By Ann David, Dorothy Meiburg Weller, and Amber Funderburgh
Teachers, students, and families around the country have finished the last school assignment, packed up lockers and rooms, and are headed into summer. Summer is about vacation, and looking ahead to next year. Teachers are rethinking their instruction, perhaps because of Common Core, while students and families look to high school, the SAT, or college. As a middle school, high school, and college teacher, we have spent the last four summers thinking about writing for college, work, and the world, talking to other teachers about what this writing might look like, and trying out strategies with our students to prepare them for writing outside of school.
Our conclusion from our work is that writing for college, career, and life is much bigger and more complex than anything that can be captured in a standardized test and goes far beyond many definitions of ‘college-readiness’. What we offer here are some ways for teachers, parents, and students to think about writing that will work across a lifetime.
Caught between school and college expectations
When teachers, students, parents, and administrators think about writing, they often envision particular types of essays, assignments, or tests. Students completing these assignments lack the time to work through the writing process, and move on once a grade is assigned. And a lot of writing in K-12 settings is focused on whatever type of standardized test is used in that state. College instructors, on the other hand, want students to arrive with flexible writing practices and comfort in the writing process. They want students to be able to hear their own voices and critique their own work. (For a great discussion of this difference, check out the two-volume What is College-Level Writing?) Students, then, get caught between these differing expectations.
In our middle and high school classrooms, we bridged this gap by highlighting one of the eight habits of mind from the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. Our goal was to develop students who could write across purposes and audiences. Our students focused on metacognition, creativity, and engagement, not just five-paragraph essays.
Amber, a middle school teacher, had her students compose mind maps of their reading lives. The students developed these maps across a month of intense reading, thinking about their reading in school and out, across time, and into the future. This combination of reading and writing helped Amber meet her curriculum requirements, and supported students’ engagement with their own thinking.
Dorothy’s high school students created poetry anthologies, weaving together the required British poetry with modern verse and song around a common theme. Positioned as editors, they carefully selected the themes and texts, wrote thoughtful introductions, and even wrote some of their own poetry. By engaging students this way, we saw them dig more deeply into the composing work and enjoy it. And we were able to do this within the confines of our curriculum.
We hoped, too, that broadening the discussion around writing could help parents be more involved with their children’s writing lives. It can be intimidating to be asked by your child how to write a thesis for an expository essay. But focusing on these habits opens up different conversations. Instead of having to know the specifics of any particular essay form–be it personal narrative, expository, or persuasive–parents could ask questions about any writing like, “What made you decide to include this detail?” or “Who do you think would read this?” As parents or teachers, thinking in these broader terms can help us to feel more confident in using our instincts as readers to respond authentically to children’s writing.
Parents and summer writing
We encourage parents to ask their children about their writing, buy them a cool notebook and pen, or write with their children. Over the summer, it doesn’t matter what kids write, but that they make it a habit. Exploring their thinking–about all kinds of things–through writing builds writing muscles and flexibility to adapt to different audiences and purposes. This summer, we will be writing and thinking about our world and our work and hope our students do too.
Across the year, we asked students to write often, write a variety of things, and always think about who they were writing to and why. We shared our own writing, showing how we used writing to accomplish things important to us. This deep engagement with writing positioned our students as active, engaged writers. This summer, we released our students into the world, encouraging them to keep writing and thinking, whether they are headed to college, to eighth grade, or into the classroom as teachers.
Ann D. David will be an assistant professor in the Dreeben School of Education at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, TX beginning in the fall. She is thankful for her former high school students who gave her so many good stories to tell her preservice teachers.
Dorothy Meiburg Weller has been a writing tutor for middle school and college students and has taught high school English for four years. She has been the intrepid leader of our study group for the last three years.
Amber Funderburgh has been teaching middle school English language arts for seven years and loves recommending the next best book to her students. She is also the co-director of the Heart of Texas Writing Project.