connecting writing instruction in colleges and high schools

Lots of folks who’ve read and heard the early reports of Citation Project data have referenced secondary education, suggesting that CP researchers should take our data to our colleagues in the secondary schools; that we should learn how source use is being taught in secondary schools; that we should replicate our research in secondary schools; and so forth. Lots of good ideas.

Reading two different pieces today takes me to this question: How is source use being taught in secondary schools, and how should college teachers pick up where 12th grade English leaves off? Really, it’s the first part that’s prodded by today’s readings. First, Larry Ferlazzo, an award-winning secondary teacher, writes in Education Week about how to teach students to work with sources. Although his title, “Teaching Writing by Respecting Student Ideas,” suggests a different focus, some of the piece recommends teaching students formulae for working from sources:

As wary of formulaic writing as I am, I have found teaching two simple “formulas” useful to our students to help them develop a sense of self-confidence. One is “ABC” (Answer the Question, Back it up with evidence like a quotation, and make a Comment or Connection) and the other is “PQC” (make a Point, Quote from the text supporting your point, Make a connection to your personal experience, another text, or some other knowledge).

You may be reacting with horror at this: No wonder the 174 students studied in the Citation Project were, about half the time, quoting from page 1 of short, simple sources as their means of working from sources. If this is the sort of thing taught in high school, what else can we expect?

Or, you may be saying to yourself, we have to remember that good writing from sources, just like good grammar and a sophisticated vocabulary, does not derive from an inoculation but from ongoing mentoring that is tailored to the learner’s writing experience and intellectual acuity. Maybe it is really smart, really appropriate for such formulae to be taught to secondary students who need to be introduced to basic structures of intertextual rhetoric.

I find myself in both places at once, but very much in the latter. Really, we can’t expect secondary teachers to be teaching college level writing. That’s the job of college writing teachers, right?

So if you buy the second possibility, and if you’re a college writing instructor, it seems feasible to be asking how to make those connections. The first step, it seems to me, might be to inquire, at the beginning of the term, about how the students in the class are accustomed to working from sources. Finding a good quotation from page one sound familiar? Check. Make this a really serious class discussion. And then talk about how college writing builds from and also diverges from these models of thesis + quotation-as-evidence + add some other thought. Talk about the value of summary, analysis, paraphrase, critique. It’s a great way to open up the course, to set the agenda of extending students beyond the familiar without abandoning that familiar entirely. (I am personally guilty, guilty, guilty of mounting a too-excoriating challenge to the 5-paragraph theme. I should build from it rather than throw it out.)

Build from rather than throw out. Instead of trashing our secondary colleagues for not teaching college writing, we pick up where they have left off, helping our students toward greater comprehension of more challenging sources, and toward more sophisticated ways of talking about those sources than simply copying a key sentence and citing it.

What’s our alternative? Frost McLaughlin and Miriam Moore, whom I had the pleasure of meeting when I visited Lord Fairfax Community College earlier this fall, touch on the answer: our alternative is to continue accepting the appearance of researched writing instead of authentic writing from sources. In the December 2012 TETYC journal (I won’t provide the URL, because NCTE will just default it to their member login), “Integrating Critical Thinking into the Assessment of College Writing” reports McLaughlin and Moore’s research on college teachers’ assessment of student writing. They find that “certain elements of writing command more attention than others, dominating raters’ perception of other elements.” The “certain elements” have everything to do with correctness; the “others” that are overpowered are those connected to critical thinking. In instructors’ assessment, in other words, the correctly edited paper will fare better than the one that demonstrates critical thinking.

We can continue in this vein, rewarding our students for good editing and for providing evidence for their claims. We can continue to ignore that their “evidence” is mostly quotations, and that those quotations are often drawn from the first page of simple sources. We can continue to be swayed by the appearance of good source-based writing, rather than specifically and extensively teaching students how to bring critical thinking, insight, analysis, and comprehension of sophisticated sources to their work from sources.

Or not.

If we are to choose the “not,” if we are to connect our first-year writing courses with high school instruction, extending that instruction and building upon it, we’re going to have to get creative. We’re going to have to quit teaching to and assessing only the surface of our students’ writing.

Postscript: I swear I’ll get into Settings soon and figure out how to make those blasted snowflakes quit drifting across the page.