Timed Essays

I realized after a conversation on Twitter with Ira Socol that I believe that some technologies like writing are likely to remain on the radar for quite some time.  There isn’t going to be an immediate, across-the-board shift to computers, not yet.  It’s not going to be all-wiki, all-blog education, all the time, for quite a while still.

So it’s important that I make use of both old and new technologies in my classroom.  Accordingly, I broke out the old hourglass on Wednesday, and kept a 20-minute timer going during class while my students wrote.

Their essays were not that bad.  Nor was the handwriting as atrocious as I thought it would be.  Most of my students lacked the ability to sustain concentration for twenty minutes to write an essay without ceasing.  I was expecting that.  I wasn’t expecting them to have absorbed as much as they did about Nero, Caligula, Marcus Aurelius, or Augustus, though.  The kids are all right.

However, in an effort to fulfill the requirement to keep writing, some of them wrote about subjects other than the assigned one: AGREE or DISAGREE: “Rome had an effective and successful method for choosing leaders who proved to be capable, efficient and appropriate governors of its empire.” Instead, their essays rambled over subjects like the National Hockey League, various kinds of food they liked, which teachers annoyed them, and so on.

I graded them on a 15-point scale, based on grammar, spelling, historical detail, overall structure, and sentence patterns.  I also docked two points for being too far off-topic.  No one scored higher than a 10.

Fortunately, as Sifu says to Panda in the movie KUNG FU PANDA, “Congratulations. There is now a Level 0.”

Today, without the timer, they typed up their essays.  I told them about the French concept of “L’esprit d’escalier” — the spirit of the staircase that motivates you to say things long after the time for them has passed.  Their goal in class was to find l’esprit d’escalier: to write what they should have written yesterday in their new essay.

In each of my classes, my students edited and expanded their essays until the end of class, and took them home to finish developing their ideas (still on the school wiki).  They’re also supposed to read one another’s work tonight, so that they can comment on what their friends and collleagues do well, and what they do poorly.

It’s startling to me to think that I turned rough drafts into second drafts so easily, and then transmitted ‘copies’ of those essays to every student in my classes, so easily. What began as an essay-writing project has become something quite different — a chance to engage with your own writing.  I think this is going to become part of a future in which teachers are guides from the back, looking over student shoulders at computer screens, as opposed to in front or on the side.

Is it a new pedagogy? Maybe, maybe not.  We’ll see as the year unfolds.

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