The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

2 Nov

It’s been a very hectic start to the school year and I’m just now (in November!) feeling like I am starting to get a handle on my new students and their abilities.

First, a little background (feel free to skip ahead to “The Point”):

My new school uses the Jane Schaffer Writing Program to teach students a kind of template for writing coherent paragraphs. Being the free spirit that I am, in my younger years I really chaffed at using a formulaic approach to teaching anything, especially writing. But over the years I have really seen the error of my ways and I think that clear, practical, guided formulaic approaches for certain tasks (how to structure a cogent paragraph, for example) is a huge boon to teaching and learning. It takes the mystery out of something as seemingly esoteric as writing.

In a nutshell, Schaffer (who was a classroom teacher looking for a way to remedy those consistently muddy, choppy papers her students wrote) devised a system of paragraphing that asks students to create a kind of “sandwich” paragraph. The pieces of bread are the topic and concluding sentences, and in between there is always a concrete detail (a specific example or quote) followed by commentary that analyzes or expands upon that concrete detail. There may be one “chunk” of concrete detail + commentary, or there might be three “chunks” — three quotes, say, supporting the topic sentence’s point, each followed by the commentary that elaborates on them and puts them into context. Schaffer suggest color coding them all for ease and learning: topic and concluding sentences are blue; concrete details are red; commentary is green. This helps students visualize how much of each component they have and the order in which they come.

I encourage you to learn more if you are interested, as I have already noticed a real improvement not only in the structure and organization of writing, but also in how easy it is suddenly to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with a student’s writing. Especially using the color coding, I can tell right away that the student has labeled her commentary as a topic sentence (blue), even though it is acting as commentary and not a topic, which will hinder the whole paragraph. It’s an easy thing to explain and an easy thing to fix with the Schaffer formula, because the student herself sees it. Or at a glance, we both see that the concrete detail is three lines of red, but the commentary is only one line of green, and that this feels insufficient. The reader needs more explanation, given such a long example.

The Point (Models!):

As much as I have really benefitted from using Schaffer’s model in my teaching this year (and I’m only just beginning to experiment with it), it’s clearer than ever to me that we in education — especially those of us who teach high school and college — need to use more models (a.k.a. exemplars, anchor papers, etc.)

I have used a specific kind of dialectical journal in my courses for years now, and one of the frustrating components of them was to try to show students how to write their responses to quoted text in a way that was sufficient in depth. Usually this was through trial and error. They wrote some responses, I gave a few rounds of feedback and practice grades, and then most of them started to get the hang of it.

But it was a longer and clumsier process than I liked, so after a few years, I began to use models. I showed students several examples of Dialectical Journals before they started and while they were working on them, showing them the level of depth I expected in each entry and the lack of depth in entries from journals that had received poor grades. This helped many students, but I still think it’s a bit of a stretch for many of the weaker ones, as they find it hard to transfer what looks good/bad in another student’s journal on another text entirely to their own work.

In fact, last week I received the first round of journal entries, and half of them remained vague and lacking specifics. Students wrote things like, “The author uses great diction.” This is a student attempting to sound like he knows what he is talking about, but he isn’t actually saying anything at all. There is no real analysis there, just the appearance of it. And it doesn’t help to tell students to not just comment on the use of diction but to discuss its effect, because half of the journals came in with analyses like this: “The effect of the diction used is to interest the reader.” Students are trying to “analyze” without understanding what analysis actually means. Many think that if they mention a few key words, like diction, and express some vague notion about how that might possibly impact the reader, then they have done their job, but this is an error in their understanding of what analysis actually means.

So I had an idea: I would directly model a “good” analysis of a quote and a “bad and ugly” analysis of a quote.

Inspired by a colleague who had adapted the Schaffer approach to her students’ journals, I typed up an assignment sheet and model journal entry (found here: MbS – Schaffer Dialectical Journal Assignment and Model) that asked students to quote the text in red (like a concrete detail) and analyze it in two different color greens (like commentary) — one commentary for noting author style, and the other for furthering the analysis by focusing on the effects of that style. I added a space at the beginning of the entry for students to have a personal reaction/connection to the text, based on some reading by Harvey/Gouvdis that encouraged me to ask students to create more connections to the text for better comprehension and interest. I had them mark this purple just to distinguish it as separate from the Schaffer model.

But here’s the kicker: I decided to show them in real time exactly what I wanted from them and what I didn’t. On the spot, I asked anyone in my large grade-12 class to give me one of their quotes from their journals. Jamal volunteered his and I wrote it on the lefthand column and cited it correctly.

“O that this too too solid flesh would melt/

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!/

Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d/

His canon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God!/

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/

Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (I.ii.131-61)

I reminded them how to do it correctly according to MLA, and I heard a few “Ohs” around the room — a helpful check that not all of them knew how, even by senior year, something I had falsely assumed. I then proceeded to type my “good” purple response (RESPONSE in the journal model I use).

The good: Hamlet speaking here. Poor Hamlet. He’s so low that he contemplates suicide. This reminds me of the two young men I know from the past three years that killed themselves. Why is suicide more likely in men than in women? I feel Hamlet’s teenage angst here deeply; I remember being 18 and feeling like the world didn’t make sense and that my parents were only making things worse not better – so I empathize with him here.

We read it and then I typed this “bad and ugly” one up right below it:

The bad and the ugly: There is a lot of emotion here, which makes a big impact on me. I really feel the intensity here.

And here, I believe, is the key: I didn’t tell them what the difference was, I just asked. Immediately half the seniors said aloud, “It’s not specific.” I was thrilled — they could see it.

We continued on to the first green commentary/analysis (ANALYZE in my model):

The good: Hamlet emphasizes his angst here through repetition and the theme of doubt. Hamlet wishes he could commit suicide but what stops him? The threat of permanent purgatory/punishment for the sin of suicide – “the Everlasting.” This introduces the dual idea of good/evil and life/death (suicide). Shakespeare uses vivid imagery and diction – “flesh” “melting” and “thawing” to describe his emotions. These are all words related to temperature – hot and cold. Normally they would describe objects, like ice or a cadaver.

and then…

The bad and the ugly: The author uses a lot of vivid imagery and diction. It has a powerful effect.

What was the difference here? Again, students noted the lack of specificity. But others noted the length, and we discussed how much space strong analysis usually takes. Another student noted that there are specific quotes within the “good” commentary for the ANALYZE portion, and we talked more about how helpful it is to be as specific as possible, even re-quoting material, to get one’s point across clearly.

Lastly, I wrote the EVALUATE portion of the commentary in another shade of green:

The good: Hamlet comes across as a little dramatic – are we meant to see him as overdramatic? Or are we meant to empathize with him? The vivid imagery and diction – melting flesh – almost repels or disgusts the reader. It’s gross to imagine flesh “melting” or rotting (connection to theme of decay/rottenness!), as if our bodies were only objects and not really living things. Is Shakespeare suggesting that suicide is revolting? Or that life is revolting? I think Hamlet comes across as sympathetic here and that, ultimately, Shakespeare aims for that, because he is using the repetition of “O God! O God” to show that Hamlet is having a crisis of conscience – life has becomes so unbearable and depressing that he would prefer not to live it, but he cannot end it because he will go to hell. Is that not a kind of hell itself? Is Shakespeare suggesting as much — that life itself is hell? It certainly seems to be so in Hamlet’s circumstances – his father dead, murdered, his uncle married to his mother, and the family plotting behind his back. Hamlet – impotent and (acting) mad.

and…

The bad and the ugly: The effect of the vivid diction and imagery is to create a powerful impact. The result is it draws the reader in.

Again I solicited answers on how the entries differed, and again students noted length, specificity, and how much depth of analysis was in the first. There are also connections to larger themes noted in the “good” example, something that I’m working on improving in my students currently (synthesis, big-picture thinking).

Once I had shown my “good” and “bad and ugly” models, there seemed to be far less confusion around the purpose and effort required for the journals. I had grown tired of reading  the kinds of entries that would have been labeled “ugly” for their lack of specificity, depth, or length.

This is just the beginning — I have not yet received the second round of journal entries and look forward to seeing if they were able to transfer their knowledge from this model to their own work or not — I’ll keep you posted. But I think, once again, the power of modeling work for them is invaluable. I saw immediately afterward, when checking and revising entries with students one-on-one, that their understanding had grown. Nadir saw immediately that his analysis was about as long as his quote, and it was not very thorough. He was able to verbalize on his own that he hadn’t yet done enough and was going back to revise.

I encourage you to model “good” and “poor” answers/responses/work in real time, so they can see you interacting with the text, offer feedback, and respond to your questions about how the models are different. I did sense that there was something especially effective in engaging them in the process of modeling and not just showing them the models on pieces of paper — there were more “a-ha moments” on their faces.

Share any ways that you have been using models — I am always looking to steal good tricks, and I believe in the power of models — the good, the bad and the ugly.

3 Responses to “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

  1. Alisha November 2, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

    I love your examples. I see the exact same issues with my students.

    Another way I’ve found to provide my writers with some immediate feedback is to have them paste their best sentence (or sometimes their thesis statement, or a sentence that integrates a quote) onto a Google Doc that’s shared with the entire class. I project the sentences onto the board, and then we all discuss “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of each sentence.

    At the end of this exercise, all students have received feedback on their writing, they’ve all seen models of good writing, and they’ve all come away with a few ideas for how they could continue to improve the rest of their paper.

    • alexisswiggins November 2, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

      Alisha,

      Great idea! Have never done this kind of thing with today’s technology. My students are coming up with revised thesis statements for their IB Written Assignment papers this very week and I’m going to do exactly this. Excellent idea — stealing it.

  2. Rachel Haddad November 3, 2013 at 1:27 am #

    Alexis, I too have experienced similar challenges with my students, both in Qatar and the US. The lack of proper paragraph construction is a battle. Many students seem to struggle with specificity and proper analysis. And despite my efforts to mark my student’s journals and essays with productive comments and edits, the next paper or task often lacked similar content. Real time seems to be the key here, as is creating a true understanding of what ‘specificity’ and ‘analysis’ really mean. I hope your students are able to transfer the in-class task to their next assignment. Very cool.

    I have also used in-class time to allow students time to work in pairs to construct responses like these, and have asked them to color-code their ‘specific’ and ‘analytical’ sentences. We have posted these responses in both online chat/class moodle/blog spaces AND have used class time to ‘gallery walk’ the content. The physical presence of ‘good, bad, and ugly’ examples (i.e. in an online location) has served as an exemplar for subsequent assignments, and review before essays.

    Sounds like you are having some great teaching moments in Saudi. So glad for you! And I love your real time ‘good, bad, and ugly’. I might steal it … when I’m back in the classroom!

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