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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Teaching organization in writing

Teaching students how to write is never easy. There are so many different things you can focus on, reading 150-200 papers is time consuming, and let's face it each student is unique and will need individualized feedback. For these reasons and others many teachers just don't do it, or at least don't do it as often as they could or should. Leave it to the English department to teach students writing. There have been times I've been guilty of this thinking. Our administration asked all teachers to focus on writing this year, so I have been trying to incorporate more opportunities and more effective ways of teaching writing in a social studies course. After our study of the Middle East and especially Israel, students had to compose an essay on the one or two state solution to the Arab/Israeli conflict. I was pleased with most of the writing and thought it was a good assessment. However, I still noticed that students struggled with organization and this guided my thinking to our latest writing assignment.

China's controversial one child policy would become our next good opportunity for an essay. I thought about the best way to teach organization. I think when it comes to teaching writing it requires as much focus from the teacher as it does the students. I decided that the best way to proceed was to begin with the topic of unintended consequences. I found some great examples worldwide showing how a government policy that intends to do one thing may have hidden or unintended consequences. I introduced the 'Cobra Effect' from India where city officials worried about deaths as a result from bites from the snakes gave a reward for everyone who brought in a dead cobra. Good idea right, turn the problem over to the citizens and involve them in eradicating the problem and pay them for their efforts. It all sounds great, but what ended up happening was people saw the opportunity to make money and began farming cobras themselves. The result was more cobras, not less. Indian officials had never considered that their citizens would act in such a way and the result was they were paying people to increase the problem. A similar occurrence took place in Vietnam except it was with rats. Yea its gross but totally captivating.

After that we delved into the policy. We started with a discussion on population and resources and then looked at the implementation of the policy itself. I must admit that as versed as I am in the policy there are nuances that make it complicated and students can usually come up with a question that is hard to answer. Such moments can become a nice time to have students delve deeper and realize the complications of such a policy. After a thorough introduction to the policy we looked at results. First the overall data which government officials will use to claim its effectiveness and necessity. Then we looked at unintended consequences.

We watched a 10 minute film which shows many such consequences and then discussed them in greater detail. The discussion was important because it allowed students to state their opinions and a chance to give voice to their thinking that they would later be using in their paper. After our discussion I gave out a list that had consequences, intended or unintended, with information about each one. Students then read through the list and ranked them in order of what they felt were the strongest for against the policy. Little did they know that they had decided on what their body paragraphs would be in their essay.

I then gave them the prompt "Do the ends justify the means?" We discussed what that meant and then how they were to organize their essay. The introduction would briefly explain the who, when, where, what, why, and how of the policy and then the results. Students could either agree or disagree and use their rankings from the previous exercise to guide them with their body paragraphs. It was almost magical when I pointed out that they had already decided what they were going to use as their body paragraphs based on what ranking they had given each consequence. When I set them loose the students began immediately and had no trouble deciding what to write about or where or how to include information.

The final product was the best writing I have seen all year. It was thoughtful, organized, and to the point. Students that normally would struggle with such a task wrote nice balanced essays and finished in a timely manner. Now I understand you can't always do this, but for this subject it worked better than I even expected and in the end I think they have a sound understanding of the topic and the complexities in creating a 'simple' solution to such a complicated issue.

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