By Amber Jensen
In the years I’ve spent as a student and a teacher in middle and high school, I have both asked and been asked the ubiquitous question: “But why do we have to learn this?” And I’ve told and been told the answer that so often follows: “You’re going to need to know it when you get to college.”
It’s no secret that preparation for college looms large for both teachers and students. It’s second nature to think about learning in the context of what students need to know to get into college and what they will be expected to do when they arrive. Whether it’s MLA format, grammatical structures, thesis statements, or integrating textual evidence, teachers so often reassure students that today’s learning tasks are made relevant by tomorrow’s likely reward. Preparing students to be successful in the future is a really important part of the job. But I hope it’s not the only answer to the question “but why do we have to learn this?”
I am most inspired by writing teachers who design writing experiences for their students that overtly honor what matters in this moment while still preparing them for their futures. Teachers who approach writing instruction this way need not justify students’ current learning experiences as relevant only because they will matter someday. Instead, their approach to teaching reflects these three principles that feature the ways that writing and learning matter now.
Principle 1: Writing worth doing is writing that matters now
It’s an afternoon in June, and Lauren Jensen’s 10th grade English students gather in an auditorium along with their parents, families, and community members. Honored guests include veterans, refugees, military spouses, and others whose experiences related to military conflicts the students have composed into personal profiles. There is an unmistakable sense of connection and meaning and purpose as the students each stand, sometimes next to the people their profiles feature, to honor them by reading the profiles publicly.
They relate true stories of surviving solitary confinement in Iran, being branded with a number upon entering Mauthausen during WWII, and barely surviving a mission aboard a B24 Liberator bomber. This moment – and the experiences and the writing that made it possible – matters: it matters to their writing teacher, it matters to their invited guests, and it matters to the student writers themselves.
Teaching nonfiction writing might feel like a slog to some, but Jensen designed the profile writing unit for her students to explore and practice real-world nonfiction writing for authentic purposes. First, researching relevant history surrounding the experiences they wanted to learn about, students wrote brief contextual essays. They composed letters of invitation to interview subjects and drafted questions then practiced in mock interviews with peers. After conducting and audio recording interviews with their subjects, students transcribed key passages and, guided through a series of writing lessons and workshops, they composed, revised, and refined their profiles: portraits of individuals that integrate direct quotes and the author’s interpretation in order to highlight what makes the each person extraordinary.
It would be hard to argue that Jensen’s students had not met (or exceeded) the standards for nonfiction writing required for grade-level competency. Writing in a wide range of genres for real purposes and real audiences was uniquely preparatory for and relevant to the likely demands of college and career writing experiences. Yet passing a standardized test or meeting a future college professor’s expectations were never the justification for the writing exercises and lessons built into this unit. Instead, Jensen’s teaching reflects the principle that writing worth doing is writing that matters now.
Principle 2: There is no way to predict how students will apply their learning in the future
At an alternative high school, Liz Thackeray’s students included teen moms, adult English language learners, adolescents returning from juvenile detention, and students with behavioral issues. As varied as were her students’ backgrounds, so too were their next steps after high school: some pursued community college or university degrees, some chose trade fields such as auto mechanics or dental hygiene, and others entered the military or the workforce without immediate further education.
What Thackeray’s teaching experience makes evident is likewise true, though maybe not as obvious, for all teachers: we can’t predict, generalize, or directly prepare students for the full range of their future writing lives or experiences. Basing writing instruction on our best guesses about the writing-related knowledge and skills college requires of students builds on assumptions that may be limiting, misdirecting, and ultimately, inadequate in preparing students for their actual futures.
The question is, if students end up not going to college, if the writing they do in college doesn’t reflect the writing they did in high school, if they choose a major or a career that requires a kind of writing they have not learned before, or if they write primarily for personal rather than professional or academic reasons, would their prior writing instruction still be relevant?
Thackeray teaches writing using a genre study approach as a way to support students’ learning in ways that are both meaningful now and likely to transfer to a range of future contexts (See more about this approach for K-12 writers in Dean, 2008, Lattimer, 2002 and Culham, 2016). Whether composing multimodal “This I Believe” video essays, crafting personal vignettes, or designing marketing campaigns, students learn and practice a familiar set of strategies: investigating new genres through mentor texts, identifying characteristics, audiences, and purposes of the genres, practicing writing in these genres, then responding to each other’s work and/or publishing writing for real audiences.
The investigation strategy, for example, asks students to examine mentor texts to determine both mandatory and flexible characteristics (this example guides an investigation of infographics). Students then practice writing in these new genres, and in doing so, learn to adapt writing for new contexts and purposes. When students know how to find, investigate, and analyze mentor texts (as discussed in Gallagher, 2011), they are better situated to accomplish the new or unfamiliar writing tasks they are sure to encounter in their future situations, whatever those may be.
Principle 3: Thinking and talking about learning and writing makes transfer more likely
Research by psychologists and education scholars warns that learners do not transfer knowledge from one situation to another by chance, that knowing how to do something in one context does not result in knowing how to apply it in a new context (Perkins and Salomon, 1992). In other words, teachers cannot assume that teaching students how to write an effective thesis statement for one particular assignment means they will know how to apply that knowledge to a future assignment or related tasks.
Proponents of an approach to teaching writing called Teaching for Transfer (TFT) teach that explicit thinking and talking about writing processes and composition choices–using metacognitive language to name principles and practices of writing across a variety of situations–will make transfer of writing knowledge and processes more likely (Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak, 2014). This allows learners to generalize principles, to practice applying principles to new situations, and to predict how new contexts might draw upon past learning.
In thinking back on my own writing life, I can see how this principle of transfer has directed my own unfamiliar writing experiences. When my grandmother died a few years ago, for example, my father called me and said, “You’re the writer in the family. Can you write her obituary?” I had never had a lesson in school on how to write an obituary, nor had I ever seen a rubric for that particular genre. How could my teachers have known to prepare me for this unexpected writing challenge? They didn’t; not overtly, at least. But somehow, through a collective set of lessons and experiences over my writing lifetime, my teachers had prepared me with the principles and practices necessary to approach this daunting and unfamiliar writing task.
I think about how, in 8th grade, my Language Arts teacher guided us through a close reading of the dialogue in a set of children’s books before we authored our own. I remember an AP American History class where we learned, by examining our own and previous students’ writing samples, how to shift the structure and the voice of our writing for timed document-based questions (that’s when I learned that one-sentence conclusions are sometimes okay!). I think about when, as an early-career teacher, I learned about Twitter from my students: what it meant to retweet a post or send a direct message to another user, how to convey messages in 140 characters, and how to participate in a conversation using hashtags.
In each of these examples and in many others, both in and out of school, I had learned to draw upon what I knew about writing, identify what was both unfamiliar and familiar about a new genre, identify specific contextual demands, and adapt my writing to fit the task. I had learned to transfer my knowledge about writing with flexibility: I had been taught to find models and read widely, to identify and name common structural and stylistic features, to modify my own voice appropriately to fit a new context and purpose. It turned out, I knew how to write an obituary even though nobody had ever taught me.
Teachers and writers are held accountable by audience and context. They work within frameworks and they access a range of tools to effect change in the world around them. Writers’ audiences, contexts, and frameworks aren’t limited by the kinds of writing we typically think of as school-based genres; neither should teachers’ be. Writing instruction that transcends being defined or constrained by the goal of preparing students for college invites and honors a much wider range of authentic, varied, and flexible writing situations. An approach that facilitates authentic, relevant, contextual, and genre-based writing surely prepares students for their college and career futures, but perhaps more importantly, fosters meaningful and relevant learning experiences for students: writing that matters right here and right now.
Note: Teachers’ names used with permission.
Amber Jensen is a Ph.D. Candidate in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. A former high school English teacher and secondary school writing center founder-director, Jensen’s dissertation research and current work with pre-service English teachers examines how values and conceptions of 21st century writing, including multimodal and digital composition, influence classroom pedagogies.
Peer-reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.