Writing Papers In a Digital Age

It’s an icy Sunday afternoon, right before the dreaded return-to-school on Monday, after a long--and thoroughly–enjoyed holiday break.

Now reality is setting in.  The eighth-grader must write a couple of historically-based paragraphs on slavery for social studies. The sophomore must complete his biology capstone project.  I am determined to organize several cupboards.  

With all of us in the same room, it’s both oddly amusing and highly informative to observe. 

Convinced that the most important part of any assignment is the learning how to organize oneself, I force myself to not give any helpful suggestions.  

The eighth-grade social studies project is done with a partner. Apparently this is best accomplished by utilizing their Xbox headphones and talking like they do every night, only the games are not up and the wireless signal allows them to leave their TV’s.  Both sit at their own computers.  Treacherous road conditions outside mean nothing to their collaboration.

They log into their individual accounts on Google Docs.  Jokes and commentary fly between them, nothing to do with history or writing.  I hold my tongue.  Finally, they begin. The two mesh their ideas by staring at the same document.  My son dictates, and the other types, the new sentences appearing simultaneously.  Then they switch roles. Spelling mistakes and grammatical inconsistencies show up with red lines underneath, which they fix quickly.  

Since it was to be historically based, occasionally they alt-tab over to another screen, and look up a date with a quick google search.  Their quick research concludes, and they add in another  fact. Twenty minutes later, they hit “share”, and they’ve sent an email to their teacher that their job is done, complete with a timestamp.  It’s not perfect work, and I make a mental note to find “Twelve Years a Slave” to watch together to perhaps open his eyes a bit more... but I’m happy to see it done, on time, and congratulate him on being responsible.

The high school capstone project involves much more, including the all-important time management skills. Apparently it requires music for concentration, and getting the right speakers with which to stream Pandora is also vital. His phone at his side–it’s always at all their sides, like some sort of an appendage that just needs charging occasionally–he answers texts, posts to Facebook, checks Snapchat, listens to music... and does research, all at once.  I am appalled and amazed, and congratulate my self-restraint when I only once mildly offer, “Maybe a little more focus might be better?”

His four books stacked around him, he clearly prefers the web. But he faithfully used the teacher-established criteria to judge sources he finds.  “Do you think Wikipedia is OK, Mom? Or what about Dairy Farm Management?” As he works, he compiles it into a bibliography, just by copying and pasting the web addresses.

The capstone requires two parts: a written paper and a presentation.  He opens PowerPoint, and starts searching for photos, which Google again delivers.  He compares, chooses, right clicks, copies, and pastes, several times over.  “Do you think a sheep or a pig is better?”   He sends me an email, with the link out so that I, too, can read his paper, and suggest edits. I insert commas after introductory clauses (“What do you have against commas anyway?” I ask).  I encourage more details (“What happens to the rat in the experiment?”).  He checks teacher comments on his earlier efforts, which are listed on the side of the screen in Google Docs.

By the end of their projects, I am impressed by both of my sons’ competencies. They are learning how to research, judge veracity of sites, cite sources, sort through differing opinions, and arrive at their own conclusions.  They have written sources, website searches and peer collaboration. The key to both of their assignments was taking an idea, fleshing it out, and coherently presenting it.  It takes organization of thought, combined with tools like sentence structure and grammar, and good questioning and research.  

Time management challenges notwithstanding, the capstone gets completed. “I am glad that’s done,” he sighs. “That’s not really a lot of fun.”

“You know,” I say carefully, “what you have just done is much bigger than a simple biology paper on cloning.”  He looks up skeptically. “These are skills you need for everything.  This researching, sourcing, writing?  All this organizing your thoughts, getting them down?  The worry about deadlines and learning how much time it actually takes?

“All that,” I conclude, “all that stuff, you’ll do over and over again. For other classes in high school.  For college.  For work.”  

I grin over at him, proud of both his learning and efforts.  “All through life, my son, all through life.”

Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools–now at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels.  She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment, the Brattleboro Town School Board and the Early Education Services policy council.  Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..