A way to understand how we have progressed as a writer is to look at some of our older pieces of work. One such work I still have in my possession from sixth grade is a two page essay about Tchaikovsky. I kept it because I remember my music teacher saying it’s good to keep work you have written as something to refer back to and maybe use for future projects. Perhaps it finally has achieved that purpose as I refer back to now. A whole nine years later.
My thesis statement for this essay essentially said that Tchaikovsky had a depressing personal life, but he was still able to create very beautiful pieces of music. Reading that again just made me laugh because it was so awkwardly stated. My teacher thought it was a great introduction as she stated in pen in the side margin of the paper. I wonder now if it made her laugh at the time.
That essay was one of my first research essays. At Crossfield Elementary the composer essay was one of the big assignments that each sixth grade class did. You recognized when this assignment was happening because the lower grades saw sixth graders listening to their composer’s music in the hallway outside the library. You knew one day that you were going to do the same assignment as them someday. This was the assignment that introduced students to research involving print and online sources.
All that I was learning in each level of English, from Kindergarten to fifth grade, was preparing me to get ready for that essay. What did I learn that helped prepare me for that Tchaikovsky essay? I learned how to write, read, type, and how to use a computer.
My early introductions to the English language and writing technology started in Kindergarten. Each Kindergartner had a notebook with the outlines of all the letters in the alphabet. A single page would be devoted to one letter such as A and then the rest of the alphabet followed after. Tracing the letters with pencil was our time to learn the shape of the letters and how to properly hold a pencil. We had rubber grips to help us figure out where to place our fingers on the pencil. They taught us to space out words by placing our finger after the word we had written and then writing the next word after it. They even gave us Popsicle sticks with faces drawn on them as cute little tool to figure out the spacing between words.
I went to summer school either after Kindergarten or 1st grade, and I was attending because I needed help learning how to read. It was a small class, maybe five or six other kids with me. Our teacher would read to us and help us sound out words. We did other activities, and one I still remember is that we played with clay and instead of sculpting something I decided to write out the word “the.” I’m not sure if the point was to make words with clay or if it was just what I wanted to do during that activity, but I felt very proud of making the word “the” with clay. The last day of summer school was on my birthday. I remember my Mom brought in cupcakes to class and other kid’s parents were there too. My teacher made a small crown for me and it was the perfect way to end summer school.
During the normal school year I also received extra help since I was a student with a learning disability. It is not severe or something that I deal with daily. When I was younger I was told that I have a processing disorder, which means that it’s harder for my brain to absorb information, especially in rooms with a lot of background noise or distractions. For math and reading classes I was taken out of the main classroom to a separate room with some other kids in my class. We would read stories and discuss them to help with our comprehension of the story. We even performed one of the stories for the students in the main classroom.
There may have been times back then that I felt self-conscious about having a learning disability, but in the end I think students in that other room got a better environment to study in. There were less then ten students in the room so everyone had an opportunity to speak or ask questions, and the teachers in the room had more time to pay attention to us individually. Besides recess I think Special Ed was my favorite part of the day in elementary school.
That was not the only time I was taken out of the classroom. I was also removed fromthe classroom about once a week to practice making th- sounds with the school’s speech therapist. My th- sounded like an f and so I had to practice saying words with th- in it to stop doing that, or at least be concious of it. They way to make the th- sound is that you have to place your tongue between your teeth as you say the part of the word with the th- in it. My speech therapist had me say words like the, than or thanks over and over again. Thanksgiving was a popular word along with the, there and thanks. Those lessons are still ingrained in me today and when I catch myself making a f sound instead of th- I correct myself immediately.
It is hard to remember specifically when certain lessons that were relevant to research and essay writing happened, and so I can only describe what they involved and not what year in school they took place. The one that was most useful to developing my digital literacy was learning how to type.
I remember there was a computer game that helped us practice our typing. It showed you where you should keep your hands on a keyboard and what fingers you should use to reach certain keys. Your pointer fingers rest on the f and j key and your thumbs rest on the space bar. The letters closer to particular fingers are the ones that finger will reach for. Before I learned to type I would handwrite any paper that needed to be typed and then my Mom would type out what I had written and type it out for me. I think I resisted for a while following the instructions given in the game, but once I started typing more regularly I got more practice and realized how much more quicker it is to type as the game advised.
The other lesson that was important for my development as a writer was the structure of an essay. We learned the burger method for essays. Top and bottom buns were the introduction and conclusion, and the ingredients in the middle were the main body of the essay. I remember that our teacher gave us sheets with blank outlines to fill in for short essays we wrote in class. Each paragraph would have a topic sentence and line below it were to give supporting details for the topic sentence. We probably used these blank outlines when we started writing the essay on our particular classical composer.
The other thing I think helped me prepare for research was an activity where I was timed while reading a short article on any given topic. I remember one was about angler fish and I think another was about a psychic helping the police catch a criminal. The teachers probably wanted a variety of topics to keep students interested. During the activity we also had a highlighter to mark important information in the article. We did this as we were reading the article, and at the same time we were being timed for how long we read it for.
One of the things we did at first, that our teacher started to discourage with us, was highlighting the whole article as we read it. Doing this did not help us with locating pieces of information that we would need when answering questions after reading the article. This activity was probably only meant to help our reading comprehension, but I think it also gives a lesson on how to take notes when doing research. You make notes in the book or on a separate piece of paper with information that is important to your research objectives. Not only will this help you refer back to your notes and find useful information it will help with your overall understanding of the topic too.
Now let’s mix all these lessons together and see how I wrote an essay on Tchaikovsky. Each student was given a slip of paper at random with a name of a composer. When I first looked at mine I did not know how to pronounce his surname (Chai-caw-ski). If you did not know Tchaikovsky was the one who composed the music for The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty, two of his well-known ballets. He also composed many other symphonies and concertos during his lifetime. I learned about his life and work from biographies about him and information I found online.
Our class did most of our individual research either at home or in the time allotted for us at school. The allotted time was spent in the library where the librarians had set aside any books concerning our composers to read through, or classical music on a cart for us to listen to. As hinted at earlier in the thesis I wrote for this paper, I was intrigued by the conflicts going on in Tchaikovsky’s personal life. One detail I went over in short paragraph concerned Tchaikovsky’s horrible marriage. All you need to know is that Tchaikovsky abandoned his wife soon after marrying her, and nearly committed suicide until he finally went abroad. I honestly put in this in my essay, and concluded this paragraph by saying “He never attempted marriage again.” The site I looked at to verify what I recalled about my essay actually looks similar to the one I used back then. Could be the same one.
The part involving online research was new for to learn. We definitely used Google and I can’t recall if we used any databases at the time. I don’t think I learned anything about databases until high school. The other part we learned was how to cite a source. Looking at the old essay I see no in-text citations, but there is a references page for all the sources I got information from. This was something our teachers told us to keep track as we were taking notes during our research time. We wrote down the citation for the book or online source we were reading from at the time so we would know where we got each bit of information for our essay. I think this was also the first time I encountered Wikipedia. I remember being excited to use it until my teacher said it was not allowed. A lesson I carried with me to college.
This project was a good warm-up before we graduated from elementary school and headed off to middle school. It taught us the basics for research that we would be doing again in middle school and high school. While this project was probably not a critical turning point in my life it was very educational and an easy practice before the real essays were assigned.
That’s the one thing that amazes me when I reread that old essay was seeing how much my writing and literacy has changed since sixth grade. That helps you realize how much you’ve aged when your old assignments from elementary schools make you cringe. They can make you laugh too though. If you have old essays lying in drawers somewhere they are worth revisting, whether to revise or get laugh out of them, that’s up to you.