Non-linearity and authentic work

I’ve been thinking a lot about Matt’s post and Aiden’s response. This weekend there was a long piece about the curmudgeon who publishes The Concord Review. He’s been at it awhile — it’s a place for high school students to publish high quality history papers. I was introduced to it in high school. I used the CR as high school teacher — I’d give select essays to students and have them assess what made these essays worth publishing. And I’ve used it lately as a teacher educator, giving it to students and having them brainstorm what a classroom practice would have to look like so that their students would be able to write such awesome essays.

These essays are authentic work — they’re what historians do — and getting kids and pre-service teachers to think about the steps necessary to complete such work is important. Yet in the process of breaking them down, I tried to underscore that just because you can split an essay into component parts doesn’t mean that you should. Evaluating evidence, discerning source bias, constructing an argument, varying sentence structure, establishing a thesis, marshaling support for the thesis…even if students can see the parts or an instructor carefully evaluates where they need the most work, simply teaching or learning the parts won’t make a finished essay worth reading. Sadly, many educational experts make a living, a good living, splitting projects or bodies of knowledge into parts that seem manageable.

It’s the whole essay, the whole project, that matters. It’s part of Matt’s post and Springer’s teaching practice — as a teacher, you strive to create the environment where you work with students on a paper or a project that’s going out into the world. You help them discover the parts, but more importantly, you help them discover how all the parts fit together. You help them see how a comma here or there shifts meaning, how a careful explication of the potential multiple meanings of a source forges credibility with a reader, and how a well-written paper seems effortless when it’s anything but that. You can’t do this in a world where you must be on page 120 on January 13th, in a world where your lesson plan has to immaculately fit into the state’s database of standards, in a world where each assignment must align with a task on a test.