Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Write Stuff

This afternoon I got an emergency call from a mom. Her daughter (my student) was in the throes of a full on research paper on the Rwandan genocide of the 1990's and couldn't figure out how to get started. Who can blame her? One thing I've learned as a tutor is: nobody teaches kids how to write any more! It's a real problem.

The problem starts with the thesis statement. Kids don't know how to write one. This is no easy task. A thesis statement tell the reader what you plan to tell them in the body of your paper, but doesn't give away your details or your sources. It's short and sweet, but must be concise and succinct. Most students feel (and some are told) the thesis is a single sentence. Most often, this is not the case. Like a sculpture, the thesis statement must be carefully and artfully molded, crafted into the introductory paragraph that holds it with delicate precision. To write the thesis, the writer must know what he plans to convince his/her reader of. It must grab attention, but not give anything away.

Our students are taught to infuse their writing with exciting and teasing attention grabbers. Because of this, too often, students begin their writing with something like this: "Do you want to know more about african elephants? Well read on to discover facts about this animal." This is a cute opener for a young writer, but won't work for the Rwandan genocide piece. Yet students have a hard time bridging creative writing to a more sophisticated style. Opening statements should be crafted out of facts that hit salient points, while enticing the reader to know more. Over the course of barely three months, close to a million Rwandans were killed in a massive genocide that pitted neighbor against neighbor, husband against wife. The paragraph should be clinched by the thesis statement. Now, ten years later, Rwanda struggles to pick up the pieces and move into the 21st century by ending poverty, improving infrastructures and becoming a competitive economy in the global community.

The best way to organize a paper is in a logical, sequential manner. Notecards are very helpful for this, provided they are used efficiently. Frequently, students arrive for sessions with notecards that are not effectively organized. Their goal may have been to accomplish the required "35 cards by Friday". Or they may be color coded by source. But the best way to organize notecards is by topic or paragraph. Once the thesis statement is established, students can be directed to develop topics for each paragraph. The question is: how can I prove my thesis statement? What questions must be answered? What arguments must be made? When this is known, notecards can be labeled by topic. This can be done either by using title headings (Events Leading up to Genocide), an alphabet or number system (#1 cards are all about global response to the genocide) or color coding (orange cards are all about the rebuilding of the country). Organizing cards in this fashion will come in handy for writing the outline and paper.

Notecards should contain the following: relevant facts for the topic, appropriate quotes for the topic, and page numbers. The back of each card should contain the citation of the work (e.g. author's name, publication title, date, etc...). This will be handy when using the cards during the writing process; simply type the quote or facts, page numbers, and then flip the card over for the citation.  Use more cards and write less on each card. It keeps the fact relevant (not everything is important enough to include) and helps limit facts and quotes that will be cited to the most powerful ones, making the paper more focused. Limit notecards containing quotes to only the one quote per card.

Learning to write is a tough skill. Making words flow is not easy. Using well organized notecards, writers can sort cards and organize the flow before putting it into writing. Once this is done, a draft can be started. Good writers read their drafts--out loud--to hear how it sounds, always editing and improving. Sometimes, more words helps the flow (instead of: The violence in Rwanda was widespread-perhaps- The violence in Rwanda was massive and widespread, touching every community and sparing none.) Other times, a more succinct message is appropriate (The global response was a failure.) All messages should be stated as facts, supporting the writer's argument, even when equal facts may exist that support another opinion. There is no substitute for a broad vocabulary. This is a time for the thesaurus. Some words are better than others (They ratified the new constitution. He denounced the new government.) Stunning is stronger than surprising; ridiculed is stronger than mocked or laughed at.

In text quotations are tough too. Students need practice with this skill; finding and inserting (and then citing) quotations that match their thought process is a high level skill. But once learned, it will be a lifelong asset. Student should be careful to choose the most fitting quote that makes the biggest impact (While studies are currently underway to obtain current and specific statistics, the National Reading Panel suggests, " least 20% of readers in third grade are reading well below grade level across the nation" (National Institutes of Health, 2001).

A strong conclusion brings the whole paper together. The conclusion should rephrase the thesis in a direct and conclusive manner, using some details from the paper: Too often, students begin this paragraph with "In conclusion..."  Worse, so many students insert the mighty "I" statements (I think the genocide in Rwanda was a horrific event, but I think the country has learned from it). Students must be taught to state their opinions without using the I-statement. This is hard for kids to learn. Instead, the conclusion might look something like: Despite a massive genocide which tore the country apart, the government of Rwanda has made great efforts to achieve its goal of creating a middle-income country by the year 2020. It should be concisely supported, not only with facts but conclusions drawn by the writer (This goal, while lofty, is already being acted upon, with Rwanda focusing resources on improving roads, developing tourism and planning for a university system. Real progress, however, will require a redoubling of efforts and resources.)

A great way to practice writing technique is to do it before the major paper is due. Practice with simple, fact-based topics (e.g. All About Dolphins; The Difference Between Lincoln and Washington; Mountain Gorillas in Danger). Use a topic that students find interesting and simple sources (limited to 2 for practice) that offer straight-forward information that is easy to read and understand. (A note here about finding reliable sources: a safe bet for students using the internet is to focus on government sources, .org sources and major publications sites--Time, Newsweek, BBC, etc...). Of course, it goes without saying that good writing comes good reading. Thoroughly review all sources and have students read with you to be sure they are comprehending. When reading on the internet, make use of features such as the computer's ability to define unfamiliar words and supply synonyms. Help children practice paraphrasing and summarizing in their own words. These techniques will be good practice for writing.

As students grow as writers they learn what a valuable tool writing can be. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword! (Edward Bulwer Lytton, 1839).