Meet the Kiddies

Meet M.

M demonstrates approximately zero of the characteristics Mr. Sellars and our panel of experts identified as conducive to good writing.

She is a freshman at our magnet school in Durham, and one of the more (if not the most) naturally talented writers that I have come across. On an essay assigned in class last month, we provided ample opportunities for students to engage in all facets of the writing process in class. We carefully considered the prompt at hand, and brainstormed together; we spent gave students time to draft in class and use the educators in the room as resources. She was engaged to the same degree as many of her peers. That is to say she spent as much time being distracted by fart noises or any other orifice’s gossip as she did the academic task at hand. When I asked her how it was going, and what, if anything, she needed, she seemed uninterested, shrugging, “I got it.” On the peer revision day, she sat around, similarly bored. She told me that “nobody in my group can help me.” I merely scoffed, advised her to make sure she was helping THEM at least,  and prepared to grade her essay extra-hard. A few days later, when I got to her essay in the grading stack, I flexed my hands and uncapped a new red pen. What I read had its flaws, but would have been writing that a senior could stand by (and perhaps more tellingly, would have been writing that earned AT LEAST a passing grade in an introductory English/writing course at university.) M is fifteen.

Perhaps my caption is a bit hyperbolic, but to be frank, M is not the best kind of student to have in class. She’s smart and she knows it, so she coasts as much as she can. M believes not only that she is a good writer, but that her maximum effort isn’t required. When she gives “maybe” eighty percent, she earns high marks. Despite the suggestions of her teachers, and against the sage advice of the authors we visited with earlier, she does little more than copy-edit once she has written a draft of an essay.

A question (that I don’t think we’ll satisfactorily answer here) arises: are her habits a sign of her giftedness or of how teachers assess writing? Many English departments come up with a standard set of requirements that a piece of writing should meet in order to earn a certain score. For a freshman class, these requirements include things like clarity of thesis statement, sufficient textual support and elaboration, overall organization of thought, and basic spelling/grammar/fluency. While these are good parameters with which to engage the vast majority of writers, it’s possible that some writers, like M, may need more nuance in assessment of their writing. Indeed, what are the most challenging of these (using sufficient specific textual support, organization of thought) are facets of her writing that she correctly identifies as her strengths. With standard assessment rubrics, she doesn’t need thousand of bicycle pump strokes to fill her blimp; she merely casts “eighty percent, maybe” of the bones in the attic in the wee hours, and- poof

an A.

Everybody say, “Whats up, D?”

D, a future engineer thespian-in-training, is a better student than M in some respects, and worse in others.

He just turned sixteen and is a freshman in one of my English Classes. In many ways, he is a very different student from M.  Durham public schools has two main designations for freshman English classes: “Standard” and “Honors”. M is about as “honors” as an Honors student can be;  D is pretty much as “standard” as a Standard student can be. He’s a hard worker in class, with some obvious intelligence, but is a student who does not necessarily excel or whose grades do not indicate “mastery” of the subject matter.

So how can I stand by the statement that D is a better student than M? This exchange:

Me: S do you give 100% of effort on writing exercises and assignments?

D: Oh yeah, 100%.

And maybe even more impressive than that, D tries to give all his effort even though he might only earn a 70 or 75 on an assignment.  So we should give him that A for effort right? Not quite yet; it’s not that simple. D claims to gives 100 percent in class, but thinks some of the steps are unnecessary, or at least doesn’t like them; specifically he seems to oppose the pre-writing and organization steps (the TP-CASTT chart he referenced).  I can attest to that. He requested a seat near the front of the class, and D takes notes as diligently, engages in discussion as enthusiastically as any student in the room.  Despite that, he readily acknowledges that the skills we seek to  practice and reinforce in the classroom have made his writing better, but still doesn’t like to do/use them. I’ve taken a look back at some of his work to see how he fared on the pre-writing steps that we had undertaken in class. In general, these are the steps that half-way completed if they are completed at all. To continue to borrow and butcher the useful metaphors that Ellison and Vonnegut suggested, D is willing to sit at the typewriter and work for a while, but might only get his blimp to hover precariously a few measly feet off the ground before deciding he’s satisfied with it.

Mixed metaphors: they're not rocket surgery

What are the origins of these beliefs? Can we draw concrete connections between a student’s childhood relationship with writing and success with writing in adolescence?

Maybe; click here to investigate with me.

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