with as much care as I’d like or as accurately as I’d like to believe. With a variety of topics, I cannot find and read everyone’s articles to ensure they truly summarize the intent of the source accurately, yet I’m reluctant to have students choose from a list of only five topics just so I can police the reading.

How can I work more on logical argument without creating more and more written assignments to grade?

I know how to use portfolios to get students to write at a higher volume, but I’m not really concerned about their landscape descriptions or personal narratives. One of the biggest problems with my students’ writing is their logic. I get a lot of “If A = B and B = C, then A = popcorn.” Seriously. I know that by reading more articles and drafting more arguments we can work on this, but I don’t think I can handle too much more grading (because this kind of writing requires REAL grading, not the marking grammar while I listen to Law and Order kind of grading). I need to take other things out to put more logical argument writing in, and nothing clearly jumps to mind as unnecessary.

Those are the two big concerns it seems I’m going to have to chip away at this summer because some dang publisher has done a delightful job revitalizing all the grammar, identify the audience, and MLA practice materials. Please send ideas and chocolate.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher


majdavis said...

PLEASE tell me which great textbook has already done that stuff for you! We are looking into text purchases for the 09-10 SY.

The things you mentioned are definitely the hardest to deal with. I don't read all the sources that my students use (there's no way...) but I can tell if they are plagiarizing or not by how it compares to their normal writing. The biggest problem that I have is that my Brit Lit students DON'T UNDERSTAND the lit crit that they need to read for their senior research papers. (I don't have the upper crust... those take Jt. Enrollment at our junior college instead of my English class).

The only way I see to attack the argument aspect is by one-on-one conferencing. I have mine do this some after school, but mostly during class while the rest of the class is having a reading period. It's not perfect, but it's what I have!

Good luck! (And why did you have to mention the garage? That was on my "to do" list this summer, and the summer is almost gone!)

Kate Kellen said...

Our new textbook is The Prentice Hall Guide for Writers. It doesn't set the world on fire, but it's pretty good...

Thanks for your supportive words. I promise, if my peers and I "fix" these big educational problems, I'll spread the word!

Thanks for reading,

Anonymous said...

What are your objectives in your research project? It sounds like you are dealing with two issues:
1. To provide student choice in topics in order to encourage their investment in the work and
2. Assess various research skills such as documentation, summarizing and reading for specific information.

I recently attended a class where the instructor discussed having his A.P. students research an older relative or family friend. The students were invested as they were learning more about someone they cared about. They were also utilizing the research skills of interviewing and documentation. This sort of project would eliminate the potential for plagiarism, but would not get at the reading skills you mentioned.

You could require students to include photocopies of their sources with the sections they've referenced in their papers highlighted. This way, if you suspect plagiarism you can check immediately. It also allows you to identify whether the student intended to plagiarize or not. (Sadly, some of them don't know that changing "the" to "a" does not constitute 'putting it in their own words'.) I find it helpful when I need to follow up with a student on plagiarism issues to know where they went wrong.

As for the arguments, what about handing out faulty arguments and having students both identify the problem with the argument and rewrite the argument so that it eliminates the flaw. Or, write the counter attack that pulls apart the flaw in the original argument.

Kate Kellen said...


I really appreciate your thoughtful response to my musings. You're correct, I do have two major objectives. I've been resistant to the photocopying of sources, but I just may have to reconsider that, too.

I do have some "faulty argument" activities that we do in groups and then as individuals. Students seem to do okay with these in class, but they fail to transfer the skill to their own arguments...some teachers tell me they think these skills just come with maturity, too.

I've decided to let students pick their own topic within the category: Problems Facing Public Education Today. I'm hoping their familiarity with the topic will help them be more reasonable in their proposed solutions.

Thanks so much for reading and for processing with me!