Questions & Authors: What does a good fact look like, anyway?

September 16th, 2009

In this edition of Questions & Authors, a bright student struggling with his history papers and tests reminds Sarah Cooper, author of Making History Mine, that sometimes the basic concepts that are obvious to teachers, are not quite as obvious to students. Sarah teaches eighth-grade English and ninth-grade world history at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California.

As I was planning for the upcoming school year, I found myself thinking a lot about a student I’ll call Andrew, a ninth grader I had last year in my world history class. It was obvious he was bright and engaged with the world—he could identify state and federal politicians when they came up in current events discussions, and he loved nothing more than to argue about something intense, such as national health care policy or the arrogance of Roman emperors. On days when he was absent, the discussions were not as fiery, not as fun.

Yet Andrew’s essays on in-class tests and his paragraph responses on reading quizzes did not show his passion for ideas. His history writing was consistently vague and sounded as if he was not doing the textbook reading, even when I knew he was from the notes he took. His thesis statements and topic sentences were spot-on for ninth grade, with sentences such as, “Greek democracy lasted only a brief time because its leaders became power-hungry and greedy.” However, the essays didn’t follow up on their promise, and I kept writing the same comments: “Your ideas are great, but the essay needs more facts.” “More specifics.” “More evidence needed.” In our one-on-one conversations, he was earnest about trying to include more facts in his papers.

Yet it wasn’t until the beginning of fourth quarter—an appropriate in-the-clutch time for Andrew, who loved the school’s JV football team he had joined in the fall—that it became clear what I was not teaching, and thus what he was not learning. After yet another test on which Andrew scored a B-, he made an appointment to see me after school, spurred on by his mother’s urging and by his desire to take honors European history in sophomore year. We looked at some recent essays, and he asked the golden question:

“Ms. Cooper, you say I need more facts. But I have facts. They’re just not the facts you want. What does a good fact look like, anyway?

I had been teaching history for nearly a decade without ever having been asked that question. I was dumbfounded that I had never addressed this, and I wanted to make it right.

I started by saying, “A good fact in a history paper is something you can picture in your head, like in a movie. Here, let’s look at some examples:”

Too general: “The Minoans were good in art.”
“No, I can’t really picture that,” Andrew said.

A little better: “The Minoans did a lot of paintings on the walls of their palace.”
“Okay, but then I don’t know what the paintings looked like,” Andrew said.

Right on: “The Minoans painted frescoes with bright colors and natural scenes.”
“Oh, now I really get it. You have to be able to see it,” Andrew said.

“So maybe I’m taking notes the wrong way,” he thought out loud. “I tend to write down the main ideas of each paragraph or section. Are you saying I should write down more specifics?”

Yes, I said, but warned him to be careful not to write down everything in the book: “What I would do is to think about main ideas in the section and then pick two or three specific facts you could use on any essay or reading quiz to back them up. For instance, if you want to say that the Minoans had an independent mindset, you could refer to their living on the island of Crete and to their acceptance of women in the priesthood.”

I wasn’t sure Andrew was taking away everything we were discussing, so I asked him to check his reading notes with me for the next several days. The change was astonishing—he now included a sprinkling of facts relevant to the main ideas he highlighted instead of a general overview of the entire chapter.

Before the final exam, Andrew came in to discuss what score he would need to achieve to get a B+ in the class, which would qualify him for  honors history in the fall. It turned out he needed a high B+ because his homework grade had been strong. “I can do that!” he said.

On his final exam he earned a solid A, pushing his overall grade into the high B+ range. It was as if a light had turned on for him—and it certainly had for me.

Sometimes we as teachers assume that the most basic concepts—What is a fact? What does analysis look like? Why should we ask questions about the world?—are as obvious to our students as they are to us. My meetings with Andrew reminded me that every student can improve, especially if I don’t assume understanding—and if I take the time to figure out what is really going on in his head, and in mine.

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