There Should Be A Medal

The most extraordinary, ordinary thing happened to me recently.

A former student, a career changer, early fiftyish former draftsperson, wrapping up his third year teaching English/Language Arts at a local high school, contacted me.

After a long school day in the middle of May, he tucked his students’ essays under his arm, got in his car, and instead of driving home, headed to my university office. He wanted my help better preparing his students for college level writing. He admitted he wasn’t doing a good job teaching writing and didn’t really know how to improve.

He deserves a medal of some sort for a trifecta of positive attributes that are a powerful formula for self improvement writ large. Not just self improvement, a foundation for strengthening the common good.

1) Self-compassion. His starting point was the essence of this NYT essay:

‘I’m an imperfect human being living an imperfect life.’

2) Selflessness. He cares deeply about his students. So much so he wants to increase their odds of success in college, and in turn, life.

3) Initiative. 999 out of 1,000 high school English teachers are content not really knowing if they’re doing their best to prepare their students for college level writing. They have lots of other, more pressing things to do after work.

self-compassion + selflessness + initiative = personal growth

We had a great conversation despite my being distracted by two things. First, I was struck by the fact that college writing is a topic I know a lot about. That was a nice realization, because like most people I suspect, sometimes I wonder if I have any expertise.

Second, I was distracted by the realization that I don’t do what my fellow educator was modeling so powerfully. I have a lot of acquaintances and friends who are way more knowledgeable about and/or skilled in areas I’d like to learn more about and/or improve, yet I never ask them if they’d be up to teaching me.

Why is that? There are lots of possibilities. Maybe I’m not secure/vulnerable enough to embrace my imperfections. Or maybe I’m too lazy a sad sack (how’s that for self compassion). Or most likely, despite how much I enjoyed helping my former student, I just don’t want to impose on them.

I’m not alone. Most people pay experts for specialized knowledge and skills or watch “Do It Yourself” YouTube tutorials. The person who asks a friend or acquaintance to teach them something they don’t know is the wonderful exception to how most of us approach life.

 

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.

An Open Letter to High School Teachers

During Saturday morning’s 16-mile run, the high school princiPAL asked me to write his faculty about what they can do to increase the odds that their college-bound students are successful once at their universities of choice. Happy to, but I should note from the outset that I’ve massaged the request by focusing more exclusively on how to help the college bound improve as writers—a critical component to succeeding in college.

A confession. The following typology of first year students who struggle with the transition to college-level writing is an exercise in pre-writing, an incomplete, initial draft. Consider this a sneak-peak at my process. In the final draft, which needs to be framed positively, I’ll focus on what high school teachers might do to help college-bound students succeed in writing intensive courses.

Some background. I was a high school social studies teacher for five years—four in Los Angeles and one in Ethiopia. I teach graduate pre-service teachers and first year writing seminars. It’s my Writing 101 teaching that informs what follows. More specifically, I’ve taught first year writing seminars at two liberal arts colleges over the last two decades on changing themes of my choosing including: Globalization; Reinventing the American High School; The Challenges and Rewards of Teaching; and currently, The Art of Living.

Here are five first year college student types that often struggle with the transition to college writing:

1) “Inflated Sense of Skills” student—This predicament is most common among students who graduated from high schools marked by serial absenteeism; unfinished, late student work; and missing assignments. Quite often, given the informal “not everyone can fail” grading curve at work in these schools, students who complete their work on time end up receiving very good marks without much attention to the quality of the work. These students develop identities as “A” students; consequently, it’s disorienting when they receive lower grades on their initial college papers. It’s difficult for these students to quickly adjust from being ahead of their high school peers to being behind their university ones who attended more rigorous high schools.

2) “Five Paragraph, Standardized Essay Exam” student—These students, who tend towards concrete-sequential thinking, have committed the standard five paragraph essay form to heart. They have become so adept at the five-paragraph essay—a thesis, three main points, three supporting details—that they think of writing as a “fill in the blanks” activity. As a result, their writing lacks voice and fails to engage readers.

3) “Grade Fixation” student—These students view writing like everything else school-related, as a no holds barred competition. The single-minded goal is to earn the highest possible grade on each individual paper. They resist the notion that writing is a process requiring continuous editing and they have an aversion to feedback. Continuous improvement is less important than earning “A’s”. These students tend to dislike writing.

4) “Narrow Repertoire” student—These students let it be known early on that they “love creative writing” and “dislike doing research papers”. Or less often, “love doing research papers” and “dislike creative writing”. Preferred forms are completely understandable, but these students’ sensibilities about their writing strengths and next steps are far too fixed.

5) “Interpersonally Challenged” student—These students struggle to interact thoughtfully with their classmates. They don’t listen attentively to others and/or maintain consistent eye-contact with whomever is speaking. Sometimes they talk over others and dominate discussions to the point that the other students eventually tune them out. As a result, these students fail to earn the respect of their classmates and don’t fully benefit from peer editing.

Stay tuned. By reflecting on this typology I’ll come up with what high school teachers might do to help college-bound students succeed in writing intensive courses.