On Student Genius, How Not to Grade a Wiki, and Making the World a Stage

clock pictureScot Aldred asks how I assessed projects like the Broken World Wiki textbook, and I tell him I haven’t the foggiest idea. It was too long ago. More to the point, he notes that since I said in my Australia keynote that whatever I did at that time led to burnout, the better question is, “How are such edit-heavy projects best assessed?” This set me to thinking of a speech I saw a brilliant Korean student give in the Original Oratory competition at the IASAS1 Cultural Convention in Taipei, Taiwan, earlier this month, and how it challenged a lot of what I’ve been taught is “authentic” writing instruction and assessment.

But this post is as much about that brilliant young speaker, and how he and the other young prodigies at that event need to learn to showcase their brilliance by harnessing the power of the web. So, first, that Korean kid.

The Spoken

Slouched in the back rows of the auditorium, high above the stage, I looked down on this kid approaching the podium with a bit of amusement. Straight bangs down to his mad scientist glasses, thin and slightly hunched frame, he didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Even less when he took a few beats too many, it seemed to me, to adjust the microphone, pause, survey his audience left, center, right. Had he forgotten his lines? Finally, he hunches forward into the microphone and peers out at the audience from beneath those low-hanging bangs:

To the left: “Tick.”  To the center: “Tick.” To the right. “Tick.” Pause. “Time is passing, and you’ll never get a moment back.”

My cliche-meter activated, I’m already plotting a path to the most discreet exit. But he keeps going: “And that’s why I want to talk to you today about what we’re told is one of the great evils of student life: Procrastination.”

He belts that last word out with such surprising flair, both vocally and physically, wheeling his body in such a way that he takes in the whole audience with his eyes, that I’m inclined to nibble at his bait. I’ll give him a few more seconds.

“You’ve all heard it a million times from a million teachers: ‘Don’t wait until the last minute to start your essay. You’ve got a week: start drafting now.’ Or, ‘Don’t put off studying for that test until the last night.’ ” Pause. “But I’m here to tell you: the teachers are wrong. Procrastination is one of the wisest strategies for living the Good Life.”

The pleasure of the hook piercing the cheek. I relax into my seat to enjoy being reeled in.

The Heard

The student went on to marshal all sorts of evidence that real people often wait until the deadline to do their work, and they do just fine. He’s got me thinking of how I teach writing — the Six Traits of Effective Writing, using the Writing Process to revise, trait by trait, over a number of days — versus how I do it, and have always done it: in one sustained outpouring of words that normally begins around 10 pm with a full pot of coffee, and ends around dawn the next day at the bottom of the second pot. And yes, that day is the day of the deadline.

It worked for me in college, where my professors almost always praised my writing. And it has worked for me since, in all the (admittedly modest) ways my writing has been successful.

So why was I making my students practice a model I myself didn’t practice, had never practiced? Why was I forcing them to sacrifice on its altar so many irrecoverable ticks of the clock, and forcing myself to sacrifice hours as well to assess each of those revisions?

Pitchforks down, readers. I’m a strong advocate of the Six Traits, and sing its praises whenever the topic comes up. It’s a beautifully focused model for zeroing in on the fine points of the writer’s craft, and its internal logic makes it a baby worth keeping.2 My way of teaching it, though? That’s the bathwater this kid was making me think should be thrown out. (And that points toward my first gut answer to Scot: assessing wikis shouldn’t excessively weight the number of edits. It’s the quality of the final piece that should be assessed. For some writers, excellent quality will take many edits, and for others, none at all. The proof is in the pudding. If the final product lacks polish, the student should be able to show edits as proof of effort. Otherwise, ignore them.)

The Echoes

Then came the moment of the speech that lifted me powerless onto the deck, happily flapping at this young speaker’s feet: “And now let me close by warning you of your fate if you don’t procrastinate: you become that most unhealthy of things in modern civilization” — and he wheels on the next phrase, and spits it out with fire-and-brimstone perfection — “a workaholic!”

Laughter and applause all around as he speeds through the details of a life lost to obsessive perfectionism and a work ethic gone berserk, before putting on the brakes, slowing to a pause, and closing where he started, with the “Tick, tick, tick” of that precious clock that, unless we rule it, rules us: a healthy reminder that some cliches earn their status for good reason.

Toward a Bigger Stage

I left that Original Oratory event the way I had left so many others — the Impromptu Speaking, the Oral Interpretation, the Extemporaneous Speaking — at that Convention: amazed by the talent of the students, and depressed at how boxed-in it all was. That Korean student (Sung Jin J. of Jakarta International School) struck me as nothing less than a young, Asian David Sedaris, able to use his wit and verbal skills to turn his quirky physical package to his great advantage; another student, a Pakistani young man named Raheem of the International School of Manila, spoke in multiple events with such polish and intelligence I would have paid admission to see more; likewise Zach at my own school, with his Original Oratory speech about the degeneration of high school into a breeding ground for “fakes, hypocrites, and cheaters,” an institution devoted no longer to “college preparation,” but to mere “college application preparation”; and an Australian young man whose name I forget but whose speeches I never will: all of these students showed nothing less than genius. And while IASAS deserves kudos for celebrating these prodigies on the same level that we usually (and depressingly) reserve for people skilled at getting a rubber ball through a hoop, across a line, or over a fence, it still falls short of promoting them on a far broader, and at the same time far less labor-intensive scale.

You know what I’m getting at: all that genius disappears into silence or, only slightly better, onto some school website that gets ten visits a month. If they truly had the savvy popular wisdom suggests these “digital natives” do, they could be getting thousands, tens of thousands of viewers a month. And that could lead places for them.

The missed opportunity to showcase them as they deserve killed me. I approached many of them, gave them my card, told them they deserved a wider audience than the auditorium, and I wanted to help them reach it. It was all unplanned, so I cast about in my mind for possibilities: I could propose to my old colleagues at Change.org that they publish these students as guest-writers. I could see about interesting them in reviving Students 2.0. I could feature them on this blog.

But all of those ideas are more complicated, it seems to me now, than necessary. It seems to me that all those students need to do is start their own blog, or YouTube channel for their orations, and share their talents with the world that easily. When they launch, they can tell me, I can tell you, and we can all promote them and send viewers their way. And then the unpredictable possibilities of “Open Living,” to quote Alan Levine — the possible job offers, interviews, feature articles, and the million other serendipities — are given their opening. And maybe these young geniuses can be discovered before they graduate high school.

Image by zoutedrop

  1. Interscholastic Association of Southeast Asian Schools []
  2. of course you start with Ideas, and of course Organization comes next. The desired Voice is going to dictate the Word Choice, and those choices have to be made before you turn to Sentence Fluency. And only after all of those traits have been attended to does it make sense to check the Grammar and Mechanics. Nobody, contrary to what so many students seem to have “learned” through skool, ever put down a piece of grammatically perfect writing with suckily unoriginal ideas and said, “Such flawless grammar! A masterpiece!” So I get it, okay? It’s beautiful. []

5 thoughts on “On Student Genius, How Not to Grade a Wiki, and Making the World a Stage”

  1. Wow, I would have loved to have heard those students speeches. I don’t suppose there’s a recording of it? Speaking of procrastination… I know very few people (in college and at work) who actually follow the writing model. In my case, I need to write a 7-9 pager for my religion and science class. (It’s on how we’ve viewed the universe from Aristotle to Newton, and evaluating if Kuhn’s paradigm shifts adequately describe the changes in the scientific thought.) I’ll be up late tonight, but I’m confident I’ll have a good (if not great) paper by the end of it.

    1. Hi Lynne,

      I’m putting out a full-court press to find and persuade those students to do as I propose above. More soon if they take the bait (and a fund-raising drive to pay for their head examinations if they don’t–they were so good my head exploded).

      Sounds like a fun paper. Don’t procrastinate 😉

  2. I MISS Students 2.0 and still maintain contact with a number of the contributors.

    Please share the links to these young people’s blogs, if they ever start writing posts.

    Now that I’m retired, I need to find other ways to stay attuned to student voice.

    1. Working on it, Diane. I’ve been too preoccupied with the classroom to be active on the network these days, so I wonder if any of the s2oh founders are wanting to revive it?

      After the Change.org experience–writing to the point of burnout–I understand more why they petered out. But between a complete cessation and an arbitrary “write daily” policy, there’s got to be a middle way.

      Glad to hear the upbeat tone’s still there. I’m dying of the humidity down here and generally droopy as a result :(

  3. Clay,
    I got completely hooked whilst reading your postings, you have a style of writing that just makes me want to read more – I am very jealous! I’m studying to be a Maths teacher (hence the poor writing skills – more a logical brain), and loved your sentence “Why was I making my students practice a model I myself didn’t practice, had never practiced?”. This is a concern of mine in the area of Mathematics, where I feel we are losing contact with what students really need Maths for in todays world. I enjoyed Maths at school but mostly because I was good at it – it’s going to be a real challenge to keep students engaged in a subject they may only use 10% of in their entire life. Thanks for inspiring me to challenge the current system and to see if I too, like you can teach outside the norm and get away with it!!
    Cheers, Laura

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