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.