Sometimes you just have to write…
I’ve expressed my doubts about exams before. And here I am, writing this blog entry, as, again, I make my students suffer through an exam. Actually, this isn’t the real exam, but they need to practice it, so that’s what they’re doing.
It’s Paper 1 of two papers for the final exam, each of which counts for 25% of their grade in English for their diploma. So, although the test isn’t for months, I’ve started having them practice, and they’ll write at least one practice test – Paper 1 or Paper 2 – every week for me until April.
Paper 1 is an “unseen comparative commentary.” That means the students are given two texts that are related in some way – usually a common theme – and they need to compare them in terms of purpose, genre, structure, diction, or whatever else strikes them as relevant to the comparison. The first of today’s texts is an excerpt from a book about punctuation, called Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss, which gives specific rules for the use of apostrophes. The second is a few pages, including illustrations, from a quick-start guide for a gps navigation system.
(By the way, Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a brilliantly witty take on punctuation. I would never in a million years have expected to enjoy reading a book about punctuation, but this one I read cover to cover, chuckling out loud all the while.)
So the obvious reason I’m making them do this is to practice the art of comparing two very different texts and pulling that comparison into an organized essay.
The less obvious reason is physical training, something you and I – assuming you’re about my age – didn’t need to worry about in secondary school. These kids, on the other hand, almost never write anything of any length with pen and paper. Their hands can’t manage writing for two hours. For that matter, neither can mine. Ten minutes of hand-writing is about my limit these days before my wrist starts aching.
In my day (Don’t I sound like an old codger?), we didn’t have computers. We wrote all day in our lessons, mostly taking notes while the teachers droned on and on. Then we hand-wrote our essays, recopying them out neatly for the final draft to hand in. Or, we’d type them, on a typewriter, but we still hand-wrote the first draft. It never would have occurred to me to type a draft.
So when test week came around, the state of my writing hand was the least of my problems.
Nowadays, it’s a problem. These kids never hand-write more than a few sentences. They have computers at home. Some have laptops or tablets that they bring to school. And they rarely have to take notes the way we did because teachers don’t lecture the way they used to. I can’t imagine even these academically-minded students sitting still for the 45-minute-long lecture that was the norm in my 1970’s high school. Teachers today might talk for ten minutes, but then the next phase of a lesson will be more interactive: a group assignment, a discussion, or whatever else that involves more active learning.
Starting at the beginning of May, these students will have to take hours of tests that they’ll have to write by hand. Two papers for English, each for one and a half or two hours, depending on their level. For some subjects they have to write three papers. And their hands aren’t up to it. So the other teachers and I are beginning to train them.
They’re sniffling, they’re sighing, and they’re stopping from time to time to shake out their writing wrists, which undoubtedly hurt. And I wish I didn’t have to do this to them.