What prepares a student for freshman composition?

I received an email from someone interested in that very question.

I am a high school English teacher and will be teaching an Honors English 12 class for the first time next year. I am looking for some feedback on how to best prepare my seniors for their college English experience. I would like to have them do a great deal of writing, but I want it to be relevant to what they need for college. I intend to do literary analysis through British literature and supplemental novels; in addition, I plan to have them write at least one mode of writing each quarter. Can you offer any suggestions that would be beneficial to my students? I appreciate you considering this matter and look forward to your feedback.

The writer is clearly concerned about doing a good job for her students and that indicates that she will do the work well. She’s already ahead by planning early and scoping out the future for them.

Here was my answer:

That all sounds good. The more they write, the more competent and confident at writing they have the potential to become.

I tell my freshman classes that I am trying to prepare them for all the kinds of writing they will be doing in the next four years. That includes practice essay exams, using the different modes, and a research paper.

student-illus-bigFor example, the first assignment, a bridge requirement, was a narrative essay. It tells me where the students are and a lot of high schools only require narrative writing. After they turned in the essay, I explained that they could have narratives on essay tests in other subjects and gave them a psychology, a sociology, and an art question that required a narrative. (Why do you prefer one of two paintings over the other? What experience have you had with cultural diversity? What have you done to “psych” yourself into or out of doing something?)

Each mode will have an essay and at least one sample exam question. I think it helps them recognize that writing isn’t just an English thing.

The research paper doesn’t have to be a senior thesis, although those work too. But research projects are useful. It could be something as simple as using Berkeley’s “Evaluating Web Pages” and finding a bad source on a topic they know a lot about and then having to actually evaluate it. Or to do the same with a Wikipedia page on a topic they know a lot about.

And, of course, an introduction to literary criticism, including the different schools of thought they may run into during a literary research paper is good.

I have found from the Teaching College English blog that many people assign literary analyses without explaining how to do them. (My post on writing a character analysis is the most viewed page on the blog.) Obviously a good solid literature analysis unit would be good. Critical reading is useful in any field, not just in an English class.

Also, if you can make reading enjoyable… I know that is a challenge for some people who don’t want to read. Modeling how to read can be helpful for students who haven’t ever read much, though I hope that is less of an issue in an Honors course. Requiring reading responses where the students write before it is discussed in class is also beneficial since it makes at least some of their learning clearly from their efforts.

If there is some way to encourage them to write outside of class, as well, that would be good. I’m actually encouraging journals of collected non-English assignment writings of any and all kinds to try to get them to see that they do write outside of English. These journals include any artistic endeavors they wish, as well, though I did tell them I can’t read music, so a CD would be a better inclusion. The idea is that if they write music, I want them to see that as a kind of writing.

One thought on “What prepares a student for freshman composition?”

  1. I like your advice. I’d put modeling to read at the top of my personal pyramid. It’s a hoot to talk with students about what they mean by “read” — we often mean such different things, and frequently students divorce it from understanding, concentrating instead on the physical act of having their eyes look at most of the words on a page. Actually, that’s probably what I took it to mean when I was an undergrad.
    Modeling this invisible, scarcely discussed process is powerful. Sometime I’d be interested in reading just what you do when you model reading.
    Thanks.

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