My classroom has not been the happiest place in recent weeks. It’s that time of the year when students are finishing up their major research essays. I take them from soup to nuts, from thinking about a narrow topic and framing research questions through the development of a thesis statement, outline, rough and final drafts. They learn how to search and assess sources and, most importantly, students learn how to make a claim about the past and defend it with the written world. For some students it is a grueling process and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that it takes a certain toll on me as well – hours on end of reading and correcting, meetings with students and, on occasion, a few tears.
I am not the most creative history teacher around. Sure, I’ve experimented with social media and other digital tools, but in the end I am most comfortable with a group of kids, a couple of interesting primary sources and some well-framed questions. When it comes to assessments I ask them to write. I ask my students to do a great deal of writing throughout the year, most of which is in the form of short analytical essays. They can construct websites, make videos, fill in charts, etc. until the cows come home, but if a students leaves my class not having struggled with her analytical writing skills than I failed as a teacher.
With each year I the impression that high school history teachers are foregoing the research essay grows stronger. I hear more and more of my professor friends on social media complain about the quality of student writing. While I feel for them I wish I heard just as much about how they are addressing some of these concerns.
I do hope that I am wrong about my high school colleagues, but for now I am going to hold the line and continue to assign the major research essay.