It is five o’clock in the morning. I will be at school in two hours, showered, dressed, lunch packed, ready for an early release day which will end with planning our Reading SOL Remediation Boot Camp. However, before I attack this last gargantuan task, I will teach seniors how to find reliable internet sources that support the problems they have chosen for their problem solution papers. For this paper, as in a science report, a problem is identified and proven to be serious. The writer reports ways others have attempted to solve the problem and finally, presents his or her own solution. (My final twist requires that students complete a service learning project, putting their own solutions into action).
It all seems so straightforward, doesn’t it?.
Many of my students are weak readers. Most do not like to write and do not appreciate the power of effective communication For them, “science and rhetoric are mutually exclusive. Science has to do with observation and logic. Rhetoric has to do with [mutually exclusive] symbols and emotions” (Miller 611). I spend my days trying to bridge the communication gap for my future nail techs, nurses’ aides, landscape designers, and car mechanics. I work hard to convince them of the power of logic and language.
Rabbit Holes and The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus
Today’s lesson is one of the toughest. Today we tackle the internet, which Odysseus would have trouble navigating if he had to search the entire internet universe to find evidence to support his thesis. As a teacher of writing, boy, do I miss Encyclopedia Britannica, in all its 37 volume, hardcover glory.
Keywords and Boolean Searches
To begin, Google is not a person. There is no one in at his computer trying to connect you to an answer to your question “How can teenagers start new clubs at James River High School?” (Really. This is a topic for a student’s Problem Solution project.) Realizing that “Google” – or any search engine – is a machine blows some kids out of the water. And teens today don’t have the experience of using Encyclopedia Britannica, so they can’t transfer the experience of using keywords.
Second, how can I persuade kids that just because something can be found on the internet doesn’t mean it is reliable?
Allow me to introduce the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus:
This website, designed to save this endangered – and totally fake – creature, looks totally legit, until you try the links, which only connect to more of the website designer’s pages. (I will be forever grateful to Mr. Zapato, who designed such a valuable teaching tool.)
But today’s biggest writing challenge, for the students who can handle the sophistication of real research (because I have some of those too), is organizing what they find. Access to an overwhelming amount of useful evidence is brilliant, but keeping track of it is a challenge I face too. How often have I found a great source, bookmarked it, and then forgotten all about it?
In this digital age, how can we keep track of what we find, where we found it, and put our hands on it when we need it?
Man, I love a good graphic organizer.
A few years ago a colleague from Central Office helped me create a graphic organizer that helps kids figure out the things they need for capturing the information and quotes they will need to write a substantial and supported research paper. It begins with copying and pasting an article’s title and then making it a hyperlink. There is a column for the Works Cited citation, another for pasting direct quotes, and another for reminding oneself why one thought it was worth copying and pasting at all. Just add rows for each new quotation, and a new table for each new source. The whole thing seems so (so) obvious to me, but teenagers have a really hard time understanding the value of these steps.
Which brings me back to teaching Composition
In 1979 Miller believed that the teaching of technical writing required “the insistence on certain characteristics of tone: be objective, be unemotional, be impersonal” (614). I believe we have moved away from this: technical writing requires clarity, but there is room for persuasion and voice. In fact, I think there is less room in the rhetorical arena for traditional literary analysis. Every graphic organizer I create, every assignment I craft, every lesson I present is technical; my writing must be concise and objective. More significantly, my students’ writing, which extends to all stages of composition, not just the final draft, must also be practical and clear. Writing reflects critical thinking, which may be why so few enjoy the practice. It is about recognizing your audience, and – no matter the subject – it must always be persuasive and full of voice.