Monday, January 25, 2016

Advice on College Writing Expectations from a Secondary Teacher

As I’ve simply been a disembodied voice for the past semester courtesy of the CETL blog, you should know that before I decided to attend graduate school full time this past year I worked as a middle school English teacher.  During my time as a secondary teacher in a low income school district, I was faced with the predicament of providing adequate classroom instruction on topics that were geared towards the Common Core Standards.  I learned quickly that this meant following a curriculum geared towards standardized test scores, which took away from the time I would have liked to be spending on developing the important writing skills I knew my students would be needing in their high school, college, and career experiences later on in life.

In turn, I took a lot of time to consider what sort of questions students would be required to answer on standardized tests so that I could prepare them in the best ways for the problem-solving required to adequately work their way through problems of vocabulary and reading comprehension.  I wasn’t surprised to notice that nearly all of the standardized exams that students took were multiple choice, as they were cheaper to develop, administer, and score than tests that included essay responses.* 
The repercussions of these purely choice-driven testing elements are extreme, and are often noticed among college instructors when papers or written exams are assigned.  College teachers tend to have a resounding collective complaint that their college students “can’t write.”  And they aren’t just talking about incoming college freshman.  The poor writing skills that instructors are flustered over are sometimes carried with students all the way through receiving their bachelor’s degrees and beyond.

Why does this happen?  

Some of these struggles are widely due to the nature of K-12 education and its transformation into an exam-based structure of learning since No Child Left Behind went into effect for the 2002-2003 school year.  It’s no question that due to these extreme changes in the ways that America’s public schools have been operating under since then, there has been a substantial decrease in emphasis on writing for assessments or other work outside of an English classroom.

In fact, despite the repetitive quality of common “literary standards” across all disciplines in public K-12 schools, many teachers are struggling to implement writing-based practices for their students, and mostly rely on English teachers within their building to be the sole providers for these skills.  Often times, this idea is mirrored in college when instructors expect students to move directly from an intro to writing course into becoming a developed and grammatically affluent writer.  This is not the case.

What can be done?

Take writing for your classroom into your own hands.  Different instructors have different expectations for writing within their courses, so it’s significant to point out that while you may expect a traditionally structured, multiple-drafted, grammatically flawless piece of writing, other instructors may be placing a broader emphasis on getting thoughts out on paper with a looser, more casual style.  Make your expectations clear and provide examples for your students to look to when they are writing their own papers.  Yes, this could mean going through citations for APA format, discussing how paragraphs should be structured for optimum readability, or discussing the difference between a narrative and research voice throughout.

If you find that students in your class are performing substantially below your writing standards, provide them with some resources they can utilize to improve their writing.  Suggest (or even require) that students make appointments at the Center for Writing Excellence on campus to review their written work with a trained writing tutor before handing in their work.  (They can even make appointments online!)  Or, you might require a first draft to be written as part of their assignment.  Then provide a rubric for what you’ll be specifically looking for in their final drafts and pair students up for an in-depth peer review session during class.

*It should be noted that within the last year, this form of testing has been re-evaluated, and new testing forms have been implemented for middle and elementary school students that require them to work through their ideas via short answer responses.  Although a slightly better idea than the multiple-choice heavy testing we're used to, this format does not require students to develop ideas into formulated responses over a few sentences in length.  Thus, not helping them to develop writing skills that are relative to longer assessments.

Tip Provided By: Jessica Moser

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