A Voice from the Front Lines of the High School English Classroom

A reader wrote the following as a comment on our article “’It Messes Up My Fishing Time’: Why American High School Teachers Don’t Assign Research Papers.”

As an English teacher who has taught the research paper at the high school and middle school level, I have been very frustrated at various stages during the process.  There are so many roadblocks that schools, parents, and students put up for the good teachers who are actually doing their jobs and assigning research papers.  In this era of "accountability" in which teachers are overwhelmingly blamed for everything (sometimes it's appropriate, but not always), I'd like to comment on this topic based on my own experience.

By the time that the students got to the research unit in my class, their stark underpreparedness for the task had already begun rearing its ugly head.  As the article states, there is way too much emphasis in writing curricula across the U.S. on "self-expression" and creative writing.  Students had not been trained to use facts to develop an idea.  They had been fed garbage throughout their entire academic careers - the garbage that whatever they write down is OK and that their ideas matter.  Students were aghast when I suggested that their ideas didn't matter unless they had hard, concrete facts to back them up.  Students had also not learned how to tie in facts to their statements - they would simply make a statement and list random facts that may or may not have supported it.  So, while trying to teach the students how to use MLA format, create a proper Works Cited page, include in-text citations, and find information relating to their topics, I also had to teach basic expository writing skills that they should have learned many years ago.  This proved impossible to do in the small time frame I had to do it. I was basically playing catch-up for years of writing training while at the same time teaching a complicated skill set that was brand new to practically all of the students in my class.

Teacher training is also grossly to blame.  I attended a prestigious educational school (which did prepare me adequately on many levels), but I found many of my education classes to be highly lacking.  My "Teaching Writing" course focused very little (if at all) at actual methodologies for teaching the various types of writing.  Instead, it focused on "creating a community of writers" and "not focusing on the grammar or style - helping students to find their unique voices" and "allowing students to choose meaningful topics that will showcase their personal experiences"... you get the point.  It would not be a gross inaccuracy to say that I learned absolutely nothing in my English education courses that would allow me to properly train students on this quite important skill.

Curricula and standardized testing are also against teachers in many cases.  Many curricula do not require a research paper at all, and if it is required, the research paper often must be glossed over and not given the depth and breadth that it deserves because of the many other requirements that must be taught before standardized testing.  Teachers are forced to sandwich the research paper in amongst so many other requirements and cannot give it the time that it deserves.

Other major roadblocks to the research paper are the complaints of parents and students and the refusal of administration to support the teachers.  Complaints themselves do not bother me in the slightest, but the lack of administration support literally cuts the legs from underneath teachers and does not allow them to uphold high academic standards.  Students complained endlessly about the assignment, saying that I was a "mean teacher" and they didn't know why I was requiring them to do this.  Their complaints didn't get anywhere with me (frankly, being liked is not a high priority of mine in the classroom), so the complaints went straight to the parents.  At a charter school where the research paper was required in 7th and 8th grade, I was called "draconian" and "a drill sergeant" by parents who said that I had no right to assign such an enormous project to students (even though it was in the curriculum and parents had chosen the school because of its high academic standards).  I had parents demanding that their children be excused from the research paper, either part or the entire assignment and making limitless excuses as to why the various papers were not completed on time, despite my strict policy of not accepting any late assignments.  Mind you, due to great administrative pressure to "go easy" on the students, the 7th grade paper was only 2 pages in length and the 8th grade paper was 3 pages in length.  In high school, the curriculum called for a 4-5 page research paper in the sophomore year, at the college prep level.  When the parents would receive no satisfaction from me, they would immediately go to the marshmallow-like principal, who would tell me that I had to "be more understanding" and should perhaps consider "alternate assignments" for students who were feeling stressed out by the assignment.  A girl in my 8th grade class went to the hospital for severe headaches and nerves, and the parents blamed me entirely for her problems.  They then attempted to get me fired when she didn't hand in a major part of an assignment and then accused me of losing it, which I of course vigorously denied.  I had several parents take their kids out of school for  week-long (or more) vacations during the research paper process and get flustered and angry when I refused to give them an extension on the deadline (even though the student handbook clearly stated that teachers had the right to refuse accommodations for students who had unexcused absences due to vacations).  In each and every instance described, I got no administrative support whatsoever, forcing me to cave and give the parents anything and everything they wanted.  How can teachers help students to learn such a complex skill when we cannot even enforce deadlines, requirements, or even the entire assignment?

I also must speak to the fact that it IS nearly impossible to find the time to grade the research paper, mainly due to the time restraints and guidelines imposed by curricula.  The curricula that do require research papers nearly always require them to be assigned and graded in sections, usually note cards, research outline, rough draft, final draft.  The average high school teacher does have anywhere from 100-200 (sometimes more) students, and the grading of, on average, 150 note cards, research outlines, rough drafts, and final drafts in a limited amount of time is an extremely daunting task.  In addition, teachers are required to "give meaningful feedback," translating into not only assigning a grade but giving each student feedback via a complicated rubric and/or written commentary on exactly what the student needs to fix.  Most of the time, the student doesn't even read these comments. Also, due to the constraints of the curriculum and the relatively short period of time that the teachers have to "fit in" the research paper unit, each section must be collected and turned around with both a grade and "meaningful feedback" in a remarkably short period of time.  Because of all of the topics that teachers must cover in a given year, teachers are forced to relegate the entire research paper teaching process to 2-3 months. Because most students have almost no experience (or extremely inadequate experience) with factual writing, the teacher must squeeze an unbelievable amount of information and grading into this time. For the 7th and 8th grade research papers, I spent 14 hours over one weekend grading the outlines.  The rough drafts took about 40 hours, which was spread out over a period of one week.  Grading four sections of a major assignment for 150 students over a short period of time is an extremely daunting task for any teacher.  I am a dedicated teacher, but the research paper unit ALWAYS meant that I would have literally no life outside of school throughout the course of that unit.  To me, this is something that no teacher should have to accept.  I am fine with doing work outside of school, but the sacrifices I made for the research paper seemed not worth the paltry rewards.

What's the solution?  As a person who is on the "front lines," I have several suggestions for the makers of curricula as well as the administration and parents:

  • From the time students learn how to write, emphasize factual writing much more than creative writing.  Teach students how to use facts that relate to their points and organize their thoughts in a logical manner.
  • Make the research paper a part of every English curriculum, but give English teachers adequate time to teach it the first time the students are learning the skill.  Dedicate at least a semester's worth of time to learning the process in the English class so that the students will get a firm grasp on the topic. When writing this first paper, have the students use material from another class such as History or Science to achieve a cross-curricular study and apply topics they have learned. 
  • Once students have learned the research paper method the first time, continue to reinforce the skill. As students progress in high school, each major subject (English, History, Science, and even Math!) should have at least one major research paper per year.  Students on a college preparatory track should have written at least 4 research papers by the time they reach college.  Then professors won't be re-teaching what should have been done in high school, and students will be able to dig into topics with more depth rather than focusing on the nuts and bolts of the process.
  • Give support to teachers who are upholding high educational standards.  Make rules and stick to them.  Administration, guarantee that you will back your teachers 100%.  Communicate with teachers at the beginning of the year to get on the same page as far as expectations and teaching style, then stick to your guns when students and parents come in to complain.

I thoroughly enjoyed this article and the points that it brought up! 

Signed,

An Unabashed (Yet Extremely Frustrated) English Teacher and Fan of the Research Paper

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