Friday, June 6, 2014

Back to High School: What Do High School Students Want to Know About College Writing?

Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting 7 high school senior English classes with three of my colleagues from the writing center. Our mission was to introduce high school students to the world of college writing before they got there. It was a great day, and I really enjoyed getting to learn what high school students thought about college writing.

While we prepared a great handout that talked about being context-appropriate, making arguments, and campus resources, etc., we wound up turning our original formal lecture with some discussion plan into a Q & A session. Our icebreaker was to have each student write a question or something they'd heard about college writing down and put it in a basket. Then we would read a few anonymously and discuss in conjunction with our planned lecture/handout. This wound up being the heart of each presentation, which tackled most of the stuff we had written down for them anyway.

I thought it was really a great moment. We saw how much high school students already knew and what they feared most. Here are some of the most asked questions:
How much writing is there? 
Is college writing really hard? 
How long is a typical paper in college? 
How many research papers will I write in a semester?
How serious is plagiarism?/Is it really important to use MLA citations?
Of course, most of our answers came with a "it depends" disclaimer, though we told students that they should expect to write in every major and that it was "harder" but only in the sense that it was more advanced (like high school had been in comparison to junior high). My colleague explained that work was scaffolded, typically, and that they wouldn't be expected to write 25 page papers on day one and that different disciplines had different approaches to writing. She also explained that college writing was like going to the gym-- on day 1, no one picks up the 100-lb. weight, but with time, we can lift much more than expected. We reminded them that they were students, and that they were there because they had something to learn, that they shouldn't be discouraged if they didn't find immediate success, but be open to constructive criticism and learning experiences. We also encouraged students to be proactive and to talk to their professors when they had questions or concerns.

Some of the other things they heard about college writing weren't as easy to respond to. For example, one student said something along the lines of "I heard college professors are biased and will grade you poorly if you don't agree with their views." We had to say that, though this wasn't the majority, it was at times true. We  also explained that teachers were people and that inflammatory writing would likely be met with inflammatory grading and that they would have to work harder to prove something they knew a teacher wouldn't believe to be true on the surface. We encouraged students not to go in with the attitude that their teachers wanted them to buy into whatever they thought, though, and to stand by what they were passionate about while being aware that they might have to work hard to make others see their perspective sometimes.

We also had students ask, "Will essay writing be useful outside of school?" This was my favorite question, of course. The one thing I really emphasized was that they needed writing in life. They might not need to write essays, but they would need to be able to show people how their logic process worked and to provide evidence for their claims. They would also be able to use writing to help them reflect and record, something oral communication couldn't do. It was necessary to help them make sense of complex ideas in class and help them succeed in the professional world, but also to be able to change the world in the ways they wanted to. This seemed to resonate with them.

Aside from the advice we offered them, I really learned a lot about how much high school seniors know, how much high school English has changed since I graduated high school 10 years ago, and also how little has changed since I was in high school. The students were still a little immature, loud in the hallways, chatty when they first walked in, etc. At the same time, they were engaged in the conversation about college writing. Their teachers were showing them how to write something other than the five-paragraph theme essay, giving them more non-fiction texts to read, and talking to students about analysis and critical thinking. We were expecting shock when we said you could write something other than five paragraph essays, but there was none; they already knew. It seems like they are better prepared for FYW and college-writing than I was.

Meeting with the high school seniors makes me look forward to teaching FYW again next semester, and of course, I hope they all find success in college and beyond.

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