I am happy to introduce you all to my guest blogger. Melinda Hagenson. She took her degree from USC in English with emphases in composition pedagogy and 19th century American literature. She’s currently a senior lecturer in the English department at UW Stout ("Wisconsin's Polytechnic University"), and this fall (2015) marks the beginning of her ninth year there and her twentieth as an instructor of college writing. I asked her to write about anything she desired to say to K-12 teachers. Thank you, Melinda.
Three Things You Can Do Now to Help Prepare Your Students for College
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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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.