I attended the New Jersey Writing Alliance's Conference this Tuesday entitled "Writing for the 21st Century: Expectations, Experience and Exigencies" (http://www2.bergen.edu/njwa/index.asp). As I walked through the halls at the College Center building of the Middlesex County College Edison Campus, I thought heavily about the word exigency. The needs of our students at the college level are compounded by lives filled with mutlimodal media, the stress for job-specific academic careers and difficult financial times. The budgetary issues facing New Jersey school districts and public universities have made instruction an even larger challenge. The board members of the NJWA desired to address these issues and many more as they related to the transition from high school to college writing.
My desire to see what high school teachers felt about college writing sent me to many sessions involving the transition between the two and how to deliver effective remedial instruction. My first session was a themed panel involving two presentations. This theme was called "Helping Students Transition to College and the Real World." Dr. Kathy Mueller presented a documentary she developed about students' transition from her class to college writing. Her anecdotal work presented a gap between high school writing and what students are asked to do in college. She highlighted several areas involving argumentation and the need for textual support when students make claims. Dr. Mueller has worked closely with my colleagues, Mr. Michael Goeller and Ms. Regina Masiello. They have conducted professional development seminars in her district, Bayville Public School District, involving the work we do at the Writing Program and the Writing Program Institute. Her presentation called for more focus on close reading, peer revision, and strategies to answer complex writing assignments. Dr. Linda Littman and Ms. Jane DeTullio focused on in-classroom activities and discussion-based practices as an example of a way to bridge the gap. Many teachers responded later to this panel as desiring that writing instruction be presented as uninterrupted rather than a gap with two ends needing to be bridged. A call for a community of instructors in writing was received loud and clear. The teachers seemed to desire a community with regular conversations about how we all address the need for more complex thinking and writing.
The next session I attended discussed the Second Language Learner (L2) and what he or she can teach us about how to help him or her. Dr. Darcy Gioia, a director in the Writing Program, and Ms. Agnieszka Goeller, a fellow Writing Program instructor, used personal anecdotes and theoretical concepts based on their experience to help the audience understand the L2 learner. They expanded upon trends they noticed in the learning patterns of the L2 learner. They postulated on how an instructor might be able to ask questions that approach the core of the pattern of language issues plaguing the L2 learner. Individualized instruction is something every teacher can understand pedagogically. We all develop individualized instructional plans for our students, and the L2 learner is no exception. Dr. Gioia echoed an equal focus on argument in her instruction that Dr. Mueller mentioned in the first panel. Dr. Gioia sees her remedial instruction as in direct support of the standards upheld by the Writing Program. When she spoke of patterns of error in her panel, one teacher in the audience emphatically nodded in agreement. This expression reminded me that fundamentally all teachers of writing feel a commonality. We all want to improve our students' abilities and understand the need for claims of their own to exist in their writing. The remedial instruction performed at the Writing Program is one way to envision the writing process as a continuum across a student's entire academic career instead of within one semester or course.
The final session I attended was a round table discussion about the topics of the conference's subtitle. High school and college instructors investigated the new needs of students brought about by non-fiction focused standardized testing, including the HSPA and SAT. Many instructors identified a need for critical thinking and exposition as a necessity in their college classrooms. Although there was a brief hint of animosity between the two seemingly opposing entities within teaching, a sigh of relief came when one administrator expressed her vision of a continuum on which all writing instruction was placed. Instead of questions like what is the difference between the high school and college writing classroom? Ones arose asking, how do teachers achieve the same standards in different modes of instruction? What do the college instructors do in the classroom that the high school teachers can learn from? What can high school instructors teach their students about the college arena? How can college instructors adopt the instruction currently given in high school? And finally, what should we do with the "5-paragraph essay?"
Although the "5-paragraph essay" is seen as a problematic issue for critical thinking and writing because of its formulaic presentation, many college-level professionals said that it in fact presented a moment in a student's learning process that was a necessity to build critical thinking, a requirement at the collegiate level. Arising out of this structure presented the idea that a student's writing is a process throughout his or her academic career. Although many of us at the collegiate level recognize writing as a revision process, we might fail to see it as a developmental one. A developmental continuum that includes structural moments like the "5-paragraph essay," literary interjections like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and connectivity between authors as we teach in Expository Writing can address the problem modern teachers face in the classroom. We desire our students to be involved in a larger academic discourse and in doing so must change our vision for writing based on the very questions brought up at the conference.
The WPI attempts to administer these very values to high school teachers in an attempt to collaborate with school districts. I believe that my attendance at the conference identified for me a serious problem of vision for writing instruction and recognition that many professionals across New Jersey are aptly ready to take these issues to task. Missions like the WPI are the very theoretical basis we need to help continue this conversation towards a learning initiative. The idea that student learning is an uninterrupted path can help to underscore the collaborative nature of this conversation.