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.

Some Thoughts on the Words Evidence and Claim

fresh crime scene with yellow tape at night

I’ve thought about writing this post for a while but was finally inspired—and emboldened—by a wonderful article I recently read called “Reading Is About More Than Evidence” by educator Mia Hood. Her work in classrooms led her to observe and question many of the same practices I’d noticed, too, but before I launch into that, I first want to be crystal clear: I dearly want students to have deep and meaningful text-based discussions that are rooted in the details they’ve noticed and what they think the author might be exploring about the human condition and life through the details she’s woven across the text. And I want them to write their ideas about that in the most thoughtful, insightful and text-based way possible.

Claim DefinitionBut to be frank, I don’t like the word evidence. It’s a word I associate with courtrooms, crime scenes and forensic labs, not really with reading and writing. And when I look up the noun form of the word claim in the dictionary (as I did in my earlier post about rigor), the word has some strange connotations, which can also be seen in the thesaurus where words like pretense, right, assertion and declaration are listed as synonyms. There’s something a little aggressive about these words; they invite challenge, dispute and/or concession, not consideration and reflection—and for me, they conjure up visions of miners staking claims to land they then protect with rifles and baited traps.

Mia Hood worries that the word evidence has “seeped into our students’ ways of thinking about [texts]” in ways that are making them “think that a text’s raison d’etre is to serve as War Dancesevidence.” And this is often reinforced by the tasks we set students up to do as they read. I’m reminded, for instance, of a high school teacher I worked with who had his students read Sherman Alexie‘s intriguing and complex (in terms of ideas, if not Lexile levels) story “Breaking and Entering” from his collection War DancesIt’s about a Native American film editor—whose job, as he sees it, is to “omit all necessary information” in the films he edits—who recounts how he came to kill an unarmed black teenager who had broken into his basement to steal things. The story raises all kinds of questions about race, identity, power, and the manipulation of information; yet the teacher was using the text not to deeply explore these ideas, but to help students hone their argument skills by having them debate whether or not the character was guilty of murder or had acted in self-defense. And after a first read to get the gist—and have a brief talk about the story—they were then asked to reread it in order to collect evidence for their debate position.

I wasn’t there when the debates took place, but I’m often in classrooms where students argue two sides of an issue either in response to a prompt or assignment, as in the case What Do Fish Have To Do With Anythingabove, or to students’ ideas. The latter happened in another classroom I worked in where students were reading Avi’s odd but compelling story “What Do Fish Have To Do With Anything.” In this story, the main character Willie is intrigued with a homeless man who appears across the street from the apartment house where he lives with his depressed mother who doesn’t want Willie to go near the man. Wille’s father had abandoned the two of them six months previously, and as happens with many students I’ve read this story with, some think the homeless man is Willie’s father. In fact, some hold on to that idea right up till the end, at which point, with no further clues appearing to support it, they have to shift and consider instead what the writer might be trying to show if the homeless man was just that.

This particular class, however, had also been practicing ‘grand conversations’, which their teacher described as student-led discussion in which students make differing claims about a text. Shortly after they encountered the homeless man in the story, she suggested that rather having me facilitate their discussion, we let them have a grand conversation, which the students enthusiastically leapt into. The problem was that the students seemed to think that the point of the conversation was not, as Grand Conversations authors Ralph Dr. Seuss Arguing CreaturesPeterson and Maryanne Eeds wrote, to “experience in a dramatic way what it means to construct meaning,” and the students “take note of the shifts in thinking that occur as the interpretation of a text evolves,” but win an argument. And as the students started to argue their claim, their voices rose, they stopped listening to each other and seemed intent on only making their point.

These students would have benefitted much more by reading forward with their minds still open, attending closely to all the text held rather than hunting only for details that would support their prematurely made claim. But by focusing our teaching on how to make claims and back them up with evidence, we sometimes neglect teaching them how to construct an insightful and supportable idea in the first place. And I think this is in part because of our word choice. We talk about claims instead of interpretations and evidence instead of details and this has several effects. One is that, intentionally or not, we often ask students to make claims before they’ve really had a chance to think deeply about a text, which often leads to superficial or shallow claims. And sometimes we accept those so long as they’re backed up with evidence. But the other consequence is even more troubling.

In a thought-provoking piece from The New York Times called “Young Minds in Critical Condition” author Michael S. Roth explores what college students stand to lose if they—and we—value their critical and arguing skills over their interpretive ones. According to Roth:

“In campus cultures where being smart means being a critical unmasker, students may become too good at showing how things can’t possibly make sense. [And in doing so] they may close themselves off from their potential to find or create meaning and direction from the books, music and experiments they encounter in classrooms.”

I believe that potential to find or create meaning in books is the greatest gift reading gives us as it impacts not only our understanding of a text, but of ourselves, others and the vladimir-nabokov-caress-the-detail-the-divineworld we live in. I don’t, however, think that we have to stake a claim and argue over which is more important. If we help students see how readers make meaning and construct interpretation by, as the writer Vladimir Nabokov says, “caressing” details and connecting them together to consider whatever nuggets of wisdom they reveal across the entire text, they can then turn those more informed and nuanced interpretations into claims, using the very details they noticed to build their interpretations as evidence.

Of course, teaching students to construct interpretations is much harder than teaching them to support claims with evidence, which is perhaps the other reason why we don’t always go there. But isn’t it worth the time if it helps students build not just one but two capacities to think and understand deeply, as well as gives them a more meaningful—and accurate—vision of what it really means to read?