when the library comes to you

At the beginning of each school year, when I send my college students off to seek information to support their argument position essays, I include an exercise that puts them in the library. I’m always amazed at how many of them not only have not been in the library, but how many don’t even know how to get to it! I suppose I’m biased, as I was was always more interested in the library than the classroom.

Having said that, I’ll admit that the library is not the first place I go for current information, looking for support on the topics of our argument papers. However, merely conducting a Google search is not the answer, as the results are likely to be unfocused at best and overwhelming at worst. And while Wikipedia is great for an introduction to a topic, it’s much too thin for an in-depth investigation, and can’t be used as a reference anyway.

Lately I’ve become entranced with Google Alerts. When handing out your syllabus at the beginning of a semester, require your students to sign up for Google Alerts on each of the writing topics.

For instance, suppose you are writing on the topic of the FISA bill, the president’s desire for warrantless spying to combat terrorism vs. Constitutional rights to privacy. I instructed Google Alerts to inform me whenever there is a news article on the topic. Once a day, the relevant article links are delivered to my email. In a little over a week, I’ve received over 200 relevant links. By simply scrolling through the titles and accompanying excerpts, I can see which will be most useful, and which sources most credible.

Think about this. I’ve made no time-consuming trips to the library, maneuvering through traffic and parking or inclement weather. I haven’t spent endless hours searching through the library’s limited collection of newspapers or magazines. Nor have I invested all the change in my wallet for making copies.

What did I do? I went to bed. And the next morning the research I needed was collected in my email. Or, through text messages. Or, in a gadget on my Google homepage.

I still send my students to the bricks-and-mortar library. But I’m fully cognizant of the fact that oftentimes they have a few things to teach me.

More on essays, research, and tools

input facilitates output

annotating the web

wikis unwrapped


looking good on paper: it’s overrated

When it comes time to edit essay drafts and final copies, many of us prefer a clean paper copy to work with. We are used to wielding red ink pen (I used to use green ink if only because it wasn’t red!), flipping pages back and forth, circling, underlining, making notes in the margins. We prefer it because, despite the hassles of handling mounds of paper, we were trained to do it this way, we’re used to reading paper, it works for us, and it has always been thus.

However, reading and editing on paper does not work for our students; they do not prefer it. They know they are entering a world in which paper is not the primary method of conveying communications. For as long as we can remember, the tools of school, with the exception of the telephone, have also been the tools of business: pens and pencils, typewriters, paper. No longer. The tools of business are computers and cellphones, merely peripheral tools in the school setting, unfortunately.

Printing a paper copy of an essay is an extra step done at the teacher’s insistence, not a necessary step in the business of their lives, and our students know it. Think about the reports and essays that get to you late: they were left at home, in the car, the printer ate them, assuming the printer worked at all.

I’ve ‘collected’ Beowulf essay rough drafts from my students, and I’ve completed some basic copy-editing, utilizing those familiar tools, highlighters and green ink. Students will make the necessary corrections and ‘turn in’ a clean copy for a final grade. Check it out. No, it won’t have the crisp feel of white paper.

And that’s the way they prefer it.

More articles on Google Docs

Google docs finally offlined!

teaching with docs

visualizing google docs

input facilitates output

Your class has read and analyzed the text, and now it’s time to write the essay. In essay writing, of course, output depends on input, or pre-writing. Continuing with our Anglo-Saxon unit, we’re going to prepare for an essay on Beowulf. One of the more constructive aids can be found at Edsitement: a table for filling in the Elements of the Epic Hero Cycle (pdf file). You can make copies of the table to use as handouts for your students, but maybe you’re trying to cut down on all those handouts. There is also an interactive exercise at the same site, which is useful for the individual student, but not for you, or the class as a whole.

Why not utilize Google forms to capitalize on all that useful input.

First, create the form from Google Docs and Spreadsheets. (Click here if you don’t remember how.) Here’s an example of what your form might look like. Now, sit back and wait for the input.

Once all the students have participated, publish the results. The output from the input form is a winner in two ways. First, you have an online document which shows you at a glance whether or not your students have completed the first steps toward writing the essay. It will also be very apparent what they don’t understand as a whole, or individually. All very useful information.

Best of all, though, is how they help each other. By making the input document public, all students can see what the other students entered, and make adjustments to their own understandings, or lack thereof.

You’re going to like the output!

the guilt of green

Undeniably, argument essays have become the centerpiece of every university’s freshman composition course. It can be tough, however, to engage our apolitical, sometimes downright apathetic, students into caring enough about an issue to stake much on a passionate argument.

Here’s a topic that may do the trick: Americans have long enjoyed growth and prosperity as they’ve developed into an economic superpower. China and India, two nations with huge populations and enormous productive potential, are ready to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Just at this time of unprecedented progress for developing nations, developed countries are recognizing the costs of overdevelopment and coming scarcity of resources. We want to go green. Is it fair to ask developing nations to curb their hard-won progress in favor of environmental restraint?

I think students will respond to this topic because it is their future they’re writing about. Yes, they love their SUV’s, they love driving, period. And they’ve grown up in a culture of waste. But they also have a conscience about the effects such waste have on the environment. In a sense, they are like the developing countries, just about to spread their own wings. How do they assess their own responsibilities?

Big Think has a set of six videos featuring viewpoints from various influential thinkers on this very issue. You’ll need to add some written articles to the syllabus, but hearing a mix of ideas can get the ball rolling. Have students summarize and respond to each speaker’s position to help them define their own stand. Here is the link to the videos at Big Think: Is it fair to ask developing countries to go green?

argument in the driver’s seat

When I taught a year of high school, I had my tenth graders write an argument essay about whether or not driving while talking on cell phones should be banned. We researched the topic, discussed our findings, held a classroom debate, and wrote the essay. It was a great assignment because the topic was something they cared deeply about, considering that most of them were close to getting their driver’s license.

For the debate, I made them memorize some of the facts and statistics from the research, so that their responses wouldn’t devolve into unsupported nonsense. It made a big difference, and I was impressed by their articulation backed by passion. By the time we held the debate, most students agreed that cell phones should be banned while driving, so I had to divide the class evenly to take each side. There was grumbling from those who couldn’t support their particular stand, but they all did a remarkable job defending the assigned positions. Even after the bell rang, I heard them out in the hallway pontificating.

One of the arguments in favor of talking on a cell phone while driving was that it was no different than talking to a passenger. I wish I had had the benefit of this study showing that not to be the case.