I recently introduced the process essay to my senior writing class. I do not always teach this essay format, but this year I have really been thinking a lot about how to better guide students towards really learning what process means. The problem as I see it from a teacher perspective is that for many students they struggle to focus for an extended period of time, which makes it hard for them to truly engage in the learning process.
Besides focus students have been trained to some extent to turn in work, earn a grade, and then move on. When learning a skill becomes a struggle, they struggle to sit with that struggle. We want our young people to find success, but success is not always gained without having to traverse some kind of process.
The road to success can be full of discomfort. I see so many students who want to improve skills, but they truly do not know how to work, how to study, or how to weather the discomfort that often comes along with learning a new skill or improving an existing skill set. I worry that so many of us are growing accustomed to skimming, scanning, and seeking out soundbites that the notion of investing in any process, especially the critical reading process, is fast becoming a thing of the past.
How do we - parents and teachers - teach the value of processes when society has become satisfied with the information they read in a Tweet as opposed to reading the full article which explains the full story behind the Tweet?
Reading instruction and writing instruction depend on process. There are so many factors that get in the way of students truly learning how to stick with any process. Grades can be motivating, paralyzing, and misleading. I fear some students have grown so used to getting points and grades for simply completing tasks and not necessarily for working towards mastery of skills. To help students understand that learning is a process, I try to make the fact as transparent as possible.
I do this several ways. When teaching writing, that which will be based on analyzing a specific text, I spend a lot of time talking about the active reading process. I tell students their writing of the essay begins as soon as they begin reading the first sentence in the text. It is active reading that will determine whether or not writers can actively write about a text as opposed to producing a book report.
I teach a writing class that is comprised of students who have, for the most part, come from challenging backgrounds. These students have either experienced struggles at home, been identified as having a learning deficit, or have been tracked in remedial classes since they were freshmen due to needing extra help with the reading and writing process. On the first day of this course, I always have students write a business letter to me.
I do this to teach the business letter writing process, to learn where their writing level is and, most importantly, to discover what it is they hope to gain from the course. Even though students’ commentary on that first day often speaks to their absolute frustration (and fear) with the workload this class promises, every single student expresses in those letters to me an earnest desire to improve some aspect of his or her writing.
I like to keep those letters handy throughout the semester to remind students of their goals. They soon forget what it takes to reach goals, to work, and to commit themselves to the writing and rewriting process. When the writing process gets uncomfortable or when a student earns a grade she does not like, those long-term goals are all but forgotten. Students cannot always see past the work that will go into improving their writing process.
In all of my classes, sophomores to seniors, students have the opportunity to conference with me to learn how to improve their grades and ultimately improve their writing. I tell them they can rewrite any assignment if they commit to learning what areas of improvement they have and how they can improve their writing process. Having those letters they wrote day one helps me to remind them that the grade is not the end point; it is just one step in the writing process.
I truly believe students need direct instruction not just when learning academic skills like how to apply the quadratic formula or how to use a comma. Students today need direct instruction and a great deal of practice on how to work, how to make goals, and how to invest in their own learning process. I am, however, empathetic for youth today, primarily our Generation Z or post-Millennial individuals.
These young adults are trying to do a lot while sometimes not learning anything really well. They live on the surface level, sifting through more online content than any of us can quantify all the while trying to get decent grades and prepare for life after high school. What I see on a daily basis is students’ inability to see how one step in a process helps an individual to reach the next and so on and so forth.
I believe educators and parents need to guide young people to see why sticking to a process from start to finish is important. All skills - reading, writing, communicating, behaving respectfully, etc. - rely greatly on an individual’s ability to know the when, why, and how of things and to not give up if one aspect of the equation does not work right away.
Today most information is being delivered in soundbites. Our patience to really read the details seems to be fading. As I tell my students on almost a daily basis, we must actively read everything. Sometimes we read deeply and actively; a lot of times we read on the surface level, often missing critical details that might help us to understand the full story or understand how information connects.
I come back to process. It took me some years as a teacher to realize how important it is for me to really guide students towards seeing why their active involvement in the process of learning a skill set is imperative to retention and overall skill growth. This does mean I try to practice what I preach, taking a step back often to take a hard look at my own teaching process.
We teachers continue to spin our wheels trying to contend with students' inability to focus, and schools work hard to implement computer-based apps that get students’ attention throughout the learning process. What kids actually need more than bells and whistles is to learn how to work and how to take ownership of their learning; college and career readiness is depending on it.
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