Second Skin

I slipped into the task like putting on a second skin.

Since the beginning of this semester, I’ve been working with a high school science teacher on a project tailor-made for co-teaching. She had gotten wind of an essay contest—the World Food Prize Essay Contest for high school students, sponsored by Purdue University, home to two World Food Prize winners. The contest is an opportunity for high school students to learn about and address issues of food insecurity around the world. What this teacher proposed was a melding of our areas of expertise—science and English—with the added fillip for both of us of the international focus.

In December, I perused the contest particulars.

The format was fundamentally a problem-solution paper. Background on the country came first. In the sample paper provided by Purdue, the winner from last year had painted a picture of Afghanistan in condensed, tightly written prose that led directly to the paper’s thesis: The central issues surrounding food insecurity in Afghanistan and some solutions that would alleviate them. Then, a lengthy and thoroughly researched discussion of those problems and solutions, and finally, a summation and restatement of the thesis. All of this, of course, documented with in-text citations and a works cited page in MLA format.

It was certainly a longer paper and a more complicated research project than any of our students would ever have undertaken—but not impossible at all. Especially when we broke the paper down for the kids and laid it out in steps for them. You notice, I am already saying “our kids.” It didn’t take me long to feel like a teacher of kids again.

Writing a research paper is one of the most difficult tasks high school students undertake. It’s a long process, and that’s hard in itself for kids with attention spans that last no longer than a Facebook post. Then, reading is involved—and with that, the pesky but fundamental comprehension skills of paraphrasing and summarizing. Then, the organizing of all that information: in the day, with index cards, each labeled with the author, title, page number, topic and subtopic, and perhaps—if I had been your teacher—marked as a paraphrase, a summary, a quote, or a basic fact.

We don’t do that anymore. Today, kids keep binders that contain printouts of the articles they’ve found, all tabbed alphabetically and highlighted for easy access to information the student intends to use in the paper. Increasingly, as they and we become more eco-conscious, the students don’t even keep binders. They create folders on their desktops. For the organized among them, this works just fine. For the others, it’s the beginning of a nightmare.

Some teachers still require outlines, a skill to be taught all by itself. I used to demand sentence outlines because the students would be forced to think their  papers through. Some of the first problems arise at this point: Just knowing the difference between a topic and its support befuddles some kids. They’ll use a quote for a main idea and a fact as a topic. But if their outlines are complete, I can read them and tell the students where the holes are. A few students will realize that with a sentence outline and well-organized index cards or binders, the paper will write itself.

For some students, actually writing the paper is the stumbling block. It means sitting in a chair for a long period of time and composing one sentence after another until the end.

But it’s not the end: Now come the in-text citations and the bibliography or works cited page. For some students, this is the trickiest part because it requires having kept track of all their resources (those index cards or the tabbed binders again) and having developed a system for keying all the quotes, statistics, examples, stories, facts, and details that they used for support to the ideas in the outline. For kids who can’t keep their lockers or their bedrooms tidy, this is a sorting and classifying task like no other!

And it’s still not the end: editing and proofreading and cross-checking the citations remain. And nowadays, even one more step: submission of the document to a plagiarism detection program like Turn It In, the advent of which was a boon to exhausted teachers, who used to have to google suspect lines or search through the students’ binders and cards to prove the student had copied. (You dare not even hint at plagiarism without the proof in hand!) Used as it’s intended, though, and done soon enough before the paper is due, the program serves as a plagiarism prevention program. I know many kids who have been saved from academic disaster by Turn It In, and I’d far rather coach a kid through the process of paraphrasing than nab him or her for plagiarism.

Are you tired just reading all this?

And you don’t have to read the papers! Or send them back for revisions and read them a second time!

Are you impressed with the sheer complexity of the task?  Me, too. I am always proud of my students when they reach the end of this task—even if their papers aren’t stellar, they’ve accomplished a complex task.  Perfection will come with maturity, experience, and the incentive of researching a topic they really care about (which they’ll do increasingly as they narrow down their academic pursuits to their life’s work).

So I knew very well what the World Peace Prize essay contestants would face as they researched a topic they knew nothing about—a country and its problems with food insecurity—and wrote the longest and most thoroughly documented paper they’d ever attempted. But I also knew that any student who elected to enter this contest would be self-motivated (no grades involved, no extra credit), willing to read, and immensely capable.

So yes, we had to help some of them select a country from a list of over 100 and choose a factor (the contest organizers presented them with a list of 19 factors that impact food security), help others select resources and evaluate those resources for credibility and authority, and talk all of them through their research—help them make sense of what they had read. But this was kind of fun for us as teachers. My colleague and I got wrapped up in the topic ourselves.

We both read the students’ early drafts and made suggestions for revisions (We were excited that we noticed and commented on the very same things) and then, at the end, I helped them with the documentation and works cited page by cross-checking their citations.

One boy did need major help with this part—and so I spent two hours yesterday teaching him how to do it, sitting beside him as he hunted out the source of each statistic and quote, each example and fact. I sat across from him while he reconstructed his works cited page and watched as he formatted the paper to meet the contest requirements. It’s not that he hadn’t been taught this process before, but I suspect such things had never mattered to him before.

But he was receptive yesterday—because suddenly, such things did matter. These papers were going out into the real world, would be read by a real audience, and since the boy cared immensely about his topic and had written a very strong paper, he really cared that he got the citations and the works cited page right.

My colleague submitted the papers yesterday after school. We think there are some among them that could be winners…but in truth, all of the students are winners. They completed this difficult task and have taken away a lifetime understanding of a serious global issue and a skill set for research that will make any paper they write from here on out, a breeze.

And I had the delicious experience of co-teaching with a colleague I admire, watching her coach the students in high-level analysis of substantial and substantive scientific information and using again myself the teaching skills I have learned over a lifetime spent in the classroom.

It was a win all around.

6 thoughts on “Second Skin

  1. I find it so interesting to read about a process that I, very vividly, remember going through (including the binders, notecards, highlighters, etc!). I just did it mechanically, cursing the volume of work you were assigning. It’s nice to finally appreciate the process you were outlining for us.


  2. I remember my 12th grade English teacher, General Lillard, retired from the army, We had a research paper to turn in every 4 weeks. Two weeks after that, we had a book report to write. So every two weeks, we had a major paper due. He was also the first English teacher to teach grammar. I looked forward to his class.
    When I started college, I could whip out a paper without the stress some of my peers were having. The truth is, I could actually reuse some of the papers in Freshman English. Hats off to you and to all English teachers who really challenge us to reach our full potential.


  3. Thanks, Dorothy! As a teacher yourself, you know how often we do what we do on faith alone, trusting that what we ask of our students will someday be appreciated. Years later, thanks like yours come–and the words are sweet.


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