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UPDATE, 11-02-15, 2238 CST:  I first posted this article back in November of 2014, and a year later, it’s time for research papers again.  I’d appreciate your updated comments, gentle readers, but I also have an ulterior motive: I have a performance of Messiah the evening of the 3rd, and I won’t have time to post, so I thought you might enjoy this.  I’m also using every spare minute for the next few days to grade new research papers.  They require great attention to detail.  So, please forgive my sloth, and have fun!

My fellow blogger and left coast friend Bookworm had an observation that fits rather neatly into this brief article: 

Yesterday I completed the first half of my Community Emergency Response Team (“CERT”) training. CERT is a FEMA program that’s intended to give ordinary people some basic crisis management skills in the event of a natural or terrorist disaster. I ended up learning a fair amount, but it wasn’t thanks to the way the program was created or — with all due respect to the firefighters who taught it — the pedagogy.

Regarding the last, let me just say that it’s a reminder, as if I needed one, that most people aren’t very good teachers. A good teacher is an informed, logical thinker who is able to communicate his knowledge in an understandable and, if the students are lucky, interesting manner. The firefighters who taught our course clearly knew their stuff, and it was obvious that they were prepared for this teaching gig, but they simply weren’t born teachers. That’s okay. I don’t hold it against them. They were good people making their best efforts and for that I was grateful.

“Pedagogy,” by the way, is the components or parts of teaching. Most dictionaries would call it “the art or practice of teaching.”

I’m in the middle of research writing season, so, as I do at this time each year, I fear for the future of civilization. Relatively few of my kids do truly well at this endeavor. Most do a thoroughly mediocre job, and a substantial portion fail simply because they don’t hand in anything. They will fail despite the fact that school policy requires their final paper to be the sole project grade given during the six week grading period during which it is due–33% of their average. They know this, and fail anyway.

How are Bookworm’s observations related to this topic? I know, intellectually, that their failure is a choice, and therefore, not my fault, but I worry, each and every year, that I am not doing enough, well enough, or in the right way. Surely there is something I could be doing better, something that would produce better results?

I don’t think so. Over the years, I’ve tried everything about which my colleagues or I can think, and we all get the same results. Like Bookworm, I believe good teachers, like good writers, are born, not made. Too many people, because they’ve actually been in school, think teaching easy. They may not ever want to do it, but they’re certain they could do it much better than whichever teacher they’re disparaging at the moment. Indeed, most people can learn to do most every day things, and talent is merely potential without proper development and practice, but some people simply have the genetic endowment to be great teachers, even if they don’t end up in that field. At some point, the teaching must end, and it’s up to students to do their part. This is often called “learning.”

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So, gentle readers, I need your help. Would you consider what I’m about to tell you of my methods, and let me know what you think? Could you produce a competent paper given the instruction I provide?

I begin each year with a comprehensive handout that explains and demonstrates, step by step, precisely how to produce a research paper. The handout included a complete example research paper with helpful word bubbles calling attention to common errors. I encourage you to visit my lesson plan website.  You’ll find almost everything relating to the project under “Essential Handouts And Assignments.”

We begin in early September, and do the project in five steps over nearly three months. The final paper won’t be due until November 21. During that time, we discuss each step, view a variety of other handouts, Powerpoint presentations, and do exercises each and every week.

The kids get most of a week in the library to do one part of the project and another in a computer lab to write an example “Works Cited” page.

Oh, I nearly forgot: the final paper must be at least three pages–double-spaced–with a Works Cited page. It is all in MLA format, and must have at least four sources: one book, one Internet, one interview–the kids actually have to speak with a human being to get information–and one other of any kind. This means that the paper–which must be typed–is really nothing more than 1.5 pages of single spaced text. By the time they actually have to write the paper, they will have done assignments of greater length and complexity.

In the tenth grade, we care mostly about learning the format. This paper is about attention to detail, which is why they have a complete handout that answers every possible question and provides clear examples of everything they need to do. Eighty-five percent of the points in this project are directly related to format issues. Only 15% have to do with content. We do it this way because the sophomore year is the first year the kids actually produce a complete paper.

Their topic choices? Pretty much anything they want, but the paper must have a clear, non-trivial thesis. It must require proof to be accepted. They have to prove something. That’s why they do the research.  One way to look at the assignment is it’s a persuasive essay with specific documentation requirements.

A trivial thesis is something like:

“War is very destructive.”

“Fords are better than Chevys.”

“Alcohol causes a lot of problems in America.”

A workable thesis is something like:

“Driving While Texting is More Dangerous Than Driving While Intoxicated.”

“School Uniforms Promote Learning.”

“Video Games Do Not Cause Violence In Teenagers.”

No graphics are allowed. At this age, kids tend to flood a paper with graphics rather than actually writing.

The kids get substantial extra credit for turning in early work, but it must be good.  Most don’t bother.  I completely edit their first drafts and give them nearly three weeks to turn in a final draft, again, with substantial extra credit for early work.  Most don’t take advantage of even that, and some hand in a final draft with virtually nothing fixed, even though I’ve marked every error and given them directions for improvement.

Of course, I spend considerable class time going over each skill and bit of information necessary to complete the paper. I’m in my classroom an hour before school every morning, and as long after school as necessary. I have five computers and three printers as well. I’m willing to answer endless questions and think up endless ways of explaining the answers, but most kids simply don’t ask.

That’s pretty much it. Many kids don’t do well because the project requires actual reading–most kids don’t do that–and it requires actual attention to detail–most kids don’t do that either. Unfortunately being able to pay attention to detail, and being able to read quickly and well, and being able to accurately comprehend what we read are absolutely vital abilities in the real world, unless one wants their vocabulary to be limited to “you want fries with that?”  For many kids, this assignment is their first exposure, at the ripe old age of 15, to doing something very specific and detailed, and to near-perfection.

What do you think? Given the time and resources, could you pull off this assignment? Any suggestions for the stodgy old English teacher?

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