Mind the Gap: What Are Colleges Really Looking for in Student Writing

MIND THE GAP

This past week I had the opportunity to speak to New York City high school principals about writing. And as I did a while ago when I looked at how colleges view close reading, I decided to do a bit of research into what colleges were actually looking for in writing for my presentation. As happened then, when I found a significant difference between what colleges expect students to do as close readers and the often formulaic “three goes” at a text with text-dependent questions approach that I see in many schools, I discovered some significant gaps between how we teach writing—especially argument—and what colleges are looking for. And these gaps have enough implications for lower and middle school, as well as high school, that I thought I’d share what I found.

Here, for instance, are some timely tweets I discovered in a blog post written by a Canadian high school teacher title “Are We Teaching Students to Be Good Writers?” He’d attended a presentation by a college professor on the gaps between high school and college writing, and as part of the presentation, the professor shared a survey he gave to this third year college students, asking them what they wished they’d learned about writing in high school that would have better prepared them for college. And many of his students had this to say:

Tweet on Organizing vs. Growing Ideas

I wish I could say things were different in the States, but we, too, seem to spend a lot of time teaching students how to organize and structure their writing without spending equal, if not more, time in teaching them how to develop ideas in the first place. And from about third grade right up to twelfth, much of the teaching around organization and structure is focused Writing Analyticallyon the five-paragraph essay, where some students are taught not only how many paragraphs their essays should have but how many sentences each of those paragraphs should contain as well as the content of each.

For the record, you should know that I’ve helped teachers teach the five paragraph essay myself. And while I do see that it can be a useful strategy for some students some of the time, we need to be aware that most college professors hate it—so much so that many explicitly un-teach it in freshman composition classes. According to the authors of Writing Analyticallya book that’s used in many of those college freshman writing classes, the five-paragaph essay commits the following offenses:

“It’s rigid, arbitrary and mechanical scheme values structure over just about everything, especially in-depth thinking . . . [and it's] form runs counter to virtually all of the values and attitudes that students need to grow as writers and thinkers—such as a respect for complexity, tolerance of uncertainty and the willingness to test and complicate rather than just assert ideas.”

The thesis statement, too, which seems custom-made to assert versus test and complicate, gets a beating by many college professors, too. In his article for The Chronicle of Higher Education Let’s End Thesis Tyranny,” for instance, Bruce Ballenger writes that “Rather than opening doors to thought, the thesis quickly closes them . . . [because] the habit of rushing to judgment short-circuits genuine academic inquiry.”

This all seems to suggest that even with the Common Core Standards’ focus on college and career readiness, we might not be doing such a great job at preparing students for Mind the Gap 2college writing. To close that gap, though, we need a clearer vision of what colleges do expect, and coincidentally—or serendipitously—enough, Grant Wiggin’s shared one of his college freshman son’s writing assignments in his recent blog post on argument, which does just that.

If you click through here you’ll see that the professor gives a brief summary of the assignment, which he/she calls a “Conversation Essay”. Then he/she provides some tips on college writing that are meant “to dispel some common and often paralyzing misconceptions about the nature of academic debate itself.” In particular, the professor targets what he/she calls an “ineffective” model for college writing: the “combat model.” That model, the professor writes,

“. . . suggests that academic debate consists of experts trying to tear down each other’s theories in the hope of proving that their own theory is actually correct. It suggests an aggressive approach and a battle zone in which people ‘advance’ arguments, ‘attack’ each other’s claim’s, and ‘stake out’ and ‘defend’ their own positions.”

Instead the professor is looking for an essay in which the writer inquires into and explores a problem, a question or one or more texts, with the goal of adding his or her own unique perspective and ideas to the the ongoing conversation about that problem, question or text. I think that means that whatever claims the writer makes need to be an outgrowth of his or her exploration, not what leads and determines the whole focus of the essays. And this vision of an essay seems quite close to what writer Alan Lightman says he was looking for in the essays he read as editor of The Best American Essays of 2000There in the introduction, he writes:

“For me, the ideal essay is not an assignment, to be dispatched efficiently and intelligently, but an exploration, a questioning, an introspection . . . I want to see a mind at work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand. If the essayist has all the answers, then he isn’t struggling to grasp, and I won’t either.”

In my next post, I’ll share some of the ideas and practices I explored with the principals last week, including the use of low-risk writing to help students take on that more exploratory stance and of mentor texts to give them both a vision and some choices about how their writing could look like based on what they have to say. But for now I want to offer one more reason why we might want to reconsider giving students a one-size-fits form-contentall structure for academic writing. As I wrote about earlier, when we offer students scaffolds, we often inadvertently deprive them of something—in this case, the opportunity to engage and wrestle with one of the big concepts in reading and writing: how form informs content and how content can shape form.

This concept is what lies underneath the Common Core’s Craft and Structure Standards in reading, and by inviting students to think about what form might best suit and convey what they’re trying to say, we’d helped them become more aware of the purposefulness of a writer’s choice of structure. And in that way, too, they’d reap what Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott says is the big reward of writing: “Becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.” It will also ensure that students won’t have to un-learn what we’ve taught them once they get to college.

Capturing the World in a Moment: A Look at Small Moment Poems

Like the words fiction and nonfiction, the word poetry sometimes seems too broad and general to contain all the varied approaches, purposes and styles of poems. And when helping teachers design units on poetry, I usually recommend narrowing the focus down to a few different kinds—which is also a way to ensure we’re not teaching the same thing grade after grade.

By kinds, though, I don’t mean forms, such as cinquains, limericks or even haiku because, unless they’re grounded in the kind of enduring understanding I explored last week, we risk sending the out the message to students that form is more important than content—that it doesn’t matter if your poem is nonsensical or hackneyed so long as it adheres to the form.

Whether it’s the five prescribed lines of a cinquain or the dictates of the five-paragraph essay, this emphasis on form can lead students to either reduce or inflate whatever it is they might want to say in order to fit the form.  Prescribing a pre-determined form also deprives students of engaging in one of the most vital, challenging but necessary aspects of writing: discovering a form that ‘informs’ your content and supports your meaning. (To see a poet who found a form that helped her express her content in a powerful way, check out Amy  VanDerwater‘s villanelle “V is for Vulture“.)

Instead of that, what I mean by ‘kinds’ are poems that seem to have a similar purpose, intention or way of working, such as poems that are built around a central metaphor, like the ones I shared two weeks ago, or poems that describe an object or phenomena in fresh, surprising language, such as “Dragonfly” by Georgia Heard or almost anything in Valerie Worth‘s wonderful collection all the small poems and fourteen more

Over the years, depending on the grade, I’ve helped teachers gather different kinds of poems to use for either whole class studies or for learning centers or stations. We’ve gathered poems, for instance, that address social issues, such as “To the Pay Toilet” by Marge Piercy or “Coin Drive” by Janet Wong; and poems that explore identity, such as “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon and “I Am What I Am” by Rosario Morales. We’ve even collected poems about poetry, such as the Billy Collins poem I shared the other week and Naomi Shihab Nye‘s wonderful “Valentine for Ernest Mann.” But perhaps my favorite kind to study with students in grade five and up is what I like to call ‘small moment poems.’

Like their cousins, small moment stories, small moment poems zoom into an often autobiographical moment, but without the trajectory of beginning, middle and end or the trappings of problem and solution. They’re the kind of poems poet Charles Simic means when he says, “Poems are other people’s snapshots in which we see our own lives.” And I love sharing and studying them with older students precisely because of this. For in showing us our own lives in someone else’s moment, small moment poems invite us into one of the great wonders of literature: the way that the particulars of a story or poem can give way to a more universal expression of the human condition, which is another way of saying a theme.

To show you what I mean, let’s look at the poem “Taking Things Apart” from Ralph Fletcher‘s book Moving Day:

From Moving Day by Ralph Fletcher. Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Fletcher. Published by WordSong, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press, Inc. Used by permission.


As readers, we may never have moved to Ohio or had a ping pong table, let alone seen it dismantled, yet it’s the particulars of the poem that lets us feel the ache of being severed from possessions and places we love. That idea is conveyed through the things themselves—through the legless table and the beds left in pieces. And in this way the poem is both about this particular boy facing this particular move and the way we can all feel unmoored and anxious when our lives are taking such turns—as if our selves can be disassembled as easily as shelves.

Key to My Heart © Wendy Starling. Used with permission of the artist. http://www.wendystarling.com

By focusing on small moment poems, we can help students engage in thinking about what larger, invisible universal ideas the poet might be exploring and what aspects of the human condition their own small moments might speak to. As readers, students often do this through connections. But because small moment poems compress and distill a single experience in an accessible way, students are often able to zoom into the feelings underneath the poem, rather than get stuck on the literal level (making connections, say, to ping pong tables or cousins who live in Ohio). This also makes small moment poems great tools for helping students see the difference between a meaningful and what I sometimes call a “that’s nice, but” connection. The former unlocks the heart of the poem, usually via emotions, while the latter is just something the reader remembers that doesn’t necessarily plumb the depths without additional thinking.

Many wonderful small moment poems can be found in the following collections. Take a look and reconnect with yourself in someone else’s moment (just choose carefully for classroom use as some of the poems are not appropriate for younger students):

Poetry Anthologies Containing Some Small Moment Poems: Moving Day by Ralph FletcherThe Place My Words Are Looking For: What Poets Say About and Through Their Workedited by Paul JaneczkoWhat Have You Lost?, edited by Naomi Shihab NyeTime You Let Me Inalso edited by Naomi Shihab Nye, Poetry 180edited by Billy CollinsGood Poemsedited by Garrison Keillor.