Preparing Students for the Future
Recently, I was sitting in a workshop during a professional development day and the presenter emphatically reminded us of, the former Secretary of Education, Richard Riley’s prognostication that:
“We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”
Twelve years later, I’m less concerned with the accuracy of Riley’s claim than I am with its central concern: how well are educators preparing students to adapt to their future environments?
As a teacher of high school juniors, I have an eye constantly fixed to the horizon, watching my students consider the paths that will lead them to college, the workforce, or the military. My fear is that they will graduate not fully prepared to face the challenges awaiting them following high school. As a result, I have made more of a concerted effort to emphasize problem-solving skills when teaching writing.
What are the “outcomes”?
When teaching writing, it’s easy for a teacher to become fixated on the final products our students produce. We want them to write convincing arguments or compelling narratives. We push them to instill maximum effort into their pieces. We help them discover a sense of purpose and ownership over their compositions.
These are all worthy goals.
However, we must reflect on the point of these assignments. What exactly are these writing outcomes preparing them for? How will these performances aid them in the future?
Researching the writing process in graduate school led me to question the importance placed on students’ writing outcomes.
Debating the value of process vs. product is a hardly a new development. In 1980, Ann E. Berthoff convincingly argued for more of an emphasis on “incomes” in her brief, but incredibly enlightening article, “Learning the Uses of Chaos.” In the text, Berthoff warns about the dangers of treating the writing process like it’s a recipe. It’s tempting for teachers to instruct our students: “first, prewrite, then draft, and finally revise, and voila you’re done!”
After all, this approach makes writing lessons plans easier and sets clearer deadlines. However, educators must recognize the truth: not all students begin their compositions by prewriting.
Instead, “When we teach pre-writing as a phase of the composing process, what we should be teaching is not how to get a thesis statement but the generation and uses of chaos; when we teach revision as a phase of the composing process, we are teaching just that — re-seeing ways out of chaos” (648)
In other words, writing instruction should acknowledge the challenges of composing: the harsh sterility of the blank page, the hanging dread of writer’s block, the harrowing feeling of exposure.
Rather than giving students a one-size-fits-all approach to their assignments, let’s admit these difficulties and then provide our students with strategies to survive the challenges waiting around the bend.
In 2015, I wrote my master’s thesis about how implementing process theory can help students navigate composing unfamiliar tasks.
One of the most frustrating discoveries was that my classroom cannot adequately replicate the composing environments where my students will eventually study or work. I cannot promote my students for excellence or fire them for incompetence; I cannot recreate the pressures of passing a college course or holding down a steady job.
If the neither the classroom nor the performances can prepare students for the future, then what can teachers do? Faced with these daunting questions, I decided to shift my focus towards Berthoff’s “incomes” — the strategies that students brought when performing a writing assignment.
As I altered course, I came across Mary Jo Reiff and Anis Bawarshi’s “discursive resources.”
These researchers investigated how best to prepare college freshman for first-year composition courses. Their article, “Tracing Discursive Resources: How Students Use Prior Genre Knowledge to Negotiate New Writing Contexts in First-Year Composition,” offered mental approaches that students could employ when attempting to adapt to the demands of the college composition classroom.
These strategies, combined with concepts from Mary Ehrenworth & Vicki Vinton’s The Power of Grammar: Unconventional Approaches to the Conventions of Language, helped me to identify and share with my students five key approaches to writing: accessing prior knowledge, possessing genre awareness, crossing boundaries, problem solving, and identifying as novices.
Accessing Prior Knowledge
Before my students begin writing, I motivate them to recall assignments that have any similarities to their current work.
Google Drive makes this task much easier than in the past: students now can store all of their past work and refer back to these compositions...if they’re relatively organized (a difficult task for some of them, I know). If they are able to identify similar assignments, then they can start identifying successful strategies from the past.
I ask them questions like: “How did you begin composing the older assignment?” or “What about your performance’s use of style or structure was effective?”
With repetition, these connections can become habits and students can begin to develop internal strategies, particularly if offered the opportunities to reflect on their growth as composers.
Possessing Genre Awareness
Unless students are given a freewriting assignment, then their assignments will have some sort of structure. Therefore, their new writing performance must have a set of conventions or rules that the students must follow to effectively complete the assignment. By recognizing these expectations, students can begin to craft their writing to meet the demands of both the task and its audience.
Sometimes prior to composing arguments or narratives, I will give my students surveys via Google Forms. These questions allow me to assess my students’ knowledge of argumentative writing or narrative writing, and can inform my feedback during our conferences.
Genre awareness is also helpful for revising work because students can then reconsider whether or not they have successfully fulfilled the obligations set forth by their purpose and audience. The conventions of the composing assignment provide concrete parameters that can empower students to make informed choices when they reconsider their methods of writing.
The prescripts of a compositional task inform students of when they must adhere to the typical guidelines of an assessment — and when they can deviate from these dictates.
As the year progresses, I prompt students to reflect on their usages of syntax and diction. I let them know that the rules of writing are not set in stone: language is an evolving medium. As a result, students can explore when to bend or outright break the rules of grammar for stylistic purposes.
Promoting boundary crossing empowers the students to take risks and thereby avoid entrenchment in set methods of composing. This strategy works best after the students have referred to past performances and identified the conventions of their new assignment. However, risk-taking is only possible if the students are willing to perceive themselves as novices.
Identifying As Novices
For students to truly learn, they must embrace failure. As beginners, they can only develop if provided the opportunities to learn from their mistakes.
However, it is difficult for them to adopt this mindset with the pressures placed upon them to earn high grades. Over the past two years, I have been exploring standards based grading to place less emphasis on letter grades. I’ve redesigned my gradebook to evaluate my students’ abilities to read, write, & critical think rather than detailing the assignments they have submitted. Instead, I indicate whether or not they proficiently perform these specific skills. Students are allowed to resubmit assignments again and again until they achieve proficiency, or go above and beyond, and achieve mastery.
Obviously, this grading system is different from traditional English classrooms and, at first, is anxiety inducing for most of my students. Many of them feel frustrated or discouraged when they initially don’t achieve proficiency. In attempt to alleviate these negative feelings, I stress to my students that they are novices — they are expected to make mistakes.
When composing, we hold conferences and identify where the students are finding success and where they need to develop their skills. Resubmitting their writing over and over, forces the students to repeatedly use these discursive resources. If students identify as novices or “noobs,” then they can be more positive and patient with the writing process. As I continue to explore this form of evaluation, I hope to deemphasize the importance of letter grades and to promote how compositional assignments provide real learning opportunities.
I'm an English teacher at Pascack Valley High School looking to grow both as a person and a professional.