When you plan a vacation, what do you do first? Do you decide where to go—to the beach, to a Broadway play, to Graceland—or do you pack your skies?
Likewise, when you are given a topic to write about by your teacher—for example, Who is responsible for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet?—what do you do first? Do you consider which characters might be responsible? Or do you search for a citation—any citation—and work backward from the citation to a person responsible?
I suspect most ninth grade ELA teachers expect their students to start by thoughtfully considering who might be responsible for Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths. Could it be impetuous Romeo who cannot wait to have sex with Juliet? Could it be Juliet’s father, who is forcing Juliet to marry Paris against her will? Could it be hotheaded Tybalt, who starts a sword fight which leads to Romeo being banished?
I suspect most ninth grade ELA teachers do not want their students to read a given source material, find a good quote, and base their whole essay on that one quote.
But last week, a ninth grader I tutor, instead of considering who might be most responsible for Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths, started organizing his essay by searching the sources his teacher supplied for words which said someone—anyone—is responsible. Then he based his essay on that information which he cited.
In discussing my student’s approach, I learned my student really thought that to write an essay using citations he should start with a citation (or in his case, three citations) and go backwards in search of a thesis that would incorporate those three citations. As a result, his thesis was three-pronged and vacuous. His essay did not contain a central, controlling idea.
What happened here?
- Did his teacher think a previous teacher taught him how to write using citations? Did she think she didn’t need to teach that all over again?
- Did his teacher think she didn’t need to sequence the process of writing an essay using citations? Did she think that of course the student would know to start with the idea and then find supporting information?
- Did my student miss the main idea of using citations, that they back up—support—prove—ideas?
- Was my student taking the lazy way out—or so he thought—by finding a citation first?
Whatever. From this experience, I learned that
- Teaching how to use citations begins with why we use citations—to have outside, often expert sources back up our ideas.
- Teaching how to write an essay using citations is necessary even if other teachers have already taught the process.
- Students need to practice using citations over and over until they get it. Writing one essay in eighth grade and another in ninth grade is not enough.
- Students must have an idea first before looking for experts to back it up.
- Teachers need to say that starting with a citation and then backtracking to an idea or a thesis will probably lead to a weak, poorly written essay and a low grade.