Sometimes after a long round of grading I find myself seriously worrying about the future of our country. Tonight was one of those nights.
I spent about 5 hours this weekend reading over outlines for research papers. Although it was only one set of outlines for one class of 30 kids and only 27 of the kids actually turned in an outline, it took me just over 5 hours to grade them. That’s right, I spent about 13 minutes , making extensive comments and suggestions on each outline.
This might not have been so distressing if we hadn’t just spent the last three weeks almost completely dedicated to the research process. Although kids did not have the full 85 minute class period solely to work on their research papers, they did get between 15-30 minutes every single day just to work. The rest of the class time was spent going over how to find credible sources, how to take notes, how to write a thesis statement, how to put together an outline and how to avoid plagiarism. They had three straight weeks with about 60 minutes each day dedicated to the research process in some way.
I also might not be quite so disheartened if these weren’t seniors who have been through the research paper not once, not twice, but thrice before this year. Yes, that’s right, every single student at my school goes through the research process every single year. At this point my students should have written at least 3 other research papers, which means they’ve been taught how to find credible sources, how to take notes, how to write thesis statements, how to put together an outline and how to avoid plagiarism at least 3 other times. And that’s just in their English classes.
I also might not be as discouraged if I had not provided them an outline template which told them every single piece of information they’d need for their outline, gave them a structure they could use and had reminders like for every A there must be a B. All I asked was that they delete the instructions and my sample content from the outline before using the template. Out of the 27 kids who turned in their outlines, 7 of them turned in outlines that still had part (or all) of my instructions and sample content on them.
Only one of my students turned in an outline that I am sure will lead to a really good first draft. The rest were so lacking in details (and all but 3 were lacking any real research) that all of my contents had to be generic ones about the purpose of their papers because I wasn’t sure what their actual content really was.
Now, I know some people will argue that outlines are archaic and teaching kids to do formal outlining is old-fashioned. While that might be true, when kids don’t do any pre-writing or organizational activities, as most will not do unless forced to, their writing is even more of a train wreck. At least these tragic outlines give them a bit of a starting point. I could point out areas they’d need to expand on, or areas not mentioned in their thesis, or topics that need to be grouped together. I teach my students how to outline in the hopes that they will at least sit down and gather their thoughts and research together. My hope is that they will look at how their information is connected, see patterns and group like material together. It doesn’t always work out well (like the outlines I just graded), but when they don’t have an outline to work from it is so very worse.
My hope is that they will take all of my outline comments to heart and their first drafts, which are due on Thursday, will be marked improvements. Sadly, I know that in order for this to happen I will have to make them open their outlines in class and have them read over all of my comments right in front of me.
What worries me is that of my 30 students, 24 of them are college bound in some way. I don’t know what they are going to do next year when their professors do not have to be as patient or kind.