An Open Letter to High School Teachers Continued

With last post’s “struggling first year college writer” typology in mind, here are five suggestions—from the abstract to the more specific—for helping increase the odds that high schoolers will succeed in writing-intensive college courses.

1) Talk with students about why writing well matters. There’s an ongoing debate in education between business first people who believe schooling is about equipping students with marketable job skills and business skeptics who prioritize things like self understanding, multicultural understanding, and human betterment writ large. Writing is a skill that both groups find valuable for different reasons—one mostly utilitarian, the other humanitarian. I implore high school teachers of all subjects to impress upon students that we’re more than mindless consumers passively participating in a global economic race. We’re social beings for whom human intimacy and friendship make life worth living. I want my first year college writing students to understand and appreciate the potential of writing to connect with others and create community. I want them to understand that writing well is imminently helpful in the job market, but can also foster greater self understanding. It can help one earn a living and live well.

2) Teach students to fixate on continuous improvement, not grades. I want my first year writing students to embrace writing as a process and fixate on continuous improvement, not grades. Many things conspire against this including scholarship eligibility requirements, graduate school anxiety, and years of family and school socialization. Students who repeatedly receive poor grades often throw in the towel on ever being competent writers. The flip-side problem is never talked about, students who routinely receive “A’s” on papers understandably come to think “A” stands for “I’ve Arrived.” Every writer likes having their strengths highlighted. Even when earning “A’s”, my most accomplished writers greatly appreciate having their “next steps” identified sometimes for the first time. As writers we exist on a continuum. We never arrive. The goal isn’t to get “A’s” on every paper, it’s to improve and take steps towards becoming more “accomplished.

3) Teach substantive, challenging content. The more deeply students have to think, the greater their momentum as writers.

4) Assign writing regularly and provide as much feedback as possible. To improve as writers, students have to write, and not just in English Composition classes. Think of writing as “organized, public thinking,” an activity best done across the curriculum. My college-aged daughter’s favorite high school teacher was the one who assigned the most writing and provided the most detailed feedback. My daughter deeply appreciated the fact that her teacher was putting in considerably more time than average helping her classmates and her become more capable writers. Teacher leaders should help others with time-saving strategies including rubric-based self-assessment, peer editing, and providing detailed feedback on a rotating subsection of the total number of students.

5) Provide and teach exemplary models of excellent writing. Criticism of the five-paragraph essay masks the fact that published writing within each genre has identifiable patterns and themes. Put differently, readers within genres come to expect certain forms. A writer’s creativity and voice are most evident at the phrase, sentence, and paragraph level. Students benefit greatly from seeing and studying especially clear writing, whether a peer’s or a professional’s. The most basic question to ask when analyzing positive examples of writing is, “Why does this piece work so well?” And then, once the elements have been identified, provide students with time to practice incorporating them into their writing.

Hope something here is motivating. Thanks for all you do and for reading.

2 thoughts on “An Open Letter to High School Teachers Continued

  1. Excellent advice on both posts! I get so irritated with college students that want to simply figure out the formula to get the grade that for awhile I stopped giving page requirements. “Do whatever you think is necessary to achieve what the assignment demands.” For some this caused inordinate stress, and, also believing that too much stress is being linked with education, I gave in and gave a ‘suggested range’.

    I do have problems sometimes with feedback. I tend to read papers focused primarily on content and fulfilling what an assignment demands that I don’t focus enough on effective writing mechanics. I notice that when students reach their senior year and are doing serious research I have to really work with them on writing skills they should have learned before. Since most have had me in class a few times by that point, I know it’s something I should have noticed earlier! So I need to take more time and improve on that (of course I’d love it if they came from high school already there, and a few do, but…)

    Another frustration are really good students who do loads of research and throw down massive amounts of footnotes and cites…but have little structure, an unclear thesis and sometimes no real point. I think in high school the research and descriptive breadth was enough to get them an “A”.

    The real reason I’m here, though, is I was going to reply to a post that my e-mail said you posted, but it seems nowhere to be found!

    • Thanks for the reply Scott. The mystery post was the result of pressing “publish” when I meant to schedule it for Monday. I do that every few months and then frantically undo it as quickly as possible. Long story short, it will reappear Monday.

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