I’ve been grading my students’ essays, and they’re not great. That’s about par for the course, though. At least they’re not outright terrible. To be honest, however, it might be my fault that they’re not great. It’s certainly not entirely my fault, and there are definitely some good essays in the mix, but I’m going to take my share of the blame here.
You see, I asked my students to write a reaction essay because that’s the chapter in the book we’re supposed to cover (my frustration with textbooks shall be discussed at a later time). The textbook offers examples of reaction essays that are pretty dumb, if I can be blunt. One essay responds to a boring picture of an hourglass. Another essay responds to Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Yeah, like I’m going to teach my students how to analyze poetry. That’s right up there with spending 3 weeks teaching the correct use of prepositions as “biggest waste of time ever.” In my humble opinion.
So, I asked my students to respond to one of two articles about whether mothers should stay at home or work. I chose this assignment because I remember writing essays like this in college, so I think it might be a useful assignment. I chose the topic because I knew it’s a topic everyone’s got an opinion on. And I chose the articles – one from Salon.com and the other from The New York Times. This is advanced writing class, but even so, those were some tricky articles.
I’m not unreasonable, of course. I gave them plenty of time to read the articles. We discussed the topic in class. I encouraged them to bring questions about the articles. And, naturally, they all waited until the day before the essay was due to begin reading the articles and writing their essays. That’s why I can say confidently that their bad essays are largely their fault. They had plenty of time to prepare these essays and ask me questions. They chose to wait till the last minute. You write in a hurry and you get a crappy essay. That’s a fact of life.
But what I’m also seeing here is a complete lack of understanding the articles and the assignment in general. Despite the significant amount of class time I dedicated to preparing them for this essay, their essays still reflect a certain confusion about the assignment.
Some of the best advice I ever got as a teacher was: “Handle one difficulty at a time.” In other words, the first time you try to teach your students to identify fact and opinion statements, don’t make them read an article about greenhouse gases and the ozone layer. They’re practicing a new skill while getting exposed to completely new vocabulary. They can’t do both at the same time, so they’ll wind up doing neither very well. Teach fact and opinion statements with an easy article and work up to more complex readings.
Yet, here’s the problem with teaching advanced students writing: I’ve also got to teach them to start thinking the way their university professors will expect them to think, right?
We talked about mothers as the breadwinners of the family, and my students respond with ridiculous generalizations like, “Men don’t know how to take care of children. Women were created for housework.” You just can’t say stuff like that in an American university class. You’ll be laughed out of the classroom.
So, I pick challenging articles that force them to think – this mother stayed at home, but now she’s divorced and can’t get a job because she has no relevant skills. What are your thoughts on that? But it seems like when they’re forced to think a little harder, the writing suffers. I’d get better writing if I chose an easier topic, but I’d miss out on an opportunity to prepare them for the challenging topics they’ll encounter in their university classes.
It feels like writing and thinking is an either/or situation – you can’t have both. So, I choose thinking. I don’t know if that’s the right choice or not, but it’s the one I pick every time. It’s the one I wished my French professors had picked when I was studying writing. (Those French university classes were hard, and my good grammar didn’t make up for the fact that I couldn’t seem to think like the French.) It’s the one I think will most benefit my students. So, I guess I’ve got to stop complaining that their grammar sucks. It’s partly my fault, anyway.