Currently I am working with the 6th-grade students in a 5th/6th combo class. There are 11 of them, and we have been meeting for about 40 minutes per lesson — today was Day 4 of our mini-writing unit. I am asking them to write the time-honored five-paragraph essay. In today’s teaching universe it is more correct to say “multi-paragraph” essay because obviously not every idea can be argued in only three little body paragraphs, and on the flip side, students don’t need to be forced into saying more than is necessary to get the point across. I imagine five paragraphs has held for so long because of the magical wonder of things that come in threes, so intro+body+body+body+conclusion makes sense.
They are writing character analysis essays about a character of their own choosing from a novel they have read this year. Many of them (but not all) are writing about one of the characters from The Hunger Games trilogy. Overall I think they’re doing rather well so far, especially considering that I’m moving them along faster than if I had a full class. Today I explained to them that they are allowed and encouraged to make any argument about their character that they wish… as long as the text supports that idea. This is the moment when I call upon their CSI: (fill in city of one’s choice) knowledge — when the CSIs come up with a theory about a case but don’t have evidence, then they either have to find irrefutable evidence to back it up or revise their theory based on the evidence they do have. (Referencing pop culture is one of my favored teaching tools.) In other words, if they misunderstood the book, then it’s more than likely they would make unsupported inferences about their characters. The pre-writes I saw today need some revision but not much.
Now in the land of online news, people are not called upon to write multi-paragraph essays to demonstrate their understanding of articles. But people feel compelled to write comments on material they read and/or engage in dialogue around it, and I do enjoy this democratic freedom. What is painful to me — when I feel interested enough in an article to read some of the commentary — is the seemingly poor reading comprehension of the readers. So many comments (especially the hyper-critical or extremely favorable ones) don’t seem to reflect what is actually written.
Within any article’s comments, I am simply irritated when people are 1) snarky; 2) self-righteous; and/or 3) easily offended by any kind of disagreement or question of their opinion. But I am plain old concerned when folks seem to have completely missed the point/thesis/gist of the article, not to mention the author’s tone… then compound the problem by taking on the tone of #1-3 above. There are multiple contributing factors to this, one of which is the ease that one can just click “Comment” and start writing based on a gut reaction or respond to another comment in the same way. Another would be the anonymity that virtual commenting provides — it feels safe to make ridiculous remarks without necessarily having to put your live face behind them. Most of all, however, I am worried that people in general are weak readers. (insert my sad face here)
There’s a reason why people have to take standardized tests, at least in my opinion: they’re essentially massive reading comprehension tests. Going into college or graduate school would be awfully hard if you couldn’t read non-fiction and/or fiction… and write about it in a meaningful way. Sure, Twitter and texting are here to stay, but there is still a space in the world for writing that is beyond 140 characters. Maybe articles should have a quick 3-question multiple-choice quizlet to check comprehension before you’re allowed to comment….???
Now I know that my English-major self is clearly biased and possibly over-reacting. Regardless, I know that it is so important that our students — who will grow into adults faster than we can think — read and write competently for schooling purposes and for being good at life. It would be wonderful if the comments people share were more often examples of thoughtful, constructive criticism and praise grounded in the text. I don’t think that’s asking too much. It’s the least I am asking of my students.