Wednesday, February 14, 2007

In the Middle

Well, its the middle of the week in what is getting close to being the middle of the semester, and I'm in The Danger Zone for sure. I've spent way too many hours (15? 20?) the last seven days trying to resolve technical issues relating to getting my students blogs set up the way I want them, and in the meantime the papers have been piling up, and so now I'm wading through stacks of papers and I don't know whether to laugh or cry, or both. On the one hand, I am finding that, left to their own devices (given their own choice of topic and form) they are capable of really amazing writiing. In the last three hours I've personal essays and short stories and reflections that are clear and funny and often witty and entertaining, heartening fare for traversing The Danger Zone.

On the other hand, I also have been reading the papers my students many of the same students wrote in response to a directed assignment, one of my standard early-semester litmus tests: "Type out a passage from a work of literature at the top of the page. Write a two-paragraph response. In the first paragraph, tell me what you see. Make observations, statements of fact, things that you are sure everyone else would be able to agree with. In the second paragraph, tell me what what you think about what you see. What inferences can you draw? What hunches do you have? What do you like? What do you not like? What questions arise in your mind?"

This assignment is trickier than it sounds. First of all, the students have to be able to distinguish between when they are being (merely) descriptive or reportorial, and when they are being speculative or interpretive. Secondly, the students have to have some sense of selection: of the universe of things one might choose to talk about when looking at a passage, some are clearly going to be more significant than others. Some might be hardly worth mentioning at all ("This passage consists of 103 words") unless put into a context that illuminates the significance ("76 of which are adjectives with religious connotations.") The two-paragraph limit is designed to keep them focussed and to encourage them to pare down. (I'm reminded of the story about Charles Dickens, who is said to have included as a postscript in a letter an apology along the lines of "I'm sorry this letter is so long, if I had had more time I would have made it shorter.")

But still, even though the assignment has its constraints, it shouldn't be that hard, should it? It's a formula piece, a five-finger exercise, a test of the students' ability to perform a couple of basic processing moves. They're sophomores in what is reputed to be a pretty good high school and they should be able to do this, right? Especially given their aforementioned fluency in the open field.

As if. In the set of 18 papers I just corrected, only five students were able to pull it off with any degree of success. Which now presents me with a series of all-too-familiar interlocking dilemmas. Do I jettison the lesson plans for the next two weeks and go Back to Basics? Do I point out the error of their ways and ask them to try it again? Do I shrug and say, hell, it was stupid assignment in the first place and the only place they are ever going to have to write something so narrowly prescriptive is in the English class of someone as anal-retentive as me? Do I try to come at the same writerly problems from a different angle on the next assignment, and keep coming at it again on the next one, until eventually I wear them down? The semester is already one quarter gone. How critical is this one dilemma, out of the multitude of like dilemmas?

So the shoe has found its way to the other foot. For me looking at the students, as for the students looking at their texts: so many things to see, so many ways to think about what I see. How do pare it down to what is most important? It's late. I'm tired. Tomorrow I'm going to walk into class and find a way to put a positive spin on the message. Great job on the open-ended assignments. On the directed assignments? Nice try. But not good enough. Let's look again.

1 comment:

Matt said...

What you are asking students to do is what Will Richardson talks about as blogging (v.). The ability to select the valid information, see it for what it is and reflect on its meaning is exactly what learners need to be able to do in the flood of the information age. Keep trying different ways of coming at this core skill (and keep posting them here), you are fighting the good fight here.