The Common Core and the Dreaded Research Paper
In an effort to prepare students for the academic writing required to perform successfully on the end-of year tests required in the new Common Core, teachers are going to have to go beyond the traditional once a year research paper. What problems do teachers face preparing students? First, students often have depended on the old copy and paste format, a collage of plagiarism, to prepare these reports and strongly believe this is an acceptable technique. Secondly, the internet provides a plethora of ready-to use essays that are available to all students for a nominal fee. Third, parents are more than willing to write their child’s essay, but have not been trained in the use of parenthetical footnotes required in M.L.A. citations and still use end-notes. (Should we just retrain parents?)
As a Language Arts teacher, I have received an assortment of plagiarized or even fabricated essays over the years? One was just three pages printed from Encarta with the copyright still printed at the bottom. Most have been a collage of stolen quotes and data simply pasted together without footnotes or any form of analysis. When I have confronted these children, they seemed surprised because their other teachers have always accepted these creations. (Seriously, I doubt that.) When I offered them an opportunity of “re-do” the assignment at a reduced rate of credit, their parents were often angry. Some even removed their child from my class. The most humorous paper I ever received was a research paper on an historical figure who had behaved honorably. The student had selected George Washington as his topic. He wrote about Washington’s valor in the Revolutionary War, The French Indian War, the Civil War, World War I and World War II. (I suppose I should have been happy that he didn’t include The Korean War, the Viet Nam War and the Gulf War.) When I confronted this student about his lack of footnotes, lack of accurate information and his outrageous fabrications, he replied that he didn’t know teachers actually read their essays. (I think he was testing me to see if I read student papers.)
How do we teach students to select appropriate and accurate information, synthesize it into a paper as supporting evidence with proper parenthetical citations required by the M.L. A. documentation method that supports their analysis of a problem or a situation? To do this well, the teachers needs to spend a lot of time and break the process down into small steps. By developing assignments that are unique with specific guidelines, the student is not as likely to find an on-line essay to purchase. Teachers need to communicate to parent that performance on the test is the real goal, not performance on a particular assignment. Without completing the practice assignments, it is unlikely that the student will gain the skills he needs to do well on the state writing test. (Since the state test does not count on the student’s grade or determine his advancement to the next grade level, convincing the parents of its importance may be difficult.)
Another problem the teachers faces is that student needs to be in attendance every day because each skill the student learns builds on the next skill and they are all needed to write this type of essay. Not only are students excused by parents due to chronic illnesses, but the parents often take students out of school to go on cruises or visit and ill relative in another state. When you combine those absences with the band is playing a concert in New York, the school play needs five dress rehearsals, the choir will be out for a week singing at every mall in Utah, the basketball team is in the state finals, and countless other assemblies, dances, and activities, it becomes increasing difficult to give each student enough practice to master every skill required to write a research paper.
Some methods that I have discovered work well is to begin the first day of school preparing students for this test. Begin your first quarter with argumentative writing. Get a copy of the book, Teaching Argument Writing by George Hillock, Jr. It has great exercises and writing activities and provides a structure to combine facts with analysis, a skill that most students struggle with. Second, write a research paper together as a class showing how evaluate reliable sources and cite them correctly using M. L. A. documentation. After they have successfully created a paper as a group, have them write their own paper. During the third quarter give them bi-weekly writing assignments requiring them to read two of three articles, synthesize the appropriate information into a five or six paragraph essay that includes parenthetical footnotes and a works cited page. Most schools give the writing section of state test at the end of third quarter. Invite as many other departments to give similar assignments. Even though it is time-consuming, fewer students plagiarize essays; even fewer parents compose their student’s essays. Because their quarter practices are in-class writings, all students get some practice for the test.
To be successful on these state tests, language arts teachers need the support of administrators, parents and actual time in the classroom to develop their students’ skills. Treating plagiarism seriously would be a great help, communicating with parents that being successful on a single writing assignment is not the most important goal. Helping students develop the skills they need to pass the state tests and perform well in their future academic career is the most important goal. Remember helping students become critical thinker, better communicators, and an effective writer is the entire school’s responsibility.