Saturday, June 1, 2013

Putting the "I" Back Into Writing

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A few weeks ago I was having a discussion with a colleague of mine. We were chatting over different writing styles we see in student work, as we both teach the same students. I teach them in a writing class, and she teaches then in an English class. She mentioned how she finds it very difficult to teach "voice" to students. An instructor can go over many conventions and strategies as well as provide different writing activities to help students develop voice in their writing. But she said some students just seem "to have it" while other students really struggle. It is almost like it naturally and almost effortlessly flows from some students into their writing.

That conversation returned to me as I was reading Pavel Zemliansky's article on The Traditional Research Paper and I-Search Writing. He talks about how, when writing the traditional research paper, he would imitate other people's styles and voices as he tried to pretend he was interested in writing the same way they did.

Then I got thinking about the I-Search Paper's format, and I wondered: does voice flow  "effortlessly" from the writer when he/she is both emotionally and cognitively connected to the writing topic? As Zemliansky notes, "topics of I-Search projects always come from the writer’s own interests and passions." Perhaps it is the traditional learning environment that sometimes squeezes out that personal voice when we continually ask students - in many subject areas - to write in a formal objective manner.

This, in turn, got me thinking about some of the better writing pieces I have evaluated. Generally, they were writing pieces where the author had a particular special interest in the topic. Looking through the resource, "Writing an I-Search Paper," I started to think how I could use a great resource like this for students to write from the first person perspective while still learning the "academic" requirements, such as how to approach and complete research, how to outline and how to properly cite sources.

Sometimes it seems we make assumptions about the younger generations since they have grown up in a digital world that still seemed to be in the realm of science fiction for most of us when we were their age. A few years ago I was in a meeting when someone mentioned that the librarian at one of the local libraries in the city limits shared an interesting observation. She noted that the largest age group signing out books was teenagers.

At first this observation seemed hard to accept. But the more we thought about it the more it made sense. I think it goes without saying that the first place a lot of students look for when trying to find information is the Internet. But consider the scenario: you are a younger person with a particular interest or growing passion for a topic or issue. So you search online which most likely will take you to a site like Wikipedia. While Wikipedia would probably provide some useful information, it usually only scratches the surface of big issues or perplexing questions. But what might you notice? At the end of a Wikipedia article there is a list of the sources that were used when creating (and updating) that article. Sure, there are many websites usually listed in those sources, but many times there are also as much, if not more, magazine and book references as well.

So if a person had a deep interest in a topic, they most likely would travel down to their local library and check out and flip open a real book in order to gain more knowledge or a deeper understanding of their chosen topic. Maybe the fact that young people make up a large amount of the traffic in the local library should not be a surprise. And, as Zemliansky points out, these people are engaged in I-Search, looking purposefully for answers to questions in a library, or perhaps a bookstore. When I came to the realization that this might be the reason for young people frequenting the library, I started to encourage my students to use Wikipedia when they do research. It should not to be used for their primary source, but to get a sense of the topic and then look at the sources cited at the end of the article, so they could attempt to access those sources and gain more information.

As I mentioned previously, when I think about some of the very memorable writing pieces that students have written, I come back to the fact that most of them were written in first person and the students typically had a vested interest in the topic. One year when I was teaching ancient history in grade 10, I took a different approach to teaching the unit on pre-history. The textbook was mainly outdated when you consider the current archeological evidence as well as the more interesting theories and speculations that experts are offering on how our early ancestors lived, survived and died. So the students gleaned much of the information for the course from current documentaries and online news reports about new archeological finds.

One of the essay questions on the unit test asked students to consider which of three early hominid species would they like to be and why? They had to also argue why they thought their choice could survive and flourish over the other two species. One student's essay answer was particularly interesting because he was not normally viewed as a strong writer. He was an athletic and competitive student, and his marks were typically in the high 70s or low to mid 80s. He loved this essay question! And it clearly showed in his work. In fact,  he presented information in his essay that I could not clearly recall. I had to refer back to my lesson plans and one of the documentaries, because I had to make sure his references were factual, and they were. I think the whole competitive aspect to one of the documentaries we had watched in class, as well as the nature of the essay question, triggered a real interest for him in a  topic that typically most male students just want the teacher to zip through so they can get to the battles of ancient Greece and Rome! I was so impressed with his essay, our school submitted it as an exemplar to the province when they requested student work for that subject area.

When I consider this student's essay and the premise of I-Search, I wonder how much more effective this unit could have been if I had opened up the study for students to pinpoint certain topics, consider and create some research questions, research to find their answers and then present their information to the other students in the I-Search learning approach. I can only imagine how many other interests could have been addressed and the students might have had more passion for a study of a time period that they usually have trouble relating to and understanding.

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