For K-12 Teachers: Three Things You Can Do Now to Help Prepare Your Students for College

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I wrote the following post at the request of my friend Cambria Tooley, a teacher at an elementary school in Southern California who was looking for a guest blogger on her own site.  You can find her at

Statistics show that in spite of rising tuition rates, a college education is becoming more and more necessary. Yet fewer and fewer of the incoming students I meet every fall are adequately prepared for the rigors of college-level thinking and writing. I hope these few tips will help K-12 teachers as they work to prepare their students for a successful college experience.

1.  Encourage Creativity, Confidence, Individuality, and Courage. Almost all of my incoming first-year students are good at memorizing and parroting back what they’ve read and been told, but most of them are severely deficient in their ability to form and defend their own positions or opinions. That is, most of them don’t know how to come up with original ideas, and the few who can are often fearful of expressing them. Too many have been told that “Nobody cares what you think.”

In college, we do care what they think. What they think, in fact, should be the whole point. I know it’s cliché to say this, but today’s children really are tomorrow’s leaders. They need to believe their ideas matter. They need to have confidence, at an early age, that they can change the world. Not the whole world, of course, but a little piece that they care about.

Questions that disrupt your lesson plan can be frustrating, but the paths these detours can take may wind up providing the most valuable “teachable moments” of your day—and theirs. If a student brings up a topic that you know is going to derail your whole day, tell her you find her idea very interesting and that you’ll make a note to come back to it later. Keep that promise.

2.  Grammar matters. Every year I get at least one student who tells me he got A’s all the way through school and nobody ever cared about his grammar. But in college, we do care. My students are often dismayed to learn that I will not give an A to a paper riddled with grammatical errors. A paper with extreme grammatical weakness will receive an F.

(An aside: My students are frequently astounded to find that it is possible to receive an F on something they worked hard on. I don’t grade a paper based on the amount of effort that went into it. I grade it based on its success as a focused, well-supported argument.)

If your own grammar is sketchy, work to improve it. This is something you and your students can do together. You already know that the best way to learn something is to teach it!

3.  A Note on the Five-Paragraph Essay.* On the first day of class, I ask, “How many of you have spent the past four years perfecting your five-paragraph essay skills to prepare for college?” Usually all but one or two hands go up. The students whose hands are not in the air swivel their heads around in panic, thinking they are not prepared and that they don’t belong here.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Here’s the thing. I spend my life un-teaching the five-paragraph essay. It’s a valuable tool, no doubt—there’s no disputing that the “training wheels” it provides can help younger students learn to recognize and eventually master the basics of essay writing—that is, the importance (and the benefits) of keeping an essay focused on proving a single clearly-stated central idea.

But nobody ever won the Tour de France using training wheels, and college writing is no different. The 5P structure simply doesn’t allow for the complexity most college-level assignments demand.

By the time they leave high school, whether they plan to go to college or not, students should know that there are as many ways to structure an essay as there are topics to write about. An essay should be organic. Content should determine form, not the other way around.

College has become almost universally necessary, and the time to start children on the road to a successful college experience isn’t somewhere in the distant future—it’s now.

Can you think of anything to add to this list? What do you do now to help your students prepare for college?


*A five-paragraph essay is one that begins with an intro containing a three-part thesis. The intro is followed by three body paragraphs corresponding to and developing the ideas contained in the three parts of the thesis. The essay then concludes by reiterating the thesis and main points.

GUMP (College Writing): Groupies

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First-year students have a lot on their plates.  There’s so much to learn, and so much to remember!  Fortunately, when it comes to remembering the names of their professors, they’re in luck.  After all, they only have to keep track of four or five of them.

The professors themselves, on the other hand, have a lot more remembering to do when it comes to names.  There are currently 26 students enrolled in each of my four sections of first-year comp this fall.  That’s a hundred and four names and faces I’m going to have to keep straight as I attempt to pursue and develop a meaningful, individual teacher-student relationship with each of them.

That’s one of many reasons I’ve gotten into the habit of putting my students in small groups.  With four or five people in a group, I can learn names and faces much more quickly.  It still takes me about four or five weeks to get them all straight, but before I started doing group work, the whole semester could pass by and I still would know only about half.

So I put everyone in groups, if not on the first day of class, definitely on the second or third.

We’re not talking occasional, spontaneous groups here.  We’re talking standing groups.

Here are some of the other benefits I’ve discovered:

  1. Small-group configurations give me more time to work with students more or less individually.  It simply is not possible for me to give any quality attention to twenty-five individual students in a fifty-five minute class period, but I can sure get to five groups and give all five a fair amount of (almost) one-on-one time.
  2. College can be a lonely place, especially for freshmen.  A standing small-group atmosphere gives students an opportunity to get to know each other over a period of weeks, during which a more comfortable and cooperative relationship develops than is possible with impromptu groups randomly thrown together for a single ten- or twenty-minute exercise.   Students exchange email addresses and/or phone numbers, and I also encourage them to create a Facebook group.  In a standing group, they feel less alone, and they know someone is going to notice if they miss class.
  3. Many students are terrified of asking “stupid questions” where the whole class might laugh at them, but they’re considerably less intimidated in a small group setting.  Working in a small group gives the “wallflowers” a chance to voice their opinions and ask questions without having to do so in front of the whole class.  Often, a shy student will ask a more outspoken group member a question, and the outspoken student, if the group doesn’t know the answer, will promptly throw her hand in the air and ask.
  4. The best way to learn anything is to teach it, and invariably, the students in a group will wind up helping each other to understand the material.  Group work encourages cooperative learning.
  5. Small group work in the classroom prepares students for cooperative and collaborative projects outside the classroom, whether in a corporate or other work environment or elsewhere.  We discuss issues of group dynamics and the students learn, in real time, how to anticipate and try to avoid the difficulties and inconsistencies of group behavior—and to cope more effectively with problems when they do arise.
  6. Small groups also create a positive type of peer pressure.  It might be easy for a student to lie low in a large class and hope she won’t get called on—the odds are generally with her in such a situation—but when she’s working in a small group, she doesn’t have that luxury.  Students who have trouble finding time to do out-of-class reading assignments are more likely to find a way to get them done when they know their group is relying on them to come to class prepared.

At the beginning of the semester, when I don’t know anyone yet, the groups are based on my roll sheet.  The first five students are Group 1, the next five are Group 2, etc.  (Groups of four or five are best.)  The students will stay in those groups for the entire first unit (about five weeks).  When they turn in the final draft of their first paper and I introduce the next major assignment, I change up all of the groups, making sure nobody is in a group with someone else who was in their Unit 1 group.  By the time we get to Unit 3, I know everyone well enough to set up very carefully-choreographed groups for the final project—and by the end of the term, everyone in the class has worked with and gotten to know everyone else.

It’s not so bad being a groupie.

GUMP: Rules of Engagement, Part 2

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As I said last week, first-year students often struggle with forming and expressing personal opinions based on assigned reading, and with reading comprehension itself.  Last week, in Rules of Engagement, Part 1, I discussed the reading comprehension issue and offered tips for improving both comprehension and engagement.

Today, Part 2 is about the other half of the problem: forming and expressing personal opinions.

The source of the problem is simple:  First-year students are not often enough trained to think critically, and thus many of them are ill-equipped to take a carefully-considered position on much of anything.  Therefore, when asked for an opinion, they too often fall back on knee-jerk reactions, and they often do so hesitantly, qualifying each statement with an “I think” or “I feel” or “In my opinion.”

This is because too many of them have been told, all too often, that their opinions don’t matter, and to “stick to the facts” when writing papers.  Students are too often led to believe that facts are solid, static, and unchanging, and that “education” consists almost exclusively of successfully memorizing them.

And in many of their K-12 classrooms, that’s fine.  Even in many college-level survey courses, the memorization of information is necessary to an understanding of that information.

But they need to do more than memorize.  Learning and memorizing are not the same thing.  And the thing is, facts are darned slippery little buggers.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s try a little challenge.

How many planets are there?  If you grew up in my generation, you’ll say nine, because we grew up knowing for a FACT that there were nine planets.  But then you’ll stop, confused, because Pluto, as you know, is no longer considered a planet.  And meanwhile, we also now know that hundreds of thousands, if not billions, of other planets are busily revolving around other Suns than our own.  There are many, many more than nine.  Nine, or even eight, is an overly simplistic, knee-jerk response.   The facts have changed.

Who discovered America?  If you automatically said Christopher Columbus, you might not know he never set foot on North American soil at all.  Most people know he took Indians back with him to Spain, but many don’t know he took them there to sell them as slaves—or that many argue this constituted the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade.  He also enslaved them right there on Hispaniola, sending them out to fill hawks’ bells with gold.  If they returned without sufficient gold, their hands were cut off.  Tell me again–why is he considered a hero?  And if we just ignore his geography and say he discovered the Americas (note the S), then I ask, Why do we consider it a discovery at all?  Just because Europeans didn’t know it was there?  Millions of people were living here already.  They certainly knew it was here.

My point, of course, is that the “fact” that Columbus discovered America and the “fact” that he’s a hero are both in wide dispute—yet a great many of today’s history textbooks persist in ignoring these debates, even though they’ve been raging for a good twenty years.

What’s healthier, butter or margarine?  Is coffee good for you?  Should pregnant women drink wine?  How many eggs should you eat per week?  The “facts” about all of these have changed multiple times just in the past few years.

Facts are slippery.

Yet K-12 students continue to focus most of their intellectual energy on memorizing them, in whatever shape they happen to present themselves in their classrooms and textbooks.

Students need to stop memorizing and start thinking.  Challenging.  Questioning.  They shouldn’t be taught to ask only WHAT, but more importantly, also WHY and HOW.  But even the answers to those questions generally constitute facts based on other people’s opinions.  When do the students get to form their own?  When will they be encouraged to form their own?

In too many cases, not until they get to college.

All of these problems have roots in what Paulo Freire calls “the ‘banking’ concept of education,” which itself is the result of the power struggle between teachers and students.

Many K-12 teachers are overworked.  Many, unfortunately, are uninspired.  Many are simply victims of a system that is the way it is, and has been that way for generations.  And as a result, many classrooms are run as hierarchies, wherein the teacher is the Information Provider and the students are the Information Absorbers.  As Freire puts it, “In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry.”

College is all about, or should be all about, the process of inquiry.  All educators should nurture this process.

But too many first-year students are accustomed to being told to keep their opinions to themselves.  Too many of them are told, “Nobody cares what you think—just give me the facts.”

In other words, soak up everything I’ve told you, memorize it, and squeeze it back out for me on Friday’s test, unchanged, unchallenged, and without question.

Students who question, who challenge, who butt heads with the prescribed realities are often labeled troublemakers.  Many teachers will tell you the brightest kids in the room are often the most disruptive.

Surprise, surprise.

While it’s true that most college instructors will wince and squirm at every “I think,” I feel,” “I believe,” and “In my opinion” that appears in a student paper, that doesn’t mean we’re not interested in hearing what our students think.  In fact, most of us are very interested indeed in learning what our students think, and in nurturing their thinking processes.

But this is not to say we want to hear knee-jerk, canned, propagandized regurgitations of other people’s opinions.  We don’t.

Do not tell me a writer “does an excellent job” of blah blah blah.

Do not tell me you “completely agree” with someone else’s position.

Form your own.

If you can present that position in a paper without falling back on “I think” and “I feel,” and if you can defend it logically and cogently, then you will begin to develop confidence that your opinion matters.

Because it does.


The Freire quotes were taken from Chapter 2 of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I encourage you to read in its entirety here:

GUMP DAY: Rules of Engagement, Part 1

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Much of the writing students are asked to do in college requires that they craft a carefully reasoned response to something they have been asked to read.  Assignments like this tend to present students with two separate but related problems:

First, many first-year students aren’t accustomed to being asked to form or express personal opinions.  In fact, they may have been told repeatedly to keep their opinions to themselves, since nobody cares what they think.

Secondly, in order to form an opinion about a piece of writing or an author’s position on an issue, one must first understand what one is reading.  This seems obvious, but the truth is, when faced with college-level material, many first-year students struggle with reading comprehension.

In Part 1 of this two-part discussion of ways to get around these two problems, I’m going to address the second problem (comprehension) first.

First, the causes of the problem:

Most K-12 students are encouraged to read, but they are not always taught to read critically or to engage with the material.  They therefore approach their college reading assignments with the same tools they’ve always known, which are the only tools most of them have.  These tools consist fairly exclusively of the eyes alone.  The brain is used primarily as a memorization tool, since what most students have learned is that they will be quizzed on the material.  The answer to Number Six on the quiz can be reliably found on Page X, word for word.

College writing assignments aren’t often like that.  We don’t expect students to memorize and repeat what they’ve read, or even necessarily to agree with it.  We expect them to understand, to think, to process, to analyze, and to synthesize—that is, to form their own opinions and positions based not just on what they’ve read today, but based on what they’ve read today in conjunction with what they’ve read before.

In order to do all of this, they must engage with the material.  And this requires comprehension.

Many first-year students approach college reading assignments the same way they read anything else: by casting their eyes over the material word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, starting at the beginning and continuing through to the end, until their eyes have looked at each word in the document.  “There,” they say as they close the book.  “Glad THAT’S done.  I have no idea what it’s talking about, but hey, at least I read it.”

The reading tools they used in high school will not often serve them well in college.  Even students who like to read are often stymied when they’re presented with college-level material.

The following strategies can help students improve their reading comprehension:

  1. Skim the material before you read it.  “Skimming” does not mean running your eyes quickly over the whole document.  First, read the introduction.  (Note that the introduction may consist of more than one paragraph.)  Then read the conclusion (again, this may be more than a single paragraph).  Then read the first sentence (or two) of each body paragraph (this is where you’re most likely to find the topic sentences around which the body paragraphs will be organized).  The purpose in doing this is to give yourself an overview of the work as a whole.  What you’re doing is identifying the work’s central themes and arguments—what the author sets out to do, how s/he does it, and where s/he winds up.  Only after you’ve skimmed the work and have a basic understanding of its content and purpose should you go back to the beginning and read it all the way through.
  2. Read actively.  By this I mean, read with a pen or pencil in your hand (not a highlighter).   Put asterisks, question marks, exclamation points, and comments in the margins as you go.  Read the work as if the author were speaking to you personally, and write your responses in the margins.  “I disagree” is fine.  “WTF??” is fine.  “You’re an idiot” and “This is stupid” are also fine.  “Wow, I never thought of that before” is good too.  Or “Interesting!” or “Oh, this is like —!”  Remember, this is a conversation.  You both get to talk.  NOTE:  College textbooks are TOOLS.  You cannot learn to use a hammer if you just sit and look at it.  If you just can’t bring yourself to write in a book—say, the book isn’t yours, or if you can’t get past the idea that writing in a book is a sin—then us a pencil so you can erase everything before giving the book back, or as a last resort, photocopy the assigned material so you can write on the photocopy.
  3. Underline or circle unfamiliar words, LOOK THEM UP, and write the definitions in the margins.  Sometimes you can figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word from the context of what you’re reading, but if that word shows up several times, you should look it up anyway just to be sure you’re interpreting it correctly.
  4. Reword sentences containing difficult syntax.  Unfamiliar sentence structure confuses readers more often than almost anything else.  Combined with unfamiliar words, it can make an assigned reading seem as if it’s written in a foreign language.  Well, guess what?  To many students, this kind of formal English is a foreign language.  How do you cope with it?  Go back to grammar basics:  Find the subject and the verb.  Be aware that the subject may not be at the beginning of the sentence, and it may not be followed immediately by its verb.   Pretend you’re listening to Yoda.  Difficult, it is.  Do it, you can.  Try to summarize the idea contained in the sentence to see if you understand it.  Pretend you have to explain it to someone else.

Can you add to this list?  What methods do you use to get through a difficult read?


Rules of Engagement, Part 2 will appear next Wednesday.  Stay tuned, and good luck!

GUMP/College Writing: A Few Words About the Five-Paragraph Essay

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I routinely begin my English 101 classes by asking how many students have been practicing their Five Paragraph Essay skills for the past several years in preparation for this day. On average, twenty-three out of twenty-five hands reach confidently into the air.

“How many of you like to write?” I ask.

Most of the hands go down. On a good day, I’ll get three or four hands in response to that one.

“Of those of you who don’t like to write, why don’t you like it?”

The responses are predictable and almost all run along the same basic theme: It’s boring.

I say, “OK—how many of you have never heard of the Five Paragraph Essay?” With trepidation, one or two students hesitantly raise their hands. Their eyes tell me they’re certain I’m going to say they don’t belong here, and to please move to a remedial class.

I don’t.

“Good,” I say to the minority. “You’re the lucky ones.”

Some form of bedlam generally ensues. Most college freshmen in the United States were first introduced to the five-paragraph essay in the fifth or sixth grade and have been practicing it with varying degrees of diligence and dedication ever since, having been warned over and over again that they will need this skill in college.

This is a lie.

In fact, the five-paragraph structure is simply inappropriate for most college writing assignments, and I’ve spent the past twenty years un-teaching it.

It’s endemic these days, but some of you may be wondering what it is. A five-paragraph essay is an essay that begins with an introduction containing a three-part thesis, followed by three body paragraphs that correspond to the three parts of the thesis, followed by a conclusion that reminds the reader of the thesis and the argument’s three main points.

Yes, it’s true that some instructors, even at the college level, require it. I tell my students that’s fine; if that’s what an assignment requires, then of course that’s what the students will produce. They already know how to do it. They can do it in their sleep. They’ve been doing it for years.

But what if they’ve been presented with an assignment that asks them to explain Newton’s Theory of Relativity and relate it to a personal experience? What if they’re presented with a writing prompt that asks for a ten- or fifteen-page response? How can they stretch five paragraphs out for ten pages?

They can’t. And if all they know how to write is a five-paragraph essay, they’re going to be in trouble.

Don’t get me wrong. The Five-Paragraph Essay has its place. It’s useful in teaching elementary arrangement, and it’s useful in teaching students to have, and stay focused on, a central idea or thesis. It helps students understand the basics of topic sentences and paragraph development, and it’s often useful in in-class essay exams where time constraints are a major factor.

But it limits creativity, it limits the writer’s ability to address the complexity of the issue being addressed, and it undermines a writer’s ability to revise at the global level. Worse, it encourages knee-jerk responses to complex issues, it requires that those complex issues be divided into three superficial and largely unrelated categories of “analysis,” and it simply does not have the flexibility or the range to adapt to the intellectual demands of most college-level writing assignments.

It also insults the reader’s intelligence by repeating its thesis and main points after a span of only five paragraphs, suggesting that the reader isn’t bright enough to recall what she just read.

It’s like riding a bike. Most of us start with training wheels, and that’s fine. But nobody rides with training wheels in the Tour de France. It would be ludicrous to even imagine scores of athletes showing up at the race with training wheels on their bikes.

And yet this is what happens every September when my English 101 classes begin. Confident students showing up, training wheels oiled and firmly in place, thinking that’s all they need to win.

And they’re wrong.

When my eldest son was in the eleventh grade, I went to Back to School Night. Six or seven other parents had shown up to hear what his English teacher had to say.

The first thing she did was introduce us to the course’s primary text. She handed out a booklet to each of us, and I read the cover with a hovering sense of dread.

“How to Write the Five-Paragraph Essay,” it said.

I raised my hand, and the teacher looked at me in surprise.


“Um, you don’t really teach this, do you?” (I confess, I would not have made a great diplomat.)

“What? Yes! Yes, of course I do! Why wouldn’t I?”

“I spend my life UN-teaching this.”

“What? What do you do?”

I told her.

“Well,” she said in obvious relief, “Most of my students don’t go to college. If I can get them to do this, I’m thrilled.”

I could see her point. But all of my students do go to college.

And it’s no wonder so many of them hate to write. Wobbling around on a set of training wheels is boring. Nothing is more exciting than seeing them whipping around a tricky course with increasing confidence once those training wheels come off.

That’s what thrills me.

GUMP Day: Six Tips for Successful College Writing

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Most college writing is persuasive in one way or another. In order to be successful, such writing requires that its author attend to six different skill sets at once:

1. Try to say something worth saying. Don’t just argue that women have come a long way in the past hundred years. We already know that. You can talk about why this observation is important to your argument, but it shouldn’t be your argument. Avoid common knowledge wherever possible.

2. Keep your argument under control. It should progress logically, and it should contain nothing that is not relevant to its thesis (your thesis might or might not be directly stated, but you should always have one, and if your instructor requests that you state it directly, be sure to do so). Make sure your body paragraphs are focused on points that are relevant to, and that help to develop, your thesis.

3. Support all of your claims with carefully-reasoned evidence, explanations, and examples. Be sure to cite any borrowed ideas or material carefully, whether the information is directly quoted or not, using the documentation style your instructor has requested that you use.

4. Try to demonstrate a clear understanding of the complexity of the issue you’re addressing by acknowledging, conceding, and refuting relevant counterarguments wherever necessary.

5. Be aware of who your audience is, what they can be expected to know already, and what needs to be explained to them. Read your work out loud to see how it sounds; your tone and style should be appropriate for the audience you are addressing.

6. Your work should be clean at the surface. Be alert for typos and errors in punctuation, mechanics, usage, and grammar. If your paper isn’t important enough to you to proofread it carefully, your audience will see it as unimportant as well, and you will lose their respect.

Once you have a complete draft, it’s a good idea to read it through at least six times, once with each of these criteria in mind, making revisions along the way. Then, before submitting it, read it yet again. If you’re satisfied that you’ve done your best in all areas, it’s ready to turn in.

Good luck!

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