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Instead Of Assigning Make-Work …

I’ve been rereading an essay by anti-public-school activist and former award-winning teacher John Taylor Gatto. He basically argues that schoolwork is makework–and he’s right. When was the last time anyone ever wrote anything in a composition class that really mattered? Surely matters are worse at lower levels, but even at the college level, most of the papers students write don’t matter. Hell, most grad school papers don’t matter. This is a shame.

So why not stop assigning makework? Why not give students real work to do? I’ve been flirting with this idea already for a while–next semester, I’m going to have my students write Wikipedia articles as I teach them secondary research skills–indeed, they’ll NEED the skills I’m teaching in order to make halfway decent articles! Real articles that people can use; real writing that matters.

But I think I can go one better. What’s the point of having students write meaningless audience-of-one research papers and criticism about literary texts that have been studied for a hundred years? Those papers just go in a file once I grade them, and eventually into the garbage. Why not set the bar much higher? Why not use each class to write a book-length resource (whatever the format–wiki, ebook, blog, whatever) with my students, start-to-finish? There are many great books well-worth studying that have never been written about, so they could spend their time with me producing real, useful knowledge, and the task itself would be sufficiently vast that I could model everything at an expert level and then assign them real, cognitively demanding jobs within that framework. Laboring together, we could create meaningful products, and in the process they would learn the necessary skills.

Such an idea, of course, could go far beyond lit-crit. A public-policy class could compile a meaningful report on an issue for the community, establishing the facts and offering a balanced menu of policy suggestions: a starting point for later public discourse. I see no reason why a poetry or fiction class couldn’t produce an anthology. Are we teaching journalism? We could write a comprehensive restaurant guide to a local town. Hands-on training is good enough for dentists and doctors, after all, so why not for college-level writers?

Obviously some students’ work will be seriously lacking. They will have to work harder than most, and will probably absorb more professorial attention, but if you show the whole class how you would edit a flawed paragraph, or ask hard questions for twenty minutes to force a student to really come up with a useful idea to explore–a genuinely knowledge-advancing idea–then all will benefit. And if the class doesn’t end up producing anything worth putting out into the world, you tell them that. “Sorry. We failed. I hope you’ll learn from this failure. For your grade, send me a detailed letter with your thoughts on the entire project. If students are passionately interested in bringing this project to completion with me, we can work on it outside the semester.” If classes produced good work, work that would be used in the future, then in a few years students might put their coauthor credit on their resume.

Obviously there are huge problems to be solved before such a concept can be implemented. But why not start throwing out makework?


On Modeling (part 1)

Modeling (This Week In Lazy Titles)

I find it difficult to remember how I read and wrote before I went to college. I’d like to believe I always read closely and carefully, and perhaps I did; my early education made a fetish of massive quantities of difficult reading, and my reading comprehension was tested weekly. Nevertheless, something did change when I came to college; I did read more closely, more explicitly, forming a carefully-constructed mental map of the text as I read. My writing changed much more. I learned to plan; I learned to edit. Eventually, kicking and screaming, I learned to revise. But I learned by trial and error across half a dozen classes, and I never fully got the process under conscious control until I started teaching. But I could have saved a year or two of struggling if I had had a chance to watch an expert work.

The technique is called modeling, and it’s pretty simple: the expert sets a concrete skill problem that the novice can comprehend, then solves the problem in realtime, carefully explaining every action taken along the way. Does the novice need to learn how to write a process manual (and develop all the skills that make it possible)? The expert writes a process manual in class, breaking the task down into its simplest components, planning them out, and executing one at a time while the novice watches.

Modeling is part of a pedagogical system called cognitive apprenticeship, and it’s worked pretty well for me–but it can be demanding. You can’t model without being an expert; you have to do real work each time; you have to explain yourself at all times. You may run into real difficulty, in which case you’ll have to show your students how an expert gets out of it. You also can’t model effectively unless you have your students’ full attention; otherwise you’ll want to kill yourself. This means they have to be invested in the problem before you show them how to solve it.

An Example (In Other Lazy Title News …)

I’ve tried modeling in several different classes over three semesters, and while I’ve had good results all three times, the best results by far came last fall.

I was teaching a class called Reading and Writing Across the Disciplines at New Jersey City University. The course culminated in an all-or-nothing summative exam known as the WRAP, which is graded by a special committee; the professor can prepare his students, but their final performance belongs to them.

My students lived in fear of the WRAP. It is a short response essay: two hours to read and respond to a short essay (3-4 pages) in two to three double-spaced pages. The bar is fairly low; if students comprehend the text, summarize it fairly, and respond with their own ideas in minimally-competent English prose, they pass.

For the first seven weeks of the semester, my students struggled to make any progress, and I struggled to get through to them. All their training and instincts conspired to make them fail. In search of shortcuts, they tried to respond without reading; they tracked down three or four quotes in the essay and fit them to the nearest cliche; they tried to avoid thinking about the text as much as possible. Confusion reigned. I assigned them long, demanding long essays to read and explicate, but I might as well have told them to sprout horns.

Then I decided to show them exactly how I would tackle the dreaded WRAP.

First, I wrote out a plan: 1. Read, summarizing each paragraph carefully. 2. Summarize the reading. 3. Write my own response. 4. Write introduction, transitions, and conclusion. 5. Reread what I have written. 6. Edit. 7. Reread what I have written again.

“Too many steps,” they said. “We’d never finish in time.”

“You’re trying to do everything at once,” I said. “It slows you down and makes you inefficient. Watch.”

Using a PowerPoint projector and a sample test form, I parsed carefully through a cut-down Peter Singer essay, glossing and annotating it, constructing a simple summary. His argument was straightforward: just as a bystander would have a duty to save a drowning child even if it would ruin his brand-new shoes, so we all have a duty to save people dying around the world even if it means donating every spare dollar: proximity means nothing; only an infantile morality would excuse us from helping people we cannot see.

It was a five-minute task, but I tried to stretch this part out as long as possible, giving them plenty of time to follow along. In the end I took thirty minutes, constantly doubling back and explaining each paragraph, constantly writing notes. I wrote a short but detailed summary of his whole argument.

“But you haven’t written your response yet,” they said.

“That’s the idea.”

I wrote a single sentence summarizing the short essay, a single sentence setting forth my own views on the subject, a few words explaining how my views related to Singer’s. I turned that into the hinge between summary and response, explained and supported my response, and within fifteen minutes I had a serviceable draft. Then I wrote introduction and conclusion and had them read it aloud. Where they were confused, I edited for clarity. We read it through again, and then I had them grade it using the standard WRAP rubric. There was still an hour on the clock.

Obviously they didn’t have the skills to do what I had done on their own, but they saw which skills I used and how they fit together. That class was a turning point. The rest of the semester, I modeled everything, and any time I did something that my students considered magic–or “talent” or “genius”–I took it apart for them.

And So? (Revenge of the Lazy Title)

Obviously I think that more in-class modeling could help future Josies avoid trial-and-error learning. I think it would be nice to see expert writers actually doing their thing–to see behind the curtain, etc. Since the qualifying skill for college comp teachers is writing skill rather than pedagogical training, it’s probably much more impressive to display a real skill than to seek out clever ways of tricking students into learning. If they need to learn it badly enough (separate issue: how to show them they need to learn it!), they could do worse than watch an expert work.

Summer Postmortem – Or, Maybe I Should Teach Fewer Things For Longer

I’ve just finished teaching an intensive five-week remedial college reading and writing course, part of an Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) summer institute: intense schedule, four hours of teaching a day, four days a week, a full semester’s coursework. I rather enjoyed it, and I think they learned a lot in a short time, but I wonder if I might have served them better by teaching them less–much less–with a laser-beam intensity of focus.

I’ve just finished grading their final project, very short, very simple research papers, and it doesn’t look good. Despite all the progress they made, progress I could see on their penultimate assignment, their final essays mostly fell apart. Sentences spiraled senselessly in on themselves, paragraphs devolved into jungles of words, grammar collapsed, punctuation vanished, and only occasionally could I trace anything like an overarching point.

And I should have expected this. Their basic skills are too weak for any other result.  They cannot simultaneously

  • discuss three academic sources while maintaining and developing their own distinct ideas
  • maintain awareness of their entire essay
  • structure and organize that essay so that the reader can follow it
  • communicate in clear, fluent sentences

They would struggle with any one of those tasks. When they attempt all four at the same time, their skills implode.

Partly this is because novices don’t think like experts; they do everything at once, lack systematic plans, have no idea that they can construct plans. By contrast, experts plan effortlessly–often so easily that they don’t appear to plan at all, relying instead on long-internalized procedures and time-tested abilities, canned plans.

Partly, however, novices simply lack the skill to automate routine tasks. They don’t automatically form mental maps of their essays; they can’t model a reader’s reactions; they can’t assume that their sentences scan or their punctuation works. Reading and writing are complex skills made up of simpler skills; any weakness in the lower-order skills will strain the higher-order processes. Whereas the expert focuses entirely on the rhetorical problem of the piece, on fitting form to content to make a point, the poor novice really can’t.

It seems to me that skill acquisition in writing must resemble like skill acquisition in sports or music or any technical field–it’s just that writing is a particularly complicated skill, much trickier than, say, basketball. Maybe most students can’t master writing globally by drilling ten demanding tasks all at once, just as they wouldn’t learn to play guitar by playing whole songs over and over. Maybe I can help them learn more by teaching fewer skills in a much more focused way–scales, arpeggios, the annoying but vital stuff.

A semester is fifteen weeks; maybe a remedial semester could be reduced to three equal, and equally important, parts. Perhaps a remedial student should spend five weeks learning to explain their views in crisp, fluent, grammatically-valid, well-punctuated prose, then five weeks learning to read, comprehend, summarize, and explicate other people’s writing, then five weeks extending that basic fluency to a simple but fully-developed response argument. As long as I pursued this focus on fundamentals with glee and passion–“Let me unlock mastery of the language!”–and never let it lapse into dull remedial drudgery, maybe they’d exit my course better-prepared not to fall to pieces under the pressure of complexity.

Thoughts? Techniques I might apply? I’m a great fan of problem-solving and modeling in the classroom, so I would probably want students to compose responses to prompts, then spend a lot of time showing them how to line-edit, building their prose skills by constant accretion. It would be painstaking and intense in-class work, though in the plus column I could probably cut down on pre-class planning.