As an academic I'm someone who writes "short." Others write long. I find long writing a bit overwhelming. Sometimes, I wonder that I finished a dissertation and a book.
I remember as a student being completely daunted when I was assigned my first 500-word essay. How could I possibly fill that much space? And although, I don't still have that paper, I suspect that it was not very good, for rather than work on a good argument, my focus was on getting that all important word count.
As a teacher, even though I don't give specific word counts or page lengths, I find that many of my students struggle as well with research papers. Often students have all the ideas, but don't know how to organize these ideas. Sometimes, students are overwhelmed by the more in-depth format expected in secondary classrooms.
After reading some beautifully crafted papers and several that demonstrated an incredible struggle on my students' part, I created a student guidebook to writing a research paper. As a social studies teacher, my focus tends not to be on the how-to of writing, but I reasoned that students could benefit from a little support, and I would benefit by reading better crafted papers.
When students are writing research essays, I print a guidebook for each student and hole punch it so that the students can keep the guide in their binders. It could just as easilyy be glued into notebooks. The guidebook walks students through the process of writing a paper:
- students brainstorm about what they know and want to know
- students select a few areas about the topic that are connected
- students conduct research and track their sources as they go
- students organize their ideas
- students make an argument and support it with evidence
- students put it all together
- students revise and edit (and have a guide that shows the difference)
- students write drafts
I don't spend any time teaching this directly, but with the handbook as a guide and in class time to work, student writing is improving. I've been surprised by the many thanks that I have received from students for the guide. As one girl put it "I feel like I can make sense of all my ideas, and I'm not just buried in facts that I don't know what to do with." (You can get a guidebook for your students here.)
This is all to say that in taking time to put together the guide for my students and work with them on it, I am reminded of the role we all play in supporting life long student learning. It isn't enough for students to understand the content, which I admit I get awfully excited about, but also students are developing skills to communicate their knowledge. It's not only okay to slow down on content but also essential to spend time on developing important life tools.