Thursday, April 29, 1999

'Real-world' writing cheats students

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I heard some shocking news the other day. It concerns high-school term papers.

        Remember the kind we wrote in the '70s and '80s? They had the usual, boring stuff: thesis statement, supporting paragraphs, etc.

        At least these assignments prepared us for college. Every once in a while, we even had breakthroughs: a dead-on conclusion, a perfect metaphor, a mind-expanding moment.

        Not so for today's students. In Kentucky's public schools, term papers aren't really papers anymore. Instead, they are song lyrics, travel bro chures, letters to the editor — anything that classifies as “real-world writing” in the eyes of Kentucky's education reformers.

        The idea is to keep students interested. The more relevant and fun the assign ment, the more writing they will want to do.

        Fun is great. But when it replaces rigorous thinking and thorough research, it's a problem.

        We shouldn't patronize teen-agers by assuming they have to be entertained all the time. We certainly shouldn't toss out literary analysis in English class because today's youth would rather watch TV than read.

        I heard about the new approach from Jennifer Combs, an English teacher at Campbell County High School. For nearly two years, she and other teachers have been meeting monthly with local college professors to get to the bottom of the situation.

        At Northern Kentucky University, some professors are concerned about what they're seeing from students.

        On the good side, freshmen coming out of Kentucky's public schools are more excited about writing and more willing to experiment with it. On the bad side, they are less prepared to think like scholars. Their papers are weak on facts and solid reasoning.

        An essay on Kosovo, for instance, might go like this: “Things are really bad in Kosovo. I don't really know what's happening there. It makes me uncomfortable. I wish it would stop.”

        Says Nancy Kersell, a writing teacher at NKU: “We expect a little more analytical approach to topics.”

        No kidding.

        Ms. Kersell is part of the discussion group that calls itself English Dialogue. The members recently summed up their conclusions in a three-page document.

        They suggest that every high-schooler be considered college-bound, since some will end up at universities after several years in the workplace.

        High-school classes should include at least a few traditional assignments, the group says. These papers do have real-world value, because they teach students to organize ideas, express themselves clearly and back up their conclusions with credible research.

        These educators are the first in the state to come together for an honest discussion of student writing, and they are beginning to present

        their conclusions to others around Kentucky.

        They aren't doing so in a finger-pointing way. But it's clear from their findings that the state's approach to writing will need some adjustment.

        The way teachers teach is driven by Kentucky's accountability system. Every year, fourth-, seventh- and 12th-graders submit portfolios of their writing. These are scored to determine how well schools are doing.

        State officials require portfolios to contain certain types of work, such as personal memoirs, poems and imaginary speeches to city councils.

        Ms. Combs shares this example from her own classroom: After her students read The Great Gatsby, she has them imagine that Sony wants a soundtrack for the movie version. They break Gatsby into six parts and write songs to represent each.

        The songs qualify as poetry, which qualifies as a portfolio entry, Ms. Combs says.

        My first thought: What a cool idea.

        Second thought: I sure hope English class is more than this.

        The state's portfolio guidelines suggest otherwise, however. They specifically discourage writing that demonstrates knowledge to teachers only. An example would be the research paper. This “typically does not allow students to produce their best, focused, real-world assignments,” the state says.

        Frankly, I'm alarmed by this attitude. I have seen students' “real-world” writing, and half the time, it hardly makes sense. It is nothing but spouting off, and it won't make the grade in college or the real world.

        Teachers such as Ms. Combs are doing their best to follow the rules, but they worry about what their students may be missing.

        I would worry, too.

        Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or by e-mail at:

        Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. She can be reached at 578-5584 or email her at