Breaking it down is Breaking me down

By Alissa Hansen

I try to stay optimistic, but I have to admit that sometimes this is hard, especially while working with 150+ high school freshmen on the research paper. Day after day, I do mini-lesson and we babystep our way(I repeatedly break down each step along the way) through the writing and research process, but I still have so many students fall off the wagon along the way and thus we have what I like to call: The Great Divide. This is when a portion of the class is moving through the steps swiftly and accurately and are eager to move onto the next step, while another portion is lagging behind. They lag because they need extra help, they think it’s too difficult, or they just do not see the purpose. This is a painful thing to witness, but one that occurs year after year with this project. The paper itself is five paragraphs and we are on week five already and there are students who have yet to complete notecards, which is the most important aspect! Again, my goal is to stay upbeat and to positively frame when duty calls, to give precise praise, and to try to keep that joy factor alive during a unit many find challenging. However, this process is taking a toll and I am finding it hard to praise or positively frame much at all with the students who seemed to have given up. I do not want to be a bitter, frustrated teacher unwilling to help, but I am struggling with having to consistently repeat directions or redirect off-task students. I know it’s hard to sustain a strong work ethic for a 45 minute period at times, but at least putting in some effort would be nice from some. Today I found myself saying to a class: “I am going to stop nagging you to get back to work and let you find out the hard way.” This seemed to do the trick for a few.

This is where I am at… I will say that the light at the end of the tunnel each week has been gearing students up for the persuasive speech, which follows the research paper. We take a day each week where students give a 30 second speech on the day’s theme. We started with an informative speech on animals then they had to argue the better of two options to hone their persuasive skills (ex. iPhone versus Samsung). Some students are asking to do this on a daily basis, so it has really added some of that joy back into this research process and see that some are truly seeing the purpose and enjoying it along the way. But it can be grueling at times.

What I find tough is while I am breaking steps down for students (and these are the ones now that are behind…way behind for a few), is that I often give too much away so they do not “solve” anything or much themselves because out of frustration, I solve it for them so they can move along and not fall further behind. How can I combat this? I think if I ask a question, it only seems to further confuse them. Now I do not usually have a template that I use for this, Lemov’s template on page 271 is what I aim for when I run into these types of situations. With the research paper students tend to struggle with taking appropriate notes and this becomes clear when looking at their rough drafts and seeing that the facts that they have included do not seem to appropriately support the claim they intend it to. So, what do you do? I have been spending much of the day walking students individually through in-text citations again as well as explaining this process by including examples and providing the context, and I am hoping that it sinks in. I always ask, “did that make sense?” and I usually get the nod, but that is not always the case when I look at the final product. This whole process is what is breaking me down…perhaps I am over-complicating things here, but I am not sure how much more can be broken down, elaborated on, explained in detail, or perhaps it is just that I am giving them too much and it’s enabling them. Either way, as much as setting expectations and building trust is important in the classroom, so is figuring out the best way to help ALL students. And this is one I need to work on.

In the words of Gloria Gaynor, “I will survive”.


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About alissahansen

This is my third year in the Davenport Community School District, my second year as a freshmen academy English teacher and my sixth year in the teaching profession. Before entering the field of teaching, I earned my bachelor's degree in journalism and anthropology from The University of Iowa, where I was also an arts and entertainment reporter for The Daily Iowan. From this experience, I became editor and publisher of local (Johnson County) arts and culture magazine, Little Village. I later entered the Masters in the Art of Teaching program at the University of Iowa and graduated with my M.A.T. in English education with endorsements in reading and journalism. I worked for three years at Clear Creek Amana High School in Tiffin, Iowa as the yearbook adviser, and a reading and English teacher. Teaching is my love, and I cannot imagine doing anything else in the world, except for becoming a parent! My husband, Wade, and I had our first son, Rhys Michel, in 2012. He is growing fast and it is a pleasure to watch him bloom before our very eyes! We are both enjoying the joys of parenthood; it keeps us plenty busy, especially now that Rhys is a full-blown three-year-old who loves to dance, especially when it's Bruno Mars or Pharrell, swim, play with cars, and read books. He is a spunky guy who loves to be on the go! We had our second son, Ellis Lee, in 2014 and we are amazed at how fast he has grown already. He is 1 and is quickly settling into his funny personality. He loves watching his older brother and mimicking everything he does as well as watching "The Little Einsteins" and dancing to the theme song. I am also due at the end of April with our first girl.

2 thoughts on “Breaking it down is Breaking me down

  1. maggierietz

    I understand your frustration, and I do think that every English teacher who has ever taught a research paper feels that way at times. Last term when I had a class of students repeating the class who mostly failed because they didn’t do the research paper, my student teacher and I decided to take the graphic organizer and break it down even further, with just one page at a time where they would fill in the topic sentence and details and concluding sentence and then write the whole paragraph out-one page for the introduction, then one to do the first main point, and so on. They couldn’t get the next page until they finished the first page. Then once they finished all of this, that’s when they typed their first draft. This was beneficial for some students, and some students hated it. So we allowed the students who hated it to just do the one page shorter graphic organizer and then type it. I do think some kids process information differently, and I wonder if we do some kids a disservice by making the assignments more of a one size fits all. Do kids need to organize and process before they do an essay? Of course. But can we give them more options on how to do it to show us the work? Maybe that’s something we all need to consider.


  2. choateka

    Urgh the research paper! How come no matter what type of group it is, there is always that “Great Divide”. Why can’t they just “get it”? I think breaking it down piece by piece is crucial for most students, especially at the 9th grade level. However, other students feel no urgency when we take baby steps, so what’s the answer? I am not sure. I’m betting there’s some kind of differentiation king somewhere that could tell us the best way to go about this, but 150 kids to organize is a little nutty. I agree with Maggie, that we’re probably doing a disservice with the one-size fits all, but isn’t that what this district/pacing guides/common core is asking us to do? I guess it’s up to each individual teacher to figure out how things such as research will fit into a class. Personally, I think the persuasive-based research paper and speech in isolation is worthless. I think we should start with just plain old research on a topic that they can inform, then move forward as far as demand, so that by the time they’re ready for a more challenging research assignment, they have the basics down. Where’s the time for that!?



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