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Although I’m busy doing several different jobs in my un-retirement, one of my favorites is tutoring in a college writing center. Maybe some understanding of my work there can be useful to high school teachers as they seek to fulfill the elusive nature of what it means for their students to be “college-ready” writers.
I work with college students on their writing for classes from across the curriculum. About half of the writing I see originates in English classes; the other half comes from other departments, most commonly nursing, art, history, engineering, speech, and psychology. I also see students seeking help for writing personal statements as they prepare to transfer to other schools, applying for internships or other work experiences, and developing ideas to use in their first-year seminars.
Here is the dilemma for college writers. Each student takes an English class, right? In that class he may work on organization, argument, voice, synthesizing ideas from a variety of sources, and overall coherence. Then he goes to his next class—let’s say it’s a nursing class—and the writing expectations are completely different. The writing in a nursing class is expected to be devoid of any personal flavor—no synonyms, no transitions, and definitely no opinions. Then he goes to his history class where his writing is expected to be objective at times and subjective at other times. In each class, the instructor sees writing a certain way and usually has very little understanding of the writing expected of the student in his other classes. But that student must navigate all of these expectations and switch gears for each writing assignment. My work in the writing center is to help our students see that dilemma more clearly: Although the instructors contradict each other, they are merely responding to the needs of their disciplines.
What do I find so gratifying about this work? First of all, it’s one-on-one. Each student comes in with a writing-related problem, and we work together to make progress on it. Sometimes that involves a quick lesson on a mechanical or usage issue. Sometimes they know they are missing transitions, or a conclusion, or examples. Some are mystified by documentation requirements. The guiding principle in the writing center is this: Developing the writer is more important than developing the writing. In other words, we’re not focused on “fixing” this paper right now; we’re more interested in helping the student become a better writer.
My favorite tutoring sessions are those that involve brainstorming. This happens when a student arrives and says, “I have this assignment, and I don’t know how to start.” I take a look at the assignment, clarify the student’s understanding, and then I ask, “Is it OK if I take some notes while we talk?” Then I ask some guiding questions, writing down the parts that sound most interesting. As the student continues to explain her thoughts, I try to see what parts fit together, and how it might work as a coherent response to the assignment. At some point, I’ll say, “How about this?” and then show her a rough outline of her own ideas that might just work as an approach. The looks on their faces when they see an outline of their own words just waiting to be fleshed out in paragraphs is enormously gratifying.
Another very cool aspect of working in the writing center comes from the fact that so many of our students are new to America for a variety of reasons. I learn so much from them! I’ve had fascinating conversations about Jamaican cooking, Polish World War II heroes, Nigerian schooling, and how Russians view themselves as different from Americans. (“Americans like to have fun. Russians are sooooo serious all the time.”) I’ve always known that one of the advantages of being a writing teacher is improving my understanding of human nature, and working in the writing center definitely reinforces that advantage.
What implications does all of this have for high school teachers trying to achieve “college-readiness”? Well …
1. We can avoid drinking the kool-aid of the standardized testing industry that tries to define college-ready writing in terms of their for-profit test platform. I’ve never seen a standardized test that approximates the writing expected in college. The new ACT writing test is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t come close to the demands of a typical college class.
2. We need to prepare students for writing in many different modes. Expressive, narrative, objective, research, expository, analytical, and persuasive writing are all alive and well on college campuses—and students frequently must write in more than one of those modes during the same semester in different classes.
3. We can help students become comfortable with talking about their writing. Conferring with high school students about their writing, and helping them become comfortable with asking questions about their papers will serve them very well as they meet with professors and tutors to discuss their work. A bonus for high school teachers who do writing conferences is the relationship-building that happens when we talk with students about their words and ideas.
As always, thank you for the work you do, and for reading this.
Those of us involved in helping students prepare for the ACT test should know about some significant changes in the writing portion that rolled out in September. ACT calls the changes “enhancements,” and that’s probably a pretty good word because the changes are positive ones, at least in my opinion.
Here are the major changes:
1. The writing test is now 40 minutes instead of 30 minutes.
2. The format is now focused on “contemporary issues” rather than on specifically school-related topics. The first new topic, for example, was “Bad Laws.”
3. While the original ACT writing test asked students to choose and defend one side or the other of a topic, the new writing test has a wider scope. Students are now given brief perspectives on an issue, and they are required to evaluate those perspectives within a framework that includes their own point of view on the issue.
4. The scoring is different. The previous writing test holistically scored essays on a 1-12 scale and figured that into a Combined English/Writing score. The new version will score the essay 1-36, but instead of a holistic approach, the scorers will give separate ratings in four domains: Ideas and Analysis, Organization, Development and Support, and Language and Conventions. The essay score will be part of a new ELA score, which is the average of the ACT English, writing, and reading subscores.
How can we prepare students for these changes? First, we need to familiarize them with the format changes. They should know about the time change, as well as how to use the space provided on the test for planning and pre-writing. The pre-writing questions and blank space can serve as a useful checklist and “sandbox” for writers as they make sure each of the prompt’s expectations is fulfilled.
Second, we need to help students understand that the structure of this essay will be different from those written for the old test. While the old either-or writing test asked students to formulate and defend a one-dimensional opinion, the new test requires students to articulate a more sophisticated thesis. The essay’s main idea needs to be complex enough to allow evaluation of each of the provided perspectives as well the writer’s own point of view. It’s no longer “Here are three reasons why I’m right.” Now it’s more like “I believe because . Therefore, I consider Perspective A more valid, and Perspectives B and C less valid.”
The writing approach required on the new test is more in line with what college writing is actually like. The ACT is a college aptitude test, so it’s now more likely to assess a student’s preparedness for the kinds of writing he will encounter in post-secondary classes. The old version of the writing test always seemed to me like it was a high school achievement test rather than a college aptitude test.
My only concern with the new test is that the breakdown of those domain components doesn’t seem to recognize or allow for writing with exceptional style. If a student’s language is mechanically perfect but otherwise flat, what Language and Conventions subscore should she expect? I’d really like to see the rating markers within each domain of the rubric, and maybe those will eventually be made public.
Click here for ACT’s sample of the new writing test format.