Thoughts on Templates and Models

I’m feeling this at both the university level and the high school level, this request for a template and/or a model for the work. I’ll take on the university question another day. Today’ll be about high school.

I try to provide models, as much as I can, knowing that the best versions break the rules. For example, I wanted to try and give a George Saunders piece about a Donald Barthelme story to the kids. It was brilliant, mostly because it broke all of the annoying rules you try to teach in order to ensure kids don’t make basic mistakes. Models can produce disengagement — how will I ever get to that level — and they can produce mimicry where I end up reading a much reduced, BudLite version.

When I can, I offer hall-of-fame versions from previous classes, but as an unrepentant tinkerer, I change the assignments every year, making this difficult to do. Sometimes it’s helpful to read the work from previous students that is like the current assignment, sometimes it is not.

I try to provide templates but that creates other issues as you get the same paper over and over again. Or kids see the template and stop thinking about stuff; they just use it as a checklist. And it eliminates the issue of form, which is a powerful one to grapple with and part of the writing process; what is the best form for what you’re trying to say? The basic five-paragraph essay usually isn’t it.

There’s another issue, though, that I was trying to solve with templates this quarter, that of the student who sits there, unsure what to do next, without consulting any of the work they’ve already done. In the olden days, I can remember sitting there with a pile of index cards and a legal pad full of notes, and that’d be the material I’d use to write my papers. (I can also remember the analog version of another issue that computers cannot solve — having no notes to draw upon because I hadn’t done the work.) Too often students start writing and forget about all of the work they’ve done before the final project begins. Too often students start writing and forget all about the collective work we’ve done. I say it constantly: all the work we’ve done up to this point should have filled your toolbox and given you everything you need to write the paper. But it’s one thing when you have a pile of analog notes to draw upon; it’s another when it’s a mix of files, Canvas links, discussion board posts, and some of those analog notes.

In the world of AI, I also know I need to have the entire writing process visible. One colleague recommended Draftback, which is awesome, and does allow the writing process to be seen as a video. And unlike some of my colleagues, who ask students to put their final version into a separate document, I want to see it all in one place.

What I tried this quarter was to pile all of the big project documents into one template so that as they were writing, they could sweep up and down through a single file to look at those pieces.

Kids hated it. Hated it. Hated. It.

It’s too much.
I can’t find my work.
I don’t know where to put my work. I don’t work this way.
I want a fresh document. (I said keep inserting page breaks until everything is moved all the way down the document, but that didn’t help.)

I am thinking of the following replacements:

One, having kids submit a screenshot of several moments when they are writing, where they have three or four tabs open with the work they’re drawing from. That way I could impress upon them the need to use their previous bits as starting points. And even faking this — crap the bald man wanted us to submit a screenshot, let me open five tabs of my work — would underscore the need to use their work.

Two, having kids submit a process document at the end, where they link to the three or four bits of homework and/or classwork that were the biggest help. I envision a hyperlink with two sentences describing how this piece was helpful; maybe I could make it part of the works cited page. I could also use it as a way for them to measure their own process work — which documents proved to be the most helpful and which documents were worthless. This would give me a sense of what activities I need to replace. If I look at the entire group, too, I would get a sense of which wells everyone was drawing their water from. (This document could be something I do alongside or in place of the old “tell the story of the benchmark” process piece…)

Plan for next time: have the works cited document include a section that includes the four to five classwork or homework activities they drew upon most for their paper.