Blogging Huck Finn, Part Three

I have to say that I am very proud of my students’ posts about Huck Finn on their blog. I am enjoying reading what they have to say, watching as they discover this great book for the first time, and participating in their active discussion. If I could ask them to change anything, it might be proofreading their posts and comments more carefully, but this is the first time many of them have used blogging software. I think it’s easy to spell-check entries, but I don’t think they think about with comments so much. That aside, they are writing about some interesting topics, and I haven’t helped them choose what to write at all — they are simply reacting to and interacting with what they read.

They are excited when they receive comments from “strangers,” or as they put it “random people.” If you are so inclined, check out their writing and tell them what you think.

[tags]Huck Finn, Mark Twain, blogging, Huckleberry Finn, education[/tags]

Research Paper

All 10th graders at my school write a literary analysis research paper. When I went to high school, we were required to write one paper in 11th grade on any research topic (believe it or not, my teacher actually let me get away with writing about Led Zeppelin) and one paper in 12th grade on a literary topic (I wrote about symbolism in Robert Frost’s poetry). This is my sixth year teaching students how to write this paper, and I think it was my best. Students worked very hard on their papers this year. They made excellent use of the library.

I know I’m a bit old-school when it comes to this particular project, but students have told me they appreciated it later (if not at the time). First of all, I use note cards. Now I will state categorically that I never used note cards on my papers in college. They seemed to be too much trouble. But two years ago, I wrote a paper like those that would be expected of my students so they could have a model of the process. I used note cards, and I loved them! I could move ideas around so much more easily, and the paper was much easier to organize. Some might argue that this step is superfluous and silly in our modern age of computers, but I found it much more useful in terms of seeing what I was doing than putting notes in a notebook or word processor would have been.

The first thing students must do is choose a topic. I have found it is best (and will avoid much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth) just to give students a list of topics and require them to pick from the list. Otherwise they try to pick topics for which they will find no information. Students should know that a thesis is a statement they are attempting to prove. Therefore, the thesis I used in my 12th grade paper — “Robert Frost uses symbolism in his poetry” — should have received a great big “well, duh” from my teacher (he was really phoning it in right then, as he was close to retirement), but it didn’t. If I had been my teacher, I’d have taken me aside (which would surely have been awkward) and told myself that Frost had to be using symbolism for a reason, and it would be my job to prove that he used it for that reason. What was Frost using symbolism to convey? I make students write and rewrite their thesis until it’s perfect.

I teach students how to take notes on note cards. They must write some sort of title on the top of the card that indicates what the card is about. Before they write notes, they should create a source card. Their first source card is labeled “A” in the corner. The source card should be formatted according to MLA standards (or whatever documentation style your school uses). I tell students to write the library location and call number, so they are not searching fruitlessly for the book if they need it again. When they begin to take notes from the source, they label their cards A1, A2, A3, and so on in the upper right-hand corner so they have a key to which information came from the source. This is important later. If the source is a book, they must put the page numbers on the card. After they have been taking notes for a week or so, they have a general idea of where their paper is going. I ask them to create a work plan (rough outline) with an outline of what they will discuss and an estimation of how long it will be and how many note cards they will need to get there. Students have found this to be helpful, but they should be coached not to see it as set in stone.

Students will need about 50-80 note cards for a five-page paper. This fact will freak them out, but just make sure you give them library time commensurate with their ability to work independently on a project like this, and they will thank you later — if they take fewer notes, they will have to go back and add information. It took me years to figure this out, and I didn’t require enough note cards. This year for the first time I didn’t have a lot of students complaining about not having enough information or having to go back and look up more information.

After the students finish taking notes, they should compose an outline. This is a pain because MS Word does not format outlines properly. You remember: I., A., 1., a., i., etc. Students, however tech savvy they may be, cannot figure out how to work with MS Word’s helpful auto-formatting and still make the outline come out correct, so I just created a template for them. You can download it if you want: RTF, MS Word Template (.dot). If you don’t care that MS Word doesn’t format formal outlines correctly, then you can skip this step and call me anal-retentive. It wouldn’t be the first time I heard it.

I teach students directly how to integrate quotations. If you don’t, what you’ll get is a paper with a string of quotes that are not tightly integrated. I have a great handout for this activity (download). I think once the students see the difference between properly integrated quotes and dropped quotes, they can do a better job integrating quote with their own ideas. My students are doing well with this so far (I’m halfway through the papers).

Their first drafts should be polished. Expect documentation errors, but caution them that they really need to turn in what they consider to be a final draft in terms of grammar and mechanics. They shouldn’t need much help with organization if you gave them good feedback on their outlines, but they might still need help integrating quotes. For the final draft, I require the old large envelope with all pieces inside. Students should implement all changes you suggested on their first draft in their final draft.

Some tips:

  • Spread out due dates enough for you to grade without going crazy, but not so much that students lose focus on the project.
  • Grade the small things, including note cards and outlines, in such a way that you see fewer mistakes. It doesn’t help students if you just count the cards (or eyeball them!) to see if they met the number required. See if they actually took the notes down correctly. Check to see if their notes from print sources had page numbers. Really look over that outline for problems in organization, and require it to be full-sentence.
  • Require every website they want to use to be approved. You can do what you think is best, but I would steer students away from SparkNotes. It goes without saying that essay cheat sites are no good. Wikipedia? Up to you, but I’d say no.
  • If your school can afford it, get a subscription to databases such as EBSCO. They have a wealth of information that students won’t be able to find otherwise. If your school can’t afford it, take a trip to your local library and get the research librarian to show you what databases are available to patrons of the library. Do what you can to get students access. They’re that good.
  • Gale’s series Novels for Students, Poetry for Students, Short Stories for Students, and Drama for Students are invaluable if you can get to them. They are more accessible than Contemporary Literary Criticism and other similar series.
  • Be firm with deadlines. If you don’t, you will go crazy, and your students will not take the deadlines seriously and will not work like you mean it.
  • Analogies help. I came up with an analogy to describe this process to my students that they seemed to like. Writing a research paper is like making Jello. Choosing a topic is like choosing a flavor. Creating a thesis is like figuring out what you will do with the Jello — any fruit? fancy molds? those little squares you are supposed to eat with your fingers? Taking notes and formulating a work plan is like assembling your ingredients and getting all the cooking paraphernalia you need. Outlining is combining the ingredients. There isn’t much else you can do after this step, as the Jello hardens fast, so you better make sure you put in all the fruit and use the right mold now. Creating the first draft is like sticking the Jello into the fridge to harden. By the time students get to the final draft, it should be more like enjoying the fruits of hard work — eating the Jello — than discovering you screwed the whole thing up and have to start over. It made sense to the students, anyway.

I was the Research Paper Witch for Purim last year, and I scared everyone:

Research Paper Witch

I had note cards stapled to my cape (you can barely see one in the bottom right of the picture), and I painted “MLA” on my hat in white-out.

Although you may have to get firm with students when you teach them this process, it is a critical skill to learn. All of us have to write research-based papers, no matter what discipline we study in college. I highly recommend Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference for students writing the research paper. My school purchases copies of these books and allows students to keep them, taking these books with them to college. They are excellent. The sixth edition doesn’t seem to be available for pre-order at Amazon yet, but it is coming out this spring. Go ahead and splurge on the plastic comb edition. It seems like such a little thing, but it stays open when you’re writing, and it’s much easier to navigate.

[tags]research paper, teaching, education, writing[/tags]

Who Killed Romeo and Juliet?

Juliet stabs herself with Romeo’s daggerAs I wrote previously, I planned to conduct a Socratic Seminar focused on this question: Who was most responsible for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet? We held our discussion today. One student arrived early to help me move the desks to the side. We put the chairs in a big circle. The students came in and took their seats. I gave them the Self-Reflection from Greece Central School District to complete at the end, but told them they could jot down some of their thoughts as we held our discussion.

After I opened the discussion with the question, the students took over. Aside from having to stop and make sure that students who had been waiting to speak had a turn, I didn’t say another word until the end of class when I told the students what a wonderful job they’d done. They did become heated at times. There was a solid camp who asserted it was all the fault of Friar Laurence, whereas others said no one person was to blame — so many factors came into play. Still others insisted Romeo and Juliet really had no one to blame for their deaths but themselves. They argued their points well, frequently turning to the text. Several times I heard students make this argument: “We can’t deal with ‘what ifs’; we have to go based on the text, and Shakespeare clearly says in the Prologue that it was fate — they were destined to die, and nothing could have prevented it.” It was so impressive to listen to, and I was very proud of how much they had learned. They were really getting into the text, and it didn’t feel like work or assessment, yet they truly showed me how much they knew through this exercise — much more so than a multiple choice test (do you hear that, NCLB test-happy bureaucrats?). There were times when students were passionate and had trouble taking turns or making sure everyone got a chance to speak, but by the end of the discussion, all of the students had had a chance to speak (with the exception of one student who had been absent and so wasn’t prepared — more on this in a moment — and another who just wouldn’t be drawn into the discussion). I heard from students who do not normally speak during our class discussions, and it was great to see this side of those students come out. I think everyone felt safe to share their opinions, even if everyone didn’t agree.

If you plan to hold a seminar, it might be helpful to know a few things about the students in my class. They are college-prep ninth graders. I have nineteen students in this class, six of whom are girls. The boys in the class are fond of sports and are masters at figuring out how to write about sports for every essay assignment for which they are given any amount of freedom regarding topics. Our class was a double block, but it was cut short due to Long Tefillah (prayers) — Purim is this Saturday, and some Jewish holidays call for extended prayers. We began class something like 10 or 15 minutes later than normal, but we managed to maintain our discussion for a full hour and 10 minutes. After this, I gave students time to fill out their reflections. One student said it was the quickest class period he’d experienced all year, which I took to mean he was so engaged he didn’t think about the clock. It was a great class.

What should you do if students are absent for any part of this assignment, either for preparation or the seminar itself? I gave students two class periods to prepare, and they used it well. We also had a bargain that they would use it well or I’d put them on the spot and make them talk right then. If students were absent for one class, I didn’t change any expectations; they were still expected to speak up at the seminar. If they missed both, I asked that they set up an appointment to meet with me and discuss their ideas one on one so I could hear what they would have said in the seminar. It’s not ideal, as part of the seminar is the exchange. If students just won’t participate, I offer them the same deal; I understand being a shy kid, for when I was really small I would have rather died than speak up in front of my peers. Students should be aware of how they will be graded prior to the assignment. This assignment is great for teaching students to dig deeply into a text for evidence to back up their assertions, and it is also great for critical thinking skills and speaking/listening skills. It’s also very easy to evaluate. The students do all of the work!

[tags]Socratic Seminar, Romeo and Juliet, discussion, assessment, education[/tags]