Charging into a Minefield: Reflections on High School Humanities Writing in 2020


The other day, as we were planning out the course of her most recent English essay, one of my students mused “You know, Bryan, I don’t know if I like writing essays.” Fair enough! Every person certainly does not need to love the often-torturous process of writing. Yet as I talked with my student about the difference between writing essays for class and writing for yourself, I couldn’t help but reflect on all the ways I’ve seen students struggle with writing over my past three years as an educational coach. There are of course the usual pitfalls of bad grammar and syntax (it’s an epidemic), writer’s block, and never having read enough to internalize good examples, but the more I work with students, the more I’m noticing bad writing habits baked into their very instruction. Sometimes it feels like students are charging into a minefield laid out for them by their teachers. Needless to say, I’ve become concerned with the state of secondary humanities instruction, and indeed for these students once they arrive at college and experience an inevitable, painful re-wiring of their writing process they thought they were just beginning to figure out. If you will indulge me, then, what follows is a reflection on the actively bad writing instructions I have seen students receive from the very people who are supposed to be teaching them best practices.


Unarguable, Un-researchable Questions

Many times, as I watch students struggle with papers, the struggle has begun at the very earliest stage of the process: their research question. This issue can take two forms. Either teachers ask students to respond to a prompt that is not actually researchable, at least for a high school student, or teachers allow students to continue to write on their own, unarguable, unresearchable questions. It is this last that aggravates me the most. If college professors are still meeting with their juniors and seniors and grad students to assess the viability of research proposals, there is no excuse for high school teachers to be allowing students to use such unarguable, un-researchable things as “Was the atomic bomb necessary?” or “Did Sherman’s March to the Sea need to happen?” as their guiding questions. 


Great, Unreasonable, Expectations

Many of my students attend elite private schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. These schools pride themselves in preparing their students for college, and their honors courses can be particularly challenging. That said, the expectations of some of these teachers when it comes to student arguments blow my mind. A high schooler writing their first research paper ever in the course of AP United States History should not be expected to have a completely original thesis; not even an undergraduate capstone dissertation labors under that weight. This, along with requirements that theses be ultra-specific in their wording, leads to teachers recommending thesis statements that can stretch up to three to four sentences long! Not only does this deprive students of practice condensing their writing, but is absolutely unacceptable. The first time I was ever allowed more than a single thesis sentence was in my undergraduate history capstone, which ran over 20 pages. A whole thesis paragraph for a high school student’s 5-page reflection is mystifyingly unnecessary.


The Cardinal Sin

This one really makes my blood boil. The most fundamental element of responsible research methodology, no matter if we’re talking history, English, anthropology, or any other discipline in the humanities, is that you perform your research before you identify your thesis. And yet, whether for lack of time or some other indiscernible reason, I regularly see teachers requiring their students to form their thesis before even finding sources! The rest of the paper then becomes a targeted source scavenger hunt, and the conclusions drawn hold little intellectual value or weight as a result.


Packing Too Much into Paragraphs

This one just looks bad. It’s always difficult to pare down one’s writing, but there’s no excuse for allowing students to compose paragraphs that stretch for a page or more, let alone encouraging it! This is more often a problem in English papers than history papers, as teachers require students to descend into mind-numbingly deep levels of analysis. This is only worsened by teachers who expect students to hit every single detail of significance, regardless of how long the paper is supposed to run. Students also struggle because the 5-paragraph essay format has been taught so well that they do not understand how to split up paragraphs that are about the same sub-topic. 


Over-reliance on Quotation

Here is another incident that seems weighted more towards English writing, though it appears in some history papers as well. A good paper makes its argument and uses evidence as supporting pillars; the focus is on the subject, not the sources. Often, however, my students’ instructions seem to flip that relationship, with their long, directly quoted passages becoming the stars of the show. This only serves to make stringing together a thesis difficult, if not impossible, especially when a guiding research question has not first been established.


Bonus: How Does One Conduct Research?

Many of the above problems are exacerbated by another trend I’ve noticed, one that does not foster bad writing habits per se but does seem to fit the general trend of confusing negligence on the part of humanities teachers: an utter lack of comprehensive research support for their students. I applaud requirements to use primary sources in papers, but for any but the most advanced students, the databases for those sources, if not the sources themselves, need to be spoonfed to high school students who balk at the prospect of reading more than a short internet article as a source. More often than not, my students seem to have been thrown into the deep end of the archive pool and expected to surface with useful historical resources. The reality is usually anything but.


For all the frustration I’ve expressed here, I really am sympathetic to teachers. What is likely the case is that well-meaning educators are being held to certain learning standards and curricula time frames that simultaneously require serious writing projects while depriving teachers and students of the time necessary to do them full justice. That said, if high school writing is to serve any purpose other than simply another form of grade assessment, more focus needs to be paid to how to make students write well, not just write for that particular class’s A.


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