Student Papers

I’ve gone through eight student papers line-by-line tonight. Part of me feels really good about it. All eight kids sat with me as I did it on the screen on my laptop, and I discussed each change with them. I probably taught more actual writing and editing skills between 9pm and 1am tonight, than I’ve taught all year. Editing in particular. I kept asking these questions:

“How would you combine these three sentences into one?”
“How would you break this run-sentence into two?”
“Where should the paragraph break fall, if you were supposed to break in paragraphs?”
(My colleague likes long paragraphs, which I think is regrettable.)
“What are the essential points you’re communicating here?”
“What main idea are you trying to convey?”

The tendencies I’ve observed in my students’ first drafts are:

1. Passive rather than active voice.
2. Overwrought and inefficient prose: “one thing that was true was that…”
3. One thought in one sentence: “X did Y. This was because of Z. Z was true because of M.” (Except that because of 2., above, it’s It was true that X had it in mind to do Y, bearing in mind that X was sure Y was a good idea. X proceeded to do Y. This seemed appropriate because Z was a factor in X’s decision to do Y. Z had become a factor when M intervened, making it necessary for X to do Y.” Except with lots of misspellings. I swear, our vocabulary lists are teaching the wrong damn words.)
4. Inessential details.
5. Drifting off topic.
6. There vs. their vs. they’re
7. where vs. were vs. we’re
8. Limited verb choices: got, want, did, went, had, was. That’s about it.
9. Lack of clarity about when and how to manage paragraph breaks.
10. Inability to stick to an outline (or develop an outline to begin with).
11. Management of dependent clauses.
12. Run-on sentences.
13. Sentence fragments.
14. Inability to transition nouns –>adjectives –> adverbs –> nouns
15. Unclear pronouns
16. Too much verbiage: we cut one paper from 2000 words to 1500 words.

Those seem to be the issues I’ll be wrestling with over the course of the next year. It’s ironic: the Pentagon is always fighting the last war, and teachers are always teaching last year’s class. This is now my working list of problems, which have to be solved.

My colleague G. is going to be somewhat upset, though. There are now eight papers out of twelve, maybe more, that bear my indelible stamp. Did these kids learn to write better as a result of my vicious attack on their deathless prose? I don’t know. I know I was a lot more active and involved in correcting and fixing stylistic issues as well as pure grammar and spelling issues, than I should have been. I know that vicious editing is one of the things that made me a better writer, and makes me a better writer. Are these kids ready for that kind of lesson, though? I don’t know.

It’s exhausting, too. Here it is, 1:30 am, and I’m totally wired. I’ll crash in about 2o minutes, only to get up again at 5 am, maybe 6. I’ll be weary and worn all day, and tomorrow I get to start reading my own term papers, before I sit down to write comments and grade exams later this week. I’ll be wiped by graduation day. And for what? So eight kids can get a professional-grade writing workout that may or may not translate into better writing?

How do I teach what I did tonight? How do I teach kids to edit their own work: to look at their writing with a critical eye and find the extra words, the off-topic sentences, the fragments and the run-ons? I don’t know. And what I don’t know is why I can do this work with G’s students, and not with my own. My students never approach me with their own papers about this sort of thing. Once it’s in my hands, all I seem to worry about is giving a grade — not correcting it and teaching the editing.

It seems my whole grading style has to change, from being about giving grades on papers to improving writing.

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