Writing Is Hard Work

Musings of a Hard Working Writer...

  • Roger Colby

Analytical Thinking and the Modern High School Student

After giving my students the task of writing about old Longfellow, they flatlined…but why?


I am one month into springing my common core lesson plans on my 11th grade English students.  They seemed to be doing quite well with it, but today I said something to them that caused them to completely flatline.

This all began with an essay I assigned last week.  They were given a poem (a rather simple poem with very low vocabulary) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow entitled “Daylight and Moonlight”.  The poem:

In broad daylight, and at noon, Yesterday I saw the moon Sailing high, but faint and white, As a school-boy’s paper kite. In broad daylight, yesterday, I read a Poet’s mystic lay; <— (I explained the vocabulary of this line the day they wrote the essay) And it seemed to me at most As a phantom, or a ghost. But at length the feverish day Like a passion died away, And the night, serene and still, Fell on village, vale, and hill. Then the moon, in all her pride, Like a spirit glorified, Filled and overflowed the night With revelations of her light. And the Poet’s song again Passed like music through my brain; Night interpreted to me All its grace and mystery.

The prompt asked them to write a three paragraph essay in which they must construct a claim about the poem as to its “universal truth” or as I have explained to them on several occasions, “the speaker’s soapbox idea”.  They were then to find three examples from the poem which supported their claim and explain in 3-4 sentences (for each example) as to how the examples supported the claim.

They dutifully wrote the essay, but I found that many of them did not follow directions at all, some of them writing three claims, some of them writing one claim and minuscule text evidence, and some of them writing one sentence “paragraphs” with absolutely no evidence at all.  However, most of them wrote about the poem on a completely literal level without interjecting their own ideas.

The flatline moment came when a few days later I thoroughly explained the poem to them on the smart board, annotating it thoroughly and then asking the question: What would be a claim statement about the universal theme of this poem?  What is the speaker saying about life?

Blank stares.

Eventually I heard these answers:

“…um…He saw the moon…”

“The moon was bright.”

At this point, I knew that their years of being spoon-fed answers by well meaning teachers had trained these students to be helpless lemmings in a sea of mediocrity and I felt sorry for them.  One day, if things do not change, someone will come along with a very “good idea” to “do something cool” and these poor unthinking students (as they are at present) will follow along without thinking it through.  They will vote for whomever MSNBC or FOX News tells them to, buy things they do not need, be swindled by disreputable car salesmen, wander into lawsuits, and be virtually swallowed up by a very competitive world.

I realized that this is what happens when we teach to a test for years on end and then suddenly ask our students to think for themselves.  Actually, critical thinking skills are necessary for success in degree based programs as this article so adroitly points out.  I will have to say that I was afraid of this when our school adopted Common Core standards.  These students, even though I built them up to this essay slowly and carefully, illustrating each idea and concept clearly and professionally, have not a clue how to think for themselves because as one student said: “This is so hard.”

The truth is, college students are dropping out at an alarming rate, or at least they are not graduating.  Studies show that college student enrollment rates increase, but graduation rates are stagnant.  The NY Times ran an article just last year about the state of college admission, the retention rates of freshmen and college graduation statistics.  The numbers do not look good.  As a matter of fact, students who drop out of college say that the number one reason is not being prepared for the rigors of academic work.

This is what leaving no child untested has done to the education system in the United States.  Students (and I can only speak for Oklahoma here) have been required to regurgitate answers to questions rather than required to think through their answers and discover why they think the way they do about something.  I am in an uphill battle, but I will not quit.  I want my students to think for themselves, to use the top three tiers of Bloom’s Taxonomy on EVERYTHING they do and to make good decisions based on logic and thoughtful processes.

Writing about our ideas is difficult, time consuming, and takes much effort.  I am hoping that my students will see the shining light of free thought at the end of the tunnel of assignments that make them, force them, to think.  It is my one goal.  As Confucius said: “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day.  Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”

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