Student Writing

The Core Knowledge Blog had a number of things to say about the decline of student writing, and I suggest you go take a look over there, and see what they have to say.

Then read the following piece by one of my students.  He wrote it in a 20-minute timed essay assignment during class this morning, in response to the following request: “Alexander the Great is remembered as a conqueror who ruled the known world, but his actions affected the economies of both Greece and Persia in many ways. Describe those effects in two or three paragraphs, and give specific examples.”

These student, of course, had seen the presentations on Alexander the Great (I, II, III, and IV), and participated in the talks in class, and read the assignments, and mostly kept up with the homework this week.

What do you think?  Below the cut, you’ll find two complete essays, unedited or changed from what they wrote during a 20-minute session in class this morning.

When Alexander the great inherited the throne.  He wanted to take over the world.  After the sack of the city of Thebes, he gained 90,000 slaves and he thane sold for about 500 drachma..  He used all of this money to finance taking over the rest of egypt.  since egypt was extremely wealthy, hso when he took over egypat he used of egypt’s money to take over other countries.  After he took the city of susa he had to leave.

This is a ninth grader’s writing. I’ll admit, it’s a ninth grader with some learning disabilities and diagnosed difficulties, but this is still someone in my classes who speaks English as a native language, and who’s been attending English classes and being instructed in writing and reading probably since first grade and before.  Some of the essays of my English as Second Language students are actually much better in length and quality… but then, I’m 39 years old, and this has been my bread-and-butter since 1996.

Here’s another, again by a native English speaker:

I think Alexander made some questionable decision.  I think this because he desided to fight other countries/towns he was basically risking his whole kingdom when he wins a battle he gets the money he has already and add the money he gets for selling the victims of the town into slavery.  When you actually thinking about it he reall isn’t muking more money than he actually has already because he’s spending the money he gets from battle he’s spending it to pay off his soldiers for Battle.  There for it is pretty risky to pay you soldiers becaus what happens if if you don’t win the Battle even though he he didn’t losts any battle according to my iffs I received.  Alexander the great I think was probably one of the best kings ever in History He was born to lead and gaine power. He had tremendous tactical army persition which is what I think is the reason why they won so many battles.  You prepare and then you will seccede the one who prepares the most will always win.  That what I believe everyone should go by.

I wring my hands sometimes, or beat my head against a figurative wall.  I’d say that these are middle-of-the-road essays… not the best by any means, but by no means the worst.  But the worst are a lot worse, and the best are not much better, it seems.

The first writer had the right ideas, but didn’t have a strong grasp of how to string them together, or how to draw on specifics.  The second didn’t even really pay attention to the question very thoroughly.  Given that I spent four days on how to look for, find, and analyze economic information in and around Alexander the Great, I really feel like I failed them, here.

Now what?

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  1. Have you considered just stopping the presses for 15 minutes and teaching them the fundamentals of writing a standard academic essay?

    I get kids with writing skills along this line all the time; and after a lesson and some straight-up critiques on writing style, (in addition to having them read just plain kick-butt essays), they pull themselves together pretty well for the most part.

    It’s like golf. You can understand the game perfectly yet still have a lousy swing. Gotta work on the swing. Gotta work on the basics of writing an essay.

    Then you start having the good days more often.

    – Shelly

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