This fall semester I taught I class I designed called Ethnography of Education. In the class, the students learned sociological concepts/theories of education and ethnographic research skills. They created a simple research question, chose a research subject, and observed and interviewed their subject. They retrieved a document from their subject and/or related to their research question, and analyzed it. Their final project was an auto-ethnographic presentation of their educational experience (pre-K through present) through the analysis of three personal artifacts.
One of the many things I learned from teaching middle school and high school for 11 years before teaching college is the importance of model texts. A model text can a piece of literature to demonstrate a literary element or technique, or a model text could be a sample paper, project, or presentation given to the students ahead of time so that they understand what exactly they are supposed to do. Of course, a model text is best coupled with a clear rubric or grading expectations, and that is one area I always wish I did ahead of time but, I must admit, I often don’t.
I did a model auto-ethnographic presentation for my students. Not only did my presentation guide them for their own presentations, but it was also a time for me to share my educational ups and downs. My students, mostly aged 18-21, are at the beginning of the important realization that we–as humans–are dynamic; we can change. If they have made it to the end of their first semester of community college many are in the process of understanding that school might actually be something they can do and maybe even do well–this is a new idea for them. They need to know their professors maybe struggled in school, too, at some point–that we weren’t born knowing how to read, write, and think. It is with this in mind that I bought in the following:
What you see below is my first research paper, written in 10th grade. Actually, mine is on the right. Heather Parks’ is on the left. Why do I have her paper? I stole it. Yes, you read that correctly: I stole my friend’s paper. I don’t actually remember taking it. I used to study at Heather’s after school; she was the most hilarious person and we had so much fun. Our study sessions often devolved into us coloring on each others’ feet, taking photos of ourselves with panty hose on our heads, or teasing our hair into a glam rock frizz and singing into a tape recorder to see what we sounded like. I’m sure it was pretty easy to snag her paper and slide it into my backpack when she was off gathering more props for our antics.
I didn’t take Heather’s paper to copy it, I took it because, as evidenced below, she got an A and I got a C+. But if you look closely, you can see that my C+ was a mercy grade from my English teacher because the ghost of a slashie grade lies below it: my paper was first given a C-/D+. I am sure the teacher changed it because I was a nice kid, not because it deserved a better grade.
I took Heather’s paper because I didn’t understand why Heather had gotten an A and I had gotten a fake C+. I had worked hard on this paper, I had followed all the teacher’s directions, and I was very interested in my chosen research topic (still am!). What had I done wrong? I was confused, but add to that confusion a hefty dose of embarrassment and shame for such a grade and I felt paralyzed. I didn’t want to ask the teacher what I had done wrong, and, as you can tell by the comments, coming to see him wasn’t offered (or requested) as a solution. I felt like the entire class must know something I didn’t know. Did I miss the days when they were all taught how to write such a paper? I had perfect attendance all through high school, so that wasn’t the case. I knew Heather was smarter than me, but I also knew I was a better than average student. I felt lost, like everyone was in on a joke except me, so I stole her paper.
I used Heather’s paper as a model text to guide me through the rest of high school. I never plagiarized it, I just followed it like a set a directions. I used this strategy throughout undergrad, too. My friend Andrea, who was a beautiful writer, let me look at her papers for guidance and that’s what they did–they guided me until I was confident enough to write alone. During my doctoral work, while writing my dissertation proposal I read, studied, and examined multiple proposals in the department’s office for help while crafting my own. While writing my dissertation, I read/studied many dissertations online and formatted my chapters and table of contents after a colleague’s who had impeccable organization (Thanks, Ameena!). I have used model texts as an academic survival strategy for as long as I can remember.
I took Heather’s paper when I was just shy of 16 years old. It moved with me from Virginia to North Carolina to New York; it has lived in over a dozen houses and apartments since the theft. I have kept it all these years to remind myself how I lost I once felt in the classroom when it came to writing. I told this to my students and I passed around my fake C+ paper and Heather’s A paper. My students were astounded that I stole something and that I was ever that lost in school, but my last artifact is what elicited the most responses from my students: my dissertation.
I didn’t not bring my dissertation in to show off, I brought in the 302 page bound beast (on a day of pouring rain, I might add) for the purpose of contrast and they got it. I wanted them to see that once writing had been such a burden for me that I stole my friend’s work, but that 20 years later I had written a dissertation in order to get a Doctorate of Education from an Ivy League school. I told them I still have a flood of emotions when I see my diss–everything from a defiant anger as in, “F*#k you, haters! I did it!” to a geeked-out and giggly, “I wrote that! (insert snort here). And I told them how I used model texts again and again and again when I got stuck along the way. I hope they took away that they could easily do what I did–the potential is there in so many of them. I have a few former students who are my colleagues, and I can’t wait for the day when one of my former students becomes a faculty member.
Teachers: use model texts whenever possible with your students. Show them your papers. Use other students’ papers, either from the years prior or from a student in class who has finished early. Draw from literature and non-fiction to demonstrate how to read like a writer and how to steal ideas (not words) on how to write from other people’s writing. Model and model and model some more on how to write paragraphs, thesis statements, and quotes. I feel I can’t do this enough in my classroom, but each and every time I take 30 minutes or so of class time to model a writing skill, it always pays off in the students’ writing.
I never want a student of mine to feel how I felt that day when we got those research papers back in 10th grade, to feel like the whole class was in on an academic secret that I was not privy to and too ashamed to ask what that secret was. I have carried Heather’s paper with me for 24 years as a reminder of that feeling; it obviously left a pretty significant academic scar.
And Heather, sorry I stole your paper.