Sunday, January 20, 2013

Jason Becker

Although the actual season is still an underground seed, spring semester has sprung.  I teach high school seniors, and around here, that means it's time for the senior research paper.

Please, contain your enthusiasm.

I have been teaching seniors now for five years, and every year around this time, I am torn between excitement and disgust.  I'm excited because we get to switch gears from literary analysis, which is what we focus heavily on during the first semester.  As much as I love it, myself, it's still a relief to turn from the world of the indeterminate, the suggestive, the world of reaching and grasping for meaning to a world (at least, seemingly) more tangible, more accessible, more empirical.  No more searching for the dim, faraway light of another's mind.  Instead, traditionally, I've let my students choose a topic of their own interest and set out from there, developing a thesis as they find their ways across the endless, sticky web of available information, then arguing and supporting that thesis in a traditional research essay.

But the papers, people.  The papers.  As I contemplated facing one after another dry, uninspired stack of unrelated bits of information . . . I just . . . I couldn't.  No more encyclopaedic recitations about bottlenosed dolphins.  No more tired, predictable arguments against animal cruelty.  No more! 

And that's when it hit me:  No one writes like this.

Even the argument which says, "This is what they'll be asked to do in college" doesn't hold up.  In my college experience, I never once was asked to write a straight-laced academic research paper.  "Find out everything you can about Lou Gherig's Disease and tell it back to me."  It just didn't happen.  The student teacher in my room confirmed my suspicions.  Feel free to disagree, but I fairly firmly believe our adherence to this genre to be a self-perpetuating myth. 

No one writes like this.  Not in a newspaper, not in a book, not in a magazine, not even in a professional journal do readers tolerate that kind of emptiness.  Well, maybe in a professional journal . . . but no one likes reading it there, either.

I received some PD this summer that started me rethinking the type of writing I assign, and while I do believe there is a place for the 5-paragraph, deductive, thesis-driven essay, I am coming to accept that fact that it is not the end-all nor the be-all of the written word.  There should be a twelve-step for us, really.  It's a tough habit to break.

But I plucked up my courage and decided to make a change.

Instead of the stack-of-facts model, I started to cast about for real writing that could serve as a model for my students.  I started here, with the gallery of Pulitzer Prize winning feature stories.  This proved an incredible resource.  I highly recommend it.  Next, I remembered having read this incredible piece piece by Malcom Galdwell, in which he weaves together many apparently different threads to create a personal, compelling, deeply researched argument that never once becomes tedious, predictable, or dry.

This is how real writers write.

I shared this real writing with my students.  Instead of forcing a teacher-designed scoring guide on them, we took the time to study three models of the genre and develop the requirements for the paper together.  We have had hour-long conversations about the leads, the use of vivid imagery, the way the research is woven in with the narrative, how the essays conclude, and the way the authors choose their tone and voice according to their topic and intended audience. 

Finally, I laid it on them: 

Choose a person with an interesting story to tell, and use that narrative to compose a feature story.  In a 4-6 page essay, do all of the following:
---Tell the story, vividly and faithfully.
---Weave in plenty of research over a relevant, broader topic.
---Attend to the conventions of feature writing (see notes):  introduction, body, conclusion, etc.
---Develop a theme (although you need not state it directly).

"Can I tell my OWN story, Mr. Becker?  I've got a GREAT story."

"No, no navel-gazing.  You are amazing, but so is everyone else."

We're in the maelstrom of creation right now, so unfortunately, I can't tell you how the students, in the process of writing this, learned more about how the individuals in their lives fit in with broader topics. I can't tell you how they  worked much harder on this project than they ever did on the traditional research paper, how they responded positively--with gratitude, even--to the personal, personalized nature of the assignment.  I can't tell you about the inspired, authentic, well-researched masterpieces my students crafted.

But they will, won't they?

Won't they?

Spring will come soon, I tell myself, and I watch the underground seeds for signs of new life.


  1. Jason--I am sure that when spring has sprung, you have a better "crop" of papers than you have harvested in previous years.

    By the way, I LOVE the phrase "navel-gazing." Is that yours, or part of the high school lingo?

    Have you ever tried multi-genre papers with your kids? That would be another way to infuse some breath and life into dry projects.

    Thanks for the post. I would love to read some of the choice papers, if you can share them somehow.

  2. Hi, Sioux. Thanks for the reply.

    I actually HAVE tried multi-genre research papers, but after going through the whole process, I felt that the product WAS actually too far off the mark of what they'd be asked to produce in college--more of a creative writing effort and not a great fit for the English IV curriculum. I think, maybe, that the feature story is a good waystation between the two.

  3. Update:

    I just got actual chills from a student who came by after school to talk to me about his feature story. He's interviewed a friend of the family who works for a company that organizes corporate retreats and vacations, and he told my student--not about the exotic and exciting life he leads--but about the 5 deaths he's witnessed on the job. Three of them were suicides.

    My student has begun research on the guy's business and corporate travel in general, but was unsure of how to put the research and the personal story together. After our talk (during which I referred often to one of the models we studied), he's now planning on weaving it all together in to a feature story that offers a critique of corporate culture. It's gonna get dark, and it's going to do so quietly, letting the story speak for itself and advance the theme (thesis) as he spices the story with relevant research.

    I am giddy. Seriously. Like a schoolgirl over here.

    That sort of sophistication, subtlety, artistry could (probably?) never have come from a traditional 5-paragraph thesis-driven essay.

    This is real writing. Following the thread, letting your findings guide the work, shaping and carving as you go--this is how it's done.

    I cannot wait to read these things.

  4. Jason--Allow yourself--right now--to squeal. Like a schoolgirl. When something like this happens, when a student is on the trail of an incredible story or when they write something that makes you wish YOU had written it, it is such an exciting moment.

    So squeal. I'm sure there will be more little celebrations as the semester unfolds...