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Process and Product

January 30, 2011

Teacher Musings:
The tension between process and product is old one. Every teacher I know has grappled with the question of how much credit to give students for their learning process and how much credit to give for the final product. In math class it may be a question of showing work and homework completion (process) and the right answer on the test (product). When it comes to English class writing this is often an issue of pre-writing and drafts where ideas are revised and edited (process) and then the thoughtfulness, completeness and coherence of the final product (product). Sometimes the tension between these two aspects of learning is rooted in grading – how much is process worth and how much is product worth? Sometimes the tension between these two manifests itself through a student’s growth. By learning and engaging with the process a student might improve their writing or their basic math skills, but if a student starts below grade level, their product might only be a little less below grade level, even if they did improve.

These are all issues I have been grappling with for a while, and I am still figuring them out. However, as I teach a real writing class for the first time, I am also finding a bit of tension between these two when the process in some ways IS the product. After being frustrated with how my students’ final drafts of papers were disorganized, under-developed and hard to understand, the other writing teachers and I focused one whole unit on developing ideas and getting students to REALLY revise multiple drafts of a paper (and NOT just simply re-write their first draft neatly for the final). And, in many ways, it worked. My students all produced at least two drafts, and most of them produced three. And each draft was better than the last. I watched students actually respond to my comments on their drafts, and then build on those ideas. I sat down with five students and they read their papers out loud to me and fixed their OWN spelling and grammar mistakes. On their reflections my students almost all said that they learned that revising meant adding more examples and ideas and re-organizing their paragraphs and that revising was NOT just re-writing neatly.

However, while all of the papers I read showed a significant amount of improvement from their initial start, only a few of them would be what I think a 9th grader should be able to produce. It is hard, because I don’t really have a lot of examples to go from. Standardized tests are the main examples of “grade level” work I have access to, and to see what I think of those, check out my last post. Many of my students struggle with sentence structure, vocabulary, grammar and spelling. However, I have seen a lot of improvement both in this paper and the last six months in these students’ writing, due in large part to their amazing ESL teachers. Also, in this last writing assignment my students really developed their ideas more. The result was not total brilliance or even complete coherence, but it was significantly better their their previous writing, especially since I really pushed them to add detail on their own and not just wait for me to tell them which three sentences to add. So, in the end, I have evidence that my students learned a lot about how to improve their writing through a process, even though the product is not really anywhere close to where I think my students need to be.

The tension between process and product is a hard one for many reasons, but one of the main reasons I struggle with it is that I (and my students) are really judged but our products. Ideally, the process should improve the products, and, as my current papers show, it does. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that if the process is followed thoughtfully and effectiveness that the products will automatically be correct, ideal or even “good enough.” When I think about what I learned in high school, I realize that what I really learned and developed was my process. I learned to write multiple drafts and to get my ideas out first, and then develop and refine them. I learned to try all the problems in math and to figure out why I did them wrong so that I could get them right later. I learned to read and re-read when I didn’t understand something in a way that allowed me to “get it” later on. In many ways, what I needed in high school was help and guidance through the process of learning, along with some basic skills and knowledge along the way. In college I desperately needed to process to gain the knowledge my professors had to pass on. I know my high school experiance is and always will be different from my own students’ experiences for a number of reasons. But this last unit really showed me that process has value. I believe that because we did this unit and will continue with some of these practices, my students’ writing products will continue to improve, and maybe even be brilliant, but only because we focused on and valued the process in and of itself for a while.

Yummy Stuff:
I think one of the reasons I love cooking is because it is a process that you can improve over time. I have really enjoyed learning how to mix flavors, make substitutions and even create my own recipes all from following other recipes and learning what works. And of course, the result is a wonderful product – yummy vegan food! Here is a recipe from Easy Beans by Trish Ross that the G-man and I have messed with over time both veganize it and to boost some of our favorite flavors:

Snow Chili

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, minced
3 TB olive oil
1 8oz block of tempeh, cubed (and steamed if you worry about a bitter tempeh flavor – we don’t!)
3 cups of Vegetable Stock
3 cans (or 4 1/2 cups) of cooked white beans
2 tsp of chili powder
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1 TB of dried basil
1 avocado (optional)

1. In a large saucepan, saute onions and garlic in oil over medium heat until tender but not brown (about 5 min)
2. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Feel free to add more stock if the chili starts to look dry
3. Serve it in bowls topped with sliced avocado. This is also good with corn chips!

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  1. Teaching Writing: The Top Five | English Teachin' Vegan

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