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!)

ResearchEssayHighSchoolEnglishPinterestRandazzoDavid’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!

Share This Article :

Leave a Reply

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Debra Laughlin
7 years ago

Hi, Laura,

I agree with the sentiment. I think a path to engage them, and check off another supporting standard, is the generating of the research questions themselves. If you must give a topic, which in fairness, some kids need a nudge, then students can develop areas of the given topics to explore that are meaningful to them.

Using perhaps a movie–(this just popped into my head as I typed so I’ll try it out on you!) “The Secret Life of Pets.” Connections to issues of the day as addressed by the personalities of the pets. Or some other possible areas to ask questions about are: digital animation evolutions, great chase scenes in kid’s movies, food that dogs eat, pet choices of people, ad infinitum.

Are these topics relevant and game changers? Who cares, really? The issue is for kids to put ink to paper (text to screen) in meaningful, sensible, and logically reasoned forms and text structures. Additionally, generating questions about pop culture is fun and can lead to practice of point of view, irony, persuasion, argument, and the ever popular how-to. But bottom line, it is all student driven, except for format requirements of teacher, and even that can be negotiable.

When the kids complete a research project for me, I have had them go back and add the text features to the completed assignment. They create a Table of Contents, add images, charts, headings, video, et cetera to their work. So from one root assignment, I can piggy back onto their own writing and generate several projects. For example, in lieu of a compare contrast paragraph they can produce an infographic. In the past this whole assignment was the traditional typed format, but I can see how this could be a blog entry practice for today’s media.

I have found that by adding this text feature dimension this spreads out the class and those who excel really become independent, but they are also great teachers of tech issues or other assignment questions/answers as they pull ahead of their classmates who are still coming along.

Then, I have done a shared googledocs showcase of the finished non fiction text feature product where the kids view and evaluate peer work of their choice (I put all the work into a shared folder so they can view it, names can be replaced with numbers if that is an issue) and finally produce a lengthy written personal reflection of the whole process, which in entirety takes about a month.

Sorry so long—but I love your blog and value your great ideas. Maybe this will spark something for you.

Writing is Art,


Laura Randazzo
7 years ago
Reply to  Debra Laughlin

Indeed, this does, Debra! Engagement in the topic is crucial for every writer and, I agree, we’ll get so much more mileage out of an idea if it resonates with our kids. I’m especially digging on your GoogleDoc showcase/gallery layer of the process and I’m also tinkering with ways to the make the infographic more do-able for my classroom. I love the way David Theriault’s students had fun with the process and would love to emulate that.

Thanks for being a blog reader AND for caring so much about writing. Great ideas here!
🙂 Laura

Related Articles :

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x