Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

You Mean I Really Have to Write This?

Once, a long time ago, my English III class began whining when I assigned an essay. "Why does it have to be five paragraphs? Why do we have to write this?" Without addressing the latter question, I answered very easily, "Let's make it ten."

They were shocked.  They immediately began protesting, until I said, "Do we need 15? Because I'll be happy to grade 15. I mean, if you're going to whine, I'm going to make it worth your whine." Amazing how suddenly five paragraphs became so agreeable and palatable. 

But this illustrates a pressing problem. This situation occurred in 2006, long before the fine art of 140-character tweets dominated communication. Kids weren't tied to multiple apps and Facebook was just taking off. Now, if writing is more than a paragraph, students balk. They've been trained to tweet in sound bites. Commercials last fifteen seconds. Even songs on the radio seem much shorter. If it looks long, it's an automatic turn off. After all, even a Snapchat takes mere seconds, and then it disappears.

As an author, this lack of writing desire scares me. My novels range from 50,000 to 70,000 words. I can compose letters, emails (and even this column), and express myself within a desired word count. Even not given a word count, I can complete the task. I can formulate thoughts and write them in a coherent format.

My students, however, are fast losing this ability to write things beyond 140 characters. I fight with them to incorporate part of the question in their answers. It's not that I don't press them and make them work, or hold them to high standards, but rather it's that their brains are being rewired. In a sense, all that technology comes with a price. According to "8 Ways Tech Has Completely Rewired Our Brains" on Mashable.com, "Social media and the Internet have also been shown to shorten our attention spans. Individuals immersed in digital media find it difficult to read books for long periods of time, and often skim articles online rather than reading every word. This phenomenon can be particularly troubling for youth, whose brains are more malleable and, therefore, may fail to develop concentration skills."

I can say with certainty this is occurring, but I'd like to add the following: either problem solving skills have perished, or we are becoming lazier. Case in point, in one of my English classes I had word-for-word identical front pages of essays. My sub had let the students work together, but at no point had she told them I wanted a group paper. I had to tell my class that if I'd wanted group work, I would have had everyone's name on one assignment and have been happier collecting fewer papers. Considering I'd been harping since the start of the school year that they needed to do their own work, I was dumbfounded. Were they lazy? Or simply trying to get around the system? Or did they simply not think things through?

In another situation, I gave an assignment which was to write a complaint/compliment letter. For the first time ever, I had a small group of students fabricate their letters. Rather than giving me a legitimate, real-world writing piece, they said they couldn't think of anything to complain about, so they each pretended that they had a neighbor with a horrible dog that barked all night. Trouble was, that neighbor's address was miles from their own and belonged to a friend who wasn't in my class. So I asked why they didn't do the compliment letter. "But we didn't get a form for that," they said. I was dumbfounded. I said, "Well, it's the opposite of the complaint instructions and half the class did one. You were here when I discussed it and went through how to compliment. You were here. Did you not listen?"

Perhaps not.  One student complained to her parent about her grade, and the parent told me (in defense of her student) that I was too intimidating. To which I replied that the librarian was also in the computer lab, as were 25 other students aside from her two friends who did the same thing. So if there was a problem, why wasn't a question asked of someone? Anyone? Mom then said she helped the student. She also maintained college professors wouldn't look up to see if things were made up and how I was the unprofessional one for having unrealistic expectations. The bottom line is that while the students are here, often more and more they mentally aren't.

The article reference above also makes this point: "Back in the old, old, old days, learning by rote was a prized skill. So prized, in fact, that students were often expected to recite entire books from memory. In a Google-happy world, when virtually any scrap of information is instantly at our fingertips, we don't bother retaining facts, let alone whole book passages. Who needs to memorize the capital of Mozambique when you can just ask Siri?"

So our students are no longer retaining information, including oral and written instructions. They don't want to write papers. They don't want to push their brains to think. When reading, they skim and jump passages. They get distracted and click through the links found in articles. How their brains process and remember information is changing. However, what the world expects from these students isn't changing, and if anything, the expectations are getting higher and more demanding. Students should know more, do more before they leave high school.

I don't know the answers to this dilemma. I just know that it's becoming more of a fight to get their attention and hold it, even with a project like a letter, which is the type of assignment my students like most. I heard from plenty of parents how excited their kids were—after one boy sent a complaint letter, the company went ahead and returned a $250 car part (they had told him it wasn't refundable). Another received $20 in Taco Bell coupons.

The earlier mom kept telling me she had a "good child," but it's not a question of good kids versus bad kids. The real issue is that the work didn't get done and problem solving didn't occur. As educators, what do we do with a generation that depends on computer programs to do their thinking and work for them? How do we get them to write? How do we get them to think at a high level? How do we get them to understand and not simply be lemmings following any old leader off the proverbial cliff?

The last essay my students wrote was an in-class essay and I made them do it by hand. I didn't care about how clean the paper was in terms of chicken scratches, and as they were citing only the lines of a poem, I didn't require a work cited page. Overall, by taking their technology away, they actually focused, used dictionaries (the horror) and read thoroughly the supplemental analysis articles I provided as resource support. By culling down the electronic distractions, I was able to keep them on task and received papers that showed higher-level thought and comprehension of not only the topic, but the literary works themselves.

I am glad we have EasyBib.com which lets a person do all the research and works cited and note taking in one easy place. However, there's the downside that students don't really read anything and simply skim the material for a sound bite citation. They want the material in small chunks so they can regurgitate the material and check off a box (did you cite something?); they don't read so they can come up with new and complete thoughts. They are losing the ability to question and formulate their own unique solutions.

So yes, in my class, I will continue tell them, "You really have to write this." I've reduced the number of larger assignments so that each writing piece is worth more—if students don't put forth the effort, then their grade will suffer. This also has helped, along with refusing to give anything above a mid-range D to papers that simply don't pass muster Yet, on the flip side, I have to worry about how my D and F rates look when administrators crunch data. It's a catch-22.

So with changes in the world of technology, it's no longer as simple as telling students five or 10 paragraphs and having them choose five. Even at the junior grade level, I have to find new ways to get their brains in gear. We have to find new approaches, new ways of delivering content so that students will find mastery and retention. For after all, even if the delivery format of the book or content is changing, the actual story or content is not. It is still written words, and must be able to be read. We must help them do that.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.