Usually I think I have it pretty easy. My kids do their homework, get good grades, and are responsible. Having worked with students and taught college classes for years, I feel equipped to help them with homework when they need it. But this year, my daughter has an Algebra 2 class, which she hates. As a result, she struggles with learning concepts and doing homework—and her difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that her teacher basically refuses to explain material in class. Each night as she works through assignments, I sit by her, trying to explain materials (it was different when I was in school, she reminds me) and offer encouragement. Inevitably, she asks why she should even bother with Algebra 2, as her career plans will not involve math.
I have to admit that although I was a strong student in math, I have used algebra exactly three times since I left school: when I worked in a tutoring center if the math tutor didn’t show up and I didn’t have too many writing students, I would help students with their algebra homework; when my son was in high school, I would answer questions in algebra if he had them; and now I have to call on my knowledge of algebra to help my daughter. So answering her question about the value of learning something she is unlikely to need is a challenge for me.
Of course, I get the same questions from students in my college courses and workshops. They say they will never write in their careers, so learning to write is a waste of time. Based on my experience with professionals in a wide range of careers, I know this isn’t exactly true. There are a few careers that don’t require writing, but for professionals who want to advance to higher levels of management and success, writing is vital, whether they are in the medical field, finance, technology, science, or the service industry.
Even more important, though, is the fact that learning to write shapes the way people think, and it can have enormous impact on critical thinking and decision-making skills. Writing creates analytical skills when writers break down the many aspects of their topics, see how they function separately and together, and look for patterns and gaps. Writing develops the ability to synthesize information when writers gather materials from multiple sources and perspectives and draw conclusions. Writing enhances the ability to understand an audience of others and how they will think and react to information. Whether or not a student ever writes a single email or report, these vital skills will help them understand our political, economic and interpersonal worlds and make better decisions and better lives.
Is the same true of math? Of course, math requires close attention to details and adherence to established principals and procedures. It enhances an understanding of our physical world and the relationships among factors. Doing a math problem forces a student to slow down and focus on each element and its relationship to others. These are all vital skills; it just remains for me to convince my daughter of this in the same way I have to prove the value of writing to my college students.
Fewer and fewer occasions seem to require hand-written cards, the ones where you actually write in the content instead of signing on to the sentiments already contained in the card. Graduation is one of those, and writing thank you cards for graduation can be one of the many acts that signal a transition to adult responsibility.
As a recent graduate, you are coming from a series of events that are all about you, and thank you cards are an abrupt reminder that whatever you accomplished and what you do in the future really does involve others. Writing focused on others can be a challenge in any situation, but with gifts coming from distant relatives and parents’ friends, the call to write for others can be awkward. The same situation will arise when you have to write thank you letters after job interviews, so this is good practice.
The first step is writing something personal. This can be simple: I’m so glad you were able to come to my graduation party and celebrate with our family. It can also be more involved: My parents have told stories about growing up with you, so I was very excited to be able to meet you in person. I know they were happy to see you, too.
The second step is the actual thank you. Particularly with gifts of money, this can feel awkward. The simplest solution is to say thank you for the money and tell what it will be used for, as in: Thank you for the gift of money. It will really help me to pay for books my first semester in college. For a gift item, expressing gratitude can be general: Thank you for the iHome. As always, more specific writing is better, though: Thank you for the iHome. I will definitely need the alarm clock to make it to my 8 a.m. class.
Personal gifts call for a more intimate sounding thank you: Thank you so much for the beautiful gold pendant. It will be a constant reminder to me of your generosity and support as I pursue my dreams.
Even though thank you cards are relatively small, the task of filling them can be daunting. After the personal greeting and the thank you, if there is room, you can fill in with the type of newsy detail that any letter would contain. If you write really big, though, you might manage to fill the card with the basics and a signature. Either way, expressing your appreciation and building personal relationships should be the goal.
“She’s always there for me.” “Society should take care of children.” “It’s a good thing to be interesting.” “People should know better.” These are the types of general statements that appear frequently in student writing. In fact, I might get the same basic sentences in several different student papers. They are so generic that they can be used in many contexts—and they are essentially drab and meaningless. This type of general and vague writing shows students’ thinking to be vague and superficial.
Good writing, writing that people enjoy reading, moves away from these general statements to descriptions and words that readers can relate to because they can see what the writer means. Good writing replaces general terms like there, society, thing and people with concrete, sensual descriptions. Writers are often directed to show not tell. Here’s an example:
General Statement: Mary always helps her friends.
More specific: When her friend Barb was sick, Mary helped take care of her.
Very specific: When her friend Barb was struck with brain cancer, Mary went to her house each week to give Barb’s husband and two children a night away from their caretaking. As Barb’s condition got worse, Mary spoon-fed her pudding, the only food she could swallow, and adjusted her morphine levels.
In the moment: Mary cradled Barb’s head in her arms as she dipped the spoon into the pudding bowl. She spooned small amounts of pudding into her friend’s mouth, trying to appear happy and hopeful in spite of the brain cancer that was taking Barb away from her family and friends. Each time Barb moaned, Mary felt sick with grief. All she could do was to check the morphine level and give her another dose.
A lot of student writing is made up of statements like the first two above. The very specific example shows the reader what exactly was involved in the caretaking and gives a detailed account of what happened. The final example puts the reader into the scene, able to see and feel what the narrator sees and feels—and it engages the reader’s imagination and emotions. Good writing moves back and forth along a spectrum from general to in-the-moment detail. It balances what the writer wants to say with what the reader can relate to and use. However, if writing stays at the generic level, neither reader nor writer has a chance to achieve any depth of knowledge.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that 44% of college professors feel that their students are not prepared for college writing. My experience with colleagues is that 100% of them feel that some percentage of their students are not prepared for the challenges of writing in college and that the work they hand in is below standards. That seems like a pretty dire problem. I also know from experience that most high school English teachers are doing everything they know how to prepare their students.
It also seems that it could be the luck of which schools and which teachers within those schools students end up with. For instance, my son is a junior in high school and has never been assigned a paper longer than three pages. My daughter, on the other hand, is in 9th grade, and she has just been assigned a twelve-page paper. Of course, she isn’t happy about this, but I’m relieved that at least one of my children has an opportunity to do the kind of work that will help her when she transitions into college. It’s not just the length of the paper that matters, though.
Here are some elements that make a good writing assignment:
Length: Length for it’s own sake is not enough. Students do need to have an opportunity to explore a topic in depth and to have to explore more than two or three ideas related to a topic.
Subject: Students should be able to write about topics that interest them. They should also be able to investigate new topics in order to build interest in new topics. Not only should the write about materials related to literature, as in most Language Arts classes. They should be writing in other content classes about science and history. Because writing on a subject creates expertise, students should be writing at length in all classes.
Research: Students should be charged with researching topics using academically valid sources. They should learn how to evaluate the credibility of various sources and they should become familiar with experts in the fields they are writing about. Students should be asked to synthesize related ideas from varied sources and to draw some of their own conclusions.
Citation: Students should learn when it is appropriate to quote or paraphrase information. They should learn how to attribute ideas and words to their original sources. Finally, they should understand what plagiarism is and why it is problematic.
Of course, this is just a brief highlight of four of the major issues that students should experience in high school to prepare them for college. But these are challenges that many students don’t face until they get to college, when the expectations can be a surprise and a source of anxiety. The opportunity to learn and practice writing in high school where they can receive guidance in these key areas could save many students from being overwhelmed in college.
Almost every high school student learns to write the Five-Paragraph Theme. Its basic structure asks students to write
- a one-paragraph introduction with a thesis that highlights three points
- three body paragraphs, each elaborating on the points listed in the thesis
- a conclusion paragraph that restates the thesis.
The problem is that most college professors hate the Five-Paragraph Theme. Here’s a story that illustrates why. I had a student come to me for a conference to plan her 10-page research paper. We discussed her topic and came up with about six ideas that she needed to research. She developed an insightful and sophisticated thesis. I felt we had done good work. As she left, she asked “How am I going to fit all of this in five paragraphs?”
Of course there was no way she could meet all of the requirements of the assignment in five paragraphs, but that model was so ingrained that she couldn’t think outside it.
The Five-Paragraph Theme offers an easy model for teaching and learning about writing. It can even be a good starting point—however, it is totally inadequate for longer and more sophisticated writing. Students need to learn it as a starting point for writing and then build on the paragraphs to expand their thinking and development of ideas.
Given the workload of many high school teachers, it’s easy to understand why the Five-Paragraph Theme is popular. A teacher who has 100 students throughout the day would have to grade 1000 pages each time a 10-page paper is assigned. Five paragraphs generally take up only one and a half to two pages. An even better reason is that it’s easy to teach—five paragraphs with a clear structure and content makes an easy to describe and define assignment. Also, it’s easy for students who are often frustrated by the abstract and varied guidelines of writing.
The trick, which the best teachers know, is to teach the Five-Paragraph Theme as a starting point and then teach students how to build it up to meet the more sophisticated demands of college and professional writing.
“I got A’s on all of my high school writing assignments, but now I feel like I don’t even know what I’m doing.” I’ve heard this lament or a variation on it for many years in my college writing classes. The transition from high school to college can be daunting for many reasons (being away from home, adjusting to new levels of responsibility, feeling anxious or insecure, getting lost on the way to classes), but the most difficult are the increased expectations for writing.
Writing is one of the key determinants of success in college because so much of graded material is in the form of writing, even in classes like accounting or biology, where students expect to dodge writing assignments altogether. Most traditionally designed college courses base grades on one or two papers each semester, along with a mid-semester exam and a final exam—and many of the questions on exams are short essay questions.
The sheer volume of writing can be scary, and most students lack the time management and planning skills to juggle numerous writing assignments in different classes. Additionally, the level of critical thinking expected by college professors is beyond that faced by most students in high school.
From the beginning, though, reading probably poses the most overwhelming demand for most new college students. Many students are surprised to turn up on the first day of a college class and learn that they were already expected to read the first chapter or two of their new textbooks—they start off behind and struggle to catch up. It isn’t unusual for students to have to read textbook chapters along with supplemental texts, as well. Plus, if students have to do research papers, they must read the sources for those—often several articles and chapters or entire books.
If you read this and think the demands appear impossible, then you should also know that students spend significantly less time doing work in college than they did twenty years ago. And students twenty years ago did significantly less work than the students who preceded them by twenty years. When I was an undergraduate, I was told to expect about 4 or 5 hours of work for every hour spent in class. I could only expect about 2 hours for every hour spent in class from my students—and many of them did less than that.
It seems possible that we should just lower our expectations and give less work, rather than have students always feel like they are falling short. On the other hand, when the U.S. is facing dismal results on international educational studies, there might be another way to go—we could prepare high schoolers to manage the workload necessary for in-depth learning and success in college.
On my last blog, I described the default strategy that students use for writing papers. This time, I’ll discuss the ideal strategy that students should work on, one in which they use conscious decision-making for an effective process. This allows the writer to creatively shape the words on the page, making writing an art. Because writing can foster critical thinking and problem solving skills, the best approach to writing optimizes those skills. Generally, the writing process includes several stages.
The process looks like this:
- Prewriting: considering all aspects of the topic and using strategies that engage students in critical thinking—like asking and answering questions, developing a thesis that reflects an argumentative stance (one that considers the significance of a topic and how it can be used by readers) and organizing ideas into an outline that reflects coherent thinking on the topic. This is the point where students gather their materials, just as an artist gathers clay and sculpting tools and paints.
- Drafting: using the thesis and outline to develop ideas in writing, integrating explanation and evidence; and writing well developed introduction, body and conclusion paragraphs. At this stage, the writer is molding the clay and finding out what shapes it lends itself to.
- Revising: paying attention to the words on the page and how they will be interpreted by readers and making changes to enhance the writer’s control over readers’ experience of the writing. Here the writer will refine and reshape the draft, bringing out the beauty and harmony.
- Editing: using close reading to find and eliminate grammatical and sentence level errors that detract from a reader’s ability to understand the words on the page, often by knowing common errors and working to find and correct them. At this stage, the writer will put the final polish on the piece, paying attention to the tiniest detail.
Most of the professional writers I know spend a considerable amount of time prewriting. But this stage of the process is often invisible because writers review ideas and make connections in their minds. I often tell people that I wrote the majority of my dissertation for my Ph.D. while walking my dog. I would conduct research, locating the best sources by credible experts in the field and read and take extensive notes. During walks, though, I would mull over all of the new information I had collected, consider what it meant and try to find patterns and connections with previous research and with my own experiences. After hours spent contemplating information, it sometimes seemed like the drafting stage took almost no work at all.
For beginning writers, though, prewriting should take place in writing. Synthesizing ideas from various sources, teasing out patterns, recognizing inconsistences—all of this is easier when the writer can see the words on the page.
The stage that writers spend the most time on is revising. In revision, the craft of writing becomes art. Drafting provides the clay, and during revision, the writer shapes that clay, applying critical thinking skills to evaluate, rethink and rearrange until a beautiful sculpture emerges.