This brief post should serve to acknowledge the limits that teachers face when they work in isolation to teach their students. Two brief anecdotes illustrate that even the best students will have a tendency to see schoolwork as transactional and will be ill-inclined to apply in a meaningful manner skills that they have learned in school to situations outside of school.
An eighth-grader–the very week he receives instruction and handouts explaining the components of an essay, and the very week he constructs a draft essay arranging these components precisely as classroom resources and collaborative conferences with peers have reinforced–asks for a conference with me for assistance on a high-school application essay.
The draft application essay has a rambling introductory paragraph with no thesis statement and no telegraphing of ideas to be taken up in the body of the essay. Body paragraphs appear to address concepts specified in the essay prompt. A two-sentence concluding paragraph appears to refer to a remaining important concept from the prompt but does not explore it to any depth.
I ask the student to go to his desk, get his essay-writing guide, and bring it back to my desk where we will continue our conference. Upon his return, his face indicates surprise when I recommend discarding what he has just shown me and using the strategies in the guide as he composes a new draft that I will be happy to discuss the next day.
“You mean, use this guide for an essay that I am not turning in for a grade in this class?” he asks.
A high school senior who had me five years prior sends me an email asking me to review an attached draft of a Common App essay that she will use as she seeks admission to several universities. She used the same essay guide as the student in Anecdote #1 in my classroom for two full academic years as a student in my gifted and talented English class, as she had me for both sixth and seventh grades.
The attached document contains a pair of sentences, followed by a block of text about 200 words in length, then a single sentence which appears to be intended to conclude the overall passage. Dozens of skill-related errors are indicated by the red or blue zigzag underlining we know from Google Docs.
I write a response to the email indicating that the draft is probably at too early a stage for my involvement, but that I look forward to assisting after she applies a framework of introduction, body, and conclusion and attends to what Google is trying to point out to her.
I never hear back from her.
I do not find myself particularly discouraged by these experiences. I see them as indications, however, that despite what I explain in class and reinforce with practical learning experiences, something prevents many students from seeing the relevance of what transpires in school to life in general–and the two students mentioned above are receptive, motivated learners compared to their peers. To be sure, I stress to students that the writing formats and frameworks that we learn in class, once mastered, must become points of departure as students develop their own approaches. That is a part of learning and growth.
But for high-achieving students not even to consider applying the most basic organizing principles to the composition of pieces that will help determine where they will go to school–this requires discussion.
Ironically, the anecdotes above do not even relate to a relevance to life’s great wide open, but to students’ next phases of education.
We teachers need to work to coordinate expectations and relevance schoolwide. Teachers and parents need to work together to reinforce the application of skills and capacities learned in school to practical situations outside of school. School leaders must set a direction in enabling teachers to foster an integrated learning experience overall that students can apply to all circumstances that they encounter in life for years to come.
Ideally, a student’s experience in school should amount to far more than the mere sum of its parts.
Regrettably, I see in these experiences that learning can too often be fragmented, and the pieces fall far short of a whole.
This gives me much to think about.