Site icon Laura Randazzo – Solutions for the Secondary Classroom

Our own worst enemy?

Don’t get mad, but I’m starting to think that much of the misery of grading papers lies in the types of assignments we give. Take, for instance, the research paper. Here’s a typical assignment: Choose a person of influence and explain three ways that person improved the world.

This might become an interesting paper if the writer is actually excited about the subject; more often, though, my students don’t care one bit about Sam Walton, Andy Warhol, or Oprah Winfrey.

Assigning students to write a 10-page research paper on a topic that’s not personally meaningful to them is not just short-sighted, but potentially soul-crushing – for them and us. Bored teens write boring papers that bore their teachers.

I want my kids to love writing and feel confident as they place words on a page. I also want to enjoy (or at least not hate) the grading process. So let’s go back to those research papers – the kids don’t want to write them and I definitely don’t want to read them. A scan of the Common Core standards reveals that we don’t actually have to assign such papers. Yes, we need to teach research and writing skills, but the CCSS doesn’t specifically require an 8-, 10-, or 12-page academic snorefest.

But Laura, I can hear you saying, what happens when our kids get to college and have no idea how to write a research paper? Yes, of course, when we’re teaching Advanced Composition to university-bound seniors, I absolutely see the benefit of digging deep into a lengthy academic research paper assignment. But with my underclassmen or kids who are going straight into the working world? Nope. For them, a lengthy research paper just isn’t useful.

What’s useful is teaching students how to research, weigh the quality of sources, understand the fundamentals of academic research, and synthesize a large body of research into essential information to address a specific question. We can do all of these things with more creative approaches. For example, rock star teacher David Theriault compares traditional research papers to a zombie attack, and he fights the Living Dead with a media-based approach to teach research skills. (His students’ infographics are hi-larious!)

David’s classroom seems more wired than mine, so I take a different approach. In my low-tech world, I use a blog-style treatment to help students practice their research skills. I don’t require them to digitally publish their final drafts, though that could be an option for bonus points and I’ll likely fold that in when (if?) I’m ever on a 1:1 campus. In the meantime, my classes stick with the offline option.

No matter the approach, we need to find ways to create writing assignments that’ll be useful to our students and interesting to us as we score all those papers. The power is in our hands.

What do you think? Is there one writing assignment that you just loathe? Could it be tweaked in some way to become less onerous?

Teach on, everyone!

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