Teaching a research paper and going insane – there’s a difference?

by Mr. Sheehy

And now I’m stuck. Stuck like my freshman student who couldn’t think of an attention grabber to his “Odysseus and Me” essay, which left him in such despair he wrote a song (or something like it) about Odysseus rather than conceive those pesky two sentences.

But I’m not avoiding an essay, and I haven’t written a song.

I have, however, written an article on my blog and worked through a few back-logged articles in Google Reader, because I am avoiding a unit.

It’s that research paper, the one that requires me to teach six thrilling units in one – there’s the Evaluating Sources Unit, the Taking Notes Unit, the Plagiarism Unit, the Outlining and Organizing Unit, the Referencing Sources Unit, the Works Cited Unit, and the Other Unit We’ll Do While the Teacher Grades These Papers Unit.

No other unit highlights that kids don’t retain random information quite like this one. Maybe they did this one time when they were younger. Maybe they did it sixteen times. But when I begin teaching it, it’ll be like the first time. It’s like my father-in-law’s movie mantra: “Every movie’s a new movie!” – a statement arising from his long-established trend of falling asleep during virtually every movie he’s ever watched. If it weren’t for my mother-in-law, he might have never made it to the rising action of anything. In this analogy, then, I suppose I play the role of the attentive wife, attempting to waken my students before they miss something important.

Firsts are fun in the world of literature – I engineer their first exposure to Romeo and Juliet, for example. But with research process and papers? Does anyone want to teach this? I’d rather be the last one – that guy who says, “Well, since you know this, now repeat those skills while I teach you nothing.”

Actually, I take that slightly back. I don’t want to be that guy instead of being me (though I wouldn’t mind being that guy at times), I just don’t want to use two months on one assignment. It gets old.

And that’s the real problem for me in the end: the time.

To surmount this trial, I have to think differently – think in pieces. If I engineer my year better, I may not have have to teach everything in its most logical spot. I can break the pieces throughout the year, repeat them in spots, and when the big project comes, I may have to introduce only a few elements. For example, I can continue to teach students how to include quotes in a text while writing that essay about The Odyssey. Then the author/page citations shouldn’t be so foreign. Or, during that independent reading unit, I should drill students on the elements of a works cited entry, so the works cited is a familiar tool when the research paper arrives.

Work smarter not harder does not have to be a motto only for physical labor. Maybe if I do this carefully enough, I can retain a bit of sanity halfway through January, when students claim they’ve never done a research paper before.

Or maybe I will simply remember and relent to the mantra: Every unit’s a new unit.

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