Why my students hated “Homegrown Tomatoes”

Most of them have no experience with homegrown tomatoes. Of those who do (which was maybe two out of the 21 students in this class), one likes them and the other (Cameron) prefers stuff bought from the store.

This is evidence that learners require reasons that make sense to them (see the Learner’s Bill of Rights). Of course they have a hard time responding to a writing prompt that has no relevance for them.

It is also evidence that critical thinking is perhaps impossible when the subject matter and context are unfamiliar.

However, this space is important: this moment when they do not have sufficient information or knowledge with which to proceed. This moment is where teaching them about templates becomes really useful.

Two of my five guys from English 100 can serve as good examples here. The first, Zack, has prior experience with college-format research papers. Presented with the ideas of Graff & Birkenstein in They Say/I Say regarding template use, he was able to make sense of their suggestions and apply them to his assignments.

The second guy, Daniel, missed a chunk of high school and never wrote an academic research paper in his life. Presented with Graff & Birkenstein’s ideas regarding template use in paper writing, he found that he had no frame of reference and so was unable to make sense of or apply their suggestions.

Zack had already had the chance to develop a mental template for research papers. Even though the ideas in the textbook were new to him, he could make sense of them because he already had a model in his head, to which he could apply new knowledge. Daniel had no such template in his head. He has never studied writing before, at least not within a rhetorical framework that assigns a persuasive reason to each aspect of a writing model. Thus, he felt he had no frame of reference and no interpretive vocabulary that would apply to this new situation.

However, I think that they both would have been able to make use of the information in Graff & Birkenstein if Daniel had had the chance to, while reading, discuss the text with someone who could relate the authors’ suggestions back to experiences and models that are familiar to him. Like any language-speaking human in an industrialized country, Daniel receives and interprets advertising messages all the time. These messages are structured in accordance with their purpose, and, like research papers, they are composed according to basic templates.

Examples of advertising templates/models/guidelines:

  • Create a sense of urgency through word choice and punctuation. Keep sentences short to maximize impact and sense of urgency. (“Limited time only! Act now!”)
  • Use costs ending in “.99” in order to keep the first dollar amount low, making customers think they are spending less than they really are. (“All you can eat for $3.99!”)
  • Bundle items together to sell more product. Customers like a bargain, so they will buy more if they think they are getting it for less, even though they are actually spending more than they would if they only bought part of the bundle. (“Extra value meal: burger, fries, and drink for $5.99!”)

Unfortunately, I expected that my students would have some experience with academic-style papers, and I did not provide the kind of step-by-step correlation that Daniel could have made use of. I will have to think of how to rectify that. Perhaps I can devote the next session of English 100 to correlating Graff & Birkenstein’s ideas to everyday communication.

Daniel deserves a map.

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