This afternoon my senior Honors/AP English son was having difficulty writing an expository essay based on Equus. My son is a decent writer; words come to him much easier than they do to me, maybe due to practice, maybe a better writing education or maybe plain old genetics. However, it was not the writing that was causing him problems, it was his lack of proficiency with planning and research. Could you imagine, and his mom is a librarian to boot! If you’re reading this and you have High School aged kids you probably get this “Mom has no clue scenario” I have to say that I never help him with school work; he plain old never asks, and he’s been successful, I thought so anyway. He’s received good grades and never loses sleep about schoolwork, both literally and figuratively. Now I’m totally blown away with his lack of procedural understanding and wish that he’d came to me before his senior year!
The prompt for the essay was entitled Religious Traditions and read “Explore how tradition and religion shape one’s moral compass and discuss their usage as a dramatic devise in the play”
What he had accomplished before coming to me:
- He read the book and basically knew the areas that represented the author’s use of dramatic devices (Connect)
- He collected literary database articles about Equus, which all dealt with religion since that’s basically what the book’s about! (Investigate)
- He had a theses statement written which was basically the prompt made into a statement. Oh man!
These are the steps I suggested he take:
- Clearly define the prompt, in this case the terms religion and moral compass using a credible source so that he could cite it if needed.
- Create an organizational scheme based on the religious issues the author dramatize. We created a rough web with the prompt in the middle, (with thought that it will change into a realized thesis later), and spokes for each significant issue exemplified in the play and how it was exemplified.
- Add “what you think you know” examples from history, society and literature under each exemplified issue you’ve identified.
- Record questions that arise during this process and after reviewing for uncertainties where they apply.
Note: For younger students we’ve been more formally talking about Plan here. Having them think about where and in what manner they will be organizing notes, collecting needed information and bookmarking found resources. For example, if they are researching to make an informed decision they may utilize a Pro & Con “T” Chart, or create a chart that allows for comparison of different factors. They may use boxes and bullets if looking for evidence or a timeline if searching for important historical events.
- He created a rough outline in a word or google doc that he decided to fill in as he wrote. He noted where he needed to research whether for clarification, exact detail, evidence or needed information.
- He reviewed the resources he had already collected to see if there was anything there that helped answer what he already noted or brought up important issues that he missed or didn’t think of. From this he added the issue of superstition and religion.
- He needed my guidance for where to find much of the information he sought. Yes a little scary since he’s off to college in less then a year
Here’s where I think a more formal plan from the start assists with synthesis. Construct for me is part organizational (literal) and part constructing new knowledge (figurative). If this was a lengthier project, I would suggest that he keep adjusting his structure according to increased understandings. However, since this was an essay and really a lot of his knowledge was already constructed by reading the play, it will most likely stay the way he created it based on what he already knew. No matter, by making a formal effort to create an organizational Plan for constructing knowledge before beginning to Investigate, the process of synthesis is more easily realized within the Investigate process.
He’s writing away right now! (I almost wrote “as we speak”!)
At the middle school level, our district is emphasizing simulated research projects in which students are given carefully chosen resources in order that they spend less time searching and more time analyzing information. Similar processes for learning are suggested by Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project and the Library of Congress. The idea is to give students one piece of information to fully analyze. Then give them another and have them compare and contrast view points, tone or credibility; place in chronological order or connect in some way or another. Then add another and go through the same process. In this situation synthesis happens while students are investigating.
In order to allow the understanding of synthesis to be attainable by all students, we no longer can consider it something that just happens. Students need necessary scaffolds, whether it be by creating an organizational plan or by limiting variables and starting small.