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 http://tooleytalk.blogspot.com/2015/07/guest-blog-entry.html

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?

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*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: 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.

“Yes?”

“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.

Evelyne Holingue

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