Why Write? Reimagining High School and College Essays“Every essay …creates a working ethos of attempting – to the utmost – the improbable.”
Essay writing is often a struggle for many students, with the transition from high school to college-level expectations proving to be one of the most academically challenging shifts. Expectations for high school papers – whether the five-paragraph “theme” or the three-point AP model – do not, typically, meet traditional standards for college writing. Questions of audience, various styles of argumentation, the uses of evidence – and even such basic requirements as a thesis rather than a topic sentence or disciplinary-specific citation-styles – can radically diverge from what students have been accustomed to in grades 8-12. How can high school teachers, who often feel as if they are “straddling the line” between providing the basics of reading comprehension and preparing students for the more complex thinking required by college courses – help bridge these gaps?
This year’s annual conference provides teachers and professors with an opportunity to reconsider how the modes of writing that students learn in high school can be utilized in college. In Habits of the Creative Mind (2016), Ann Jurecic and Richard E. Miller propose that “the best writing is curiosity driven and is carried forward by creative acts of connective thinking.” This kind of writing stands in direct contrast to the more typical “recipe-based approach” that results in formulaic prose. How do we encourage students of all levels to see “writing as an act of thinking”?
As Paul Connolly, IWT’s founding director, said in an interview in 1983, “most students seem to be going through the motion of writing. They're not attached to it. Their writing tends to be perfunctory and it tends to be thoughtless." How do we encourage imaginative thinking and the valuing of the writing process, while also fulfilling the demands of standardized testing and state standards? How might writing-based practices for deepening critical analysis better prepare high school students for college? What classroom practices can address such specific needs as, how do we engage students as readers and writers while asking them to conform to the particular demands of form, style, and content?
This year’s conference will address these questions from theoretical and practical standpoints. Together, we will write to explore how the essay is approached in both high school and college; with particular attention to the “high school essay” that is part of the college application process. We will look to IWT’s signature writing-based teaching practices for new ways to use informal and formal writing to foster community, help students respond productively to intellectual challenges, and smooth the transition from one set of skills to another – with a minimum anxiety. Finally, we hope this conference day will offer us the chance to be both teachers and writers, remembering the creativity and curiosity that writing provokes.