“Do not write a five paragraph essay. Not all paragraphs have to be the same size. Topic sentences don’t always have to be at the beginning of each paragraph.” These words from my professor, Gail Offen-Brown, completely shocked me on my first day of College Writing R1A. Her words contradicted everything I learned in high school: every essay required the traditional five paragraphs with six to eight sentences in each paragraph. Topic sentences needed to be at the beginning of the paragraphs—all of which were now thrown out the window. I struggled to adjust to this new form of unconventional writing.
This excerpt from “Not-the-Five-Paragraph Essay,” written by first-year college student Trinh Nguyen, puts a young person’s spin on what happens when she struggles to unlearn the lessons she learned so well in high school. The essay is sure to inspire talk among teachers and students about the writing and reading that will greet students in college. Already it is in circulation as part of a packet of materials used at pilot workshops held this spring by seven writing project sites for small groups of high school juniors.
The packet, tidy as it may sound, emerged only after great debate among NWP leaders on the thorny issue of “what is college writing anyway?” Members of the advisory committee included Don Gallehr, director, Northern Virginia Writing Project; Bernadette Glaze, advanced academic program specialist, Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools (former high school history teacher); Laury Fischer, community college instructor (former high school teacher), Bay Area Writing Project; Jayne Marlink, executive director, California Writing Project (former high school teacher); and Gail Offen Brown, lecturer, UC Berkeley College Writing Programs. The advisory committee agreed on some basic ideas to present to the high school workshop participants:
- Almost all grades in college are based on a student’s writing, both papers and exams.
- College students are likely to write in all subject areas.
- Almost all writing in college involves critical thinking.
- College writing is very often linked to reading that is lengthy and challenging.
- Students are expected to plan, revise, and carefully proofread their work.
Beyond describing college writing, however, the challenge was to design a workshop with these questions in mind: Can high school juniors concentrate on the demands of college writing during a relatively short workshop? Will they simply want tips for passing the SAT or state graduation tests? How can we engage them and illustrate for them what we mean by “critical thinking”?
To the extent that these are the right questions to be asking ourselves, NWP leaders of the pilot workshops will have a packet of materials and lessons learned to offer colleagues. And we will continue to look to students like Nguyen, who in a single year learned enough about drafting and revising that she is now a confident writer. Indeed, Nguyen discovered it was “legal” to write an imperfect first draft, one from which she could build strong, more logically organized arguments.
She also offers clues about challenges she still faces: for example, producing the “so what” in the conclusions of essays. “If I do have it in my conclusions, I probably did it on accident,” she says. Then she notes one more accomplishment, “I’m not writing the five traditional paragraphs anymore. Nope, I’m not doing that.”
The “so what” of our workshop “Are You Ready for College Writing?” remains to be seen. But we have agreed that it is well worth our time to be exploring ways to illuminate college writing, not as if it were a monolith, but rather as a key tool for academic success. At a time when the literacy skills of many high school students are in question, it is a worthy endeavor indeed.