Transitions, alignment, and purpose: Connecting AP English with FYC

Dimly lit tiled corridor through archways . A heavy metal grate waits at the end. What's behind it?

Students enrolled in my school’s second-semester, research-based FYC course recently interviewed me about the transition students face when. Moving from their college-prep courses in high school to the college writing classes they believe they’re being prepared for. These students chose to research this topic because of what they perceive as training in high school that doesn’t match the expectations they are facing in college. The two who interviewed me are in a specific situation that draws the distinction into both focus and contrast. Both students took both AP English classes—Language & Composition and Language & Literature. They each scored a 3 out of 5 on the latter test, which is a passing score according to the College Board that administers the examination and exempts them from taking a literature class but not our second-semester FYC course. Had they scored a 5 out of 5, they would not need to take the course in which they are currently enrolled. As a result, these students have taken—and, according to one organization, successfully completed—the course that would have substituted for the course they are now in. Because the courses are so dissimilar, and because they involve substantially different material, the students believe they were underprepared for college. They interviewed me trying to find out why the disparity they are facing exists.

Their questions started by exploring whether I perceived a similar disparity between preparation and expectation. They then tried to determine the nature and cause of that disparity, ultimately trying to create potential solutions. Throughout our conversation, we saw complexity and frustration in the handoff between high-school and college English classes.

In order to determine how well high-school classes prepare students for their college writing courses, we first need to determine exactly what content students need to be prepared for, and several complications make such a determination problematic on a wide scale. Petraglia and others examine ways in which first-year writing courses could be completely reimagined…or even done away with altogether. They suggest a variety of purposes for FYC classes, from workplace preparation to institutional gatekeeper to fundamentals practice. Wardle and Downs argue that writing instruction should introduce students to the kinds of conversations writing scholars have—in other words, to position FYC in service to writing studies as a field, rather than in service to the myriad disciplines of the academy.

Regardless of the curriculum intended, schools often have a two-course FYC sequence, and one of those courses usually emphasizes research-based writing. That, too, can be problematic, as research in various fields differs in form, purpose, and presentation. should students be taught quantitative methods, qualitative methods, empirical research, or theoretical research? Aiming for a one-size-fits-all research class for academia as a whole creates problems in determining the focus of such a course. If college writing courses struggle to identify a unified approach to writing, how can high schools prepare students for this vaguely defined, shifting, and disputed target? They face a no-win situation.

One approach to eventually solving this dilemma, presented by Stuart Greene and April Lidinsky, is to teach academic habits of mind instead of specific subject matter. The idea here is to create in students a mental framework that is appropriate to college-level thinking and may be more transferable to other classes and across disciplines. Unfortunately, academic habits of mind quickly come at odds to trends in secondary education toward larger classes and increased standardization. Our students need to learn appropriate critical and independent thinking, but major statewide testing mandates make it difficult to assess independent thought from an entire state population.

Current thinking in genre studies and writing theory emphasize the purpose of writing as a willful act meeting the needs of a specific rhetorical situation. The nature of this conversation is completely foreign to most high school students because writing in high school is not purposeful, with the exception of passing standardized tests. These tests often expect students to use formulaic writing and predetermined response spaces that they fill in order to show — allegedly — complexity of thought. Students write to pass tests that are evaluated by people they don’t know, rather than writing to achieve a purpose or to satisfy a social goal. In short, the overall problem is that student writing an secondary classrooms lacks both purpose and audience; much of the research in composition suggests that without those two elements, writing is at best ineffective and at worst not legitimate.

On Audience — Needed Curricular Reform

I’ve been bothered by this issue recently in my own classes, but it wasn’t until I discussed the trouble with the transition to college that I identified exactly what the trouble was: The assignments my students are doing this semester — like those our students write in high school — have no genuine audience. Students know this, and they end up creating transactional texts that are used for an in-class, artificial, assessment-motivated writing task. This, while being taught about audience and purpose of writing that responds to a specific rhetorical situation. Our students can know about these structures without being able to perform them. Our assignments should be designed to mimic the kinds of scenarios we want our students to be adept at navigating. We need to create situations where our students are creating purposeful texts for genuine audiences. Knowing that their work will be seen by more than just their teacher would encourage students to think about tailoring their writing for a specific group, rather than the generic “teacher/reader/grader” persona to which they have grown accustomed but which does not exist outside the educational establishment.

The Language Arts (junior high), English (high school), and Composition (college) curricula need to be updated to give students the opportunity to experiment with making their writing appropriate for a variety of audiences. More than anything, this means finding writing for students to do that would have a genuine readership. The school newspaper and yearbook staffs in high schools understand audience-tailored writing, but the work done in English lacks such authenticity. Why do we not have our students in lower grades create newspapers for their communities? We have enough students in enough grades that they could produce daily papers with substantial volumes of content. Students would quickly see who does and doesn’t read their work, and they would get experience tailoring their writing to motivate action in others. Said differently, they would be writing for real, not just for class.

Changing our curriculum to include more-visible student writing is half the challenge, but it’s a half that can be challenging to implement due to scale, since curricula are rarely set by individual teachers. Teachers can make changes to their classroom pedagogy that will help students mentally prepare for the work they do later in life.

On Purpose — Needed Pedagogical Reform

No matter what the writing situation, the topic, or the intended audience, students need to understand the purpose of the writing they do, as well as the purpose of the parts or structure of that writing. Recent academic interest in transferrable knowledge requires the content of our courses to be applicable outside our classrooms. By teaching students why they do the things they do, students would be better equipped for what Perkins and Salomon call “high-road transfer”, in which students consciously apply learning from one context to another, novel situation.

Students learn to write in a format appropriate for standardized tests: start with a grabber, use topic sentences, and conclude by restating your position. Students learn to write five-paragraph essays: thesis in intro, one body paragraph for each of three points, and a conclusion restating the thesis. Students learn to recognize different modes of writing: narrative, expository, or persuasive. Students then get to college with these writing tools in their proverbial toolbox and are caught completely off-guard when the writing they are asked to do doesn’t fit into those structures. How much better-prepared would students be if they understood why they did what they were told to do?

For instance, when I taught ninth-graders about writing strong introductory paragraphs, we would talk about the best place to put a thesis statement, the argument usually boiled down to two camps: first sentence of the paper, or last sentence of first paragraph. Why? “Because that’s what we were taught.” Yet their teachers clearly taught different things, leading to a class of confusion. Students heard that another approach existed, but they had no tools with which to judge the effectiveness of their own position. I told students that their readers shouldn’t be smart enough at the beginning to understand a solid and complex thesis statement, and that an introduction helps establish the ideas that go together in the thesis. “By the end of the paragraph you write,” I would tell them, “your reader is finally smart enough to understand your thesis.” They got it, and they saw how introductions and thesis statements related. Not mindlessly, but based on purpose.

Those students then enter college and are told that introductions are several paragraphs long, and thesis statements are often phrased as questions, followed by an outline of the paper’s structure. Even though this isn’t at all what I taught in ninth grade, it still fits the same purpose-driven guidelines. If students know why we have them do things, they will better understand other things they are asked to do.

Teachers need to be sure students understand the purpose, not just of what they write but also of how they write. The structures and patterns students use in classes are a response to recurring situation. If we let students peer behind the curtain and see the nature of that situation—and its response — they will be more informed writers, better able to meet the needs of their situation and better able to adapt to new learning in the future.

[Photo courtesy ~Brenda-Starr~ on Flickr.]