Inviting students into the conversation

This semester, I’m teaching First Year Writing (FYW), which is not necessarily a new class for me to teach, but it’s been a few semesters since I’ve taught this particular course and I’ve decided to take it on with a new perspective.

FYW is a course which all first year students must take to fulfill a university requirement. Often times, I work with college students in FYW who have just graduated from high school, unsure about what to expect of college writing, and come to find that college instructors have certain expectations of them, based on their high school experience. What students are prepared for and what is expected of them are not always in line, and this can be a jarring experience for students as they transition from high school to college writing. So as a writing instructor, I grapple with how students are expected to be prepared for “college and career” and whether we (educators, policy makers, etc.) are prepared to support them in achieving that expectation.

As a researcher, I have asked teachers about their expectations for students and what they value about student writing. Their responses have echoed findings that Fanetti, Bushrow, and DeWeese (2010) report: secondary teachers feel compelled to teach to the test, and college instructors wish students hadn’t learned so well in high school that an essay is five paragraphs and a thesis statement can appear only as the first or last sentence in the first of those five paragraphs” (p. 79).  In all of this, it seems we have talked about students and for students, rather than listening to students talk about their own experiences. What’s more, sometimes educators talk about students in the deficit, when we participate in “water cooler talk” and ask questions like, “What is going on in the high schools?”  or “Why can’t these students put a sentence together?” To start answering and confronting these questions, it’s important to know what writing tends to look in the high school classroom, before fingers are pointed.

Studies show that writing is taught and learned differently between high school and college, and that high school writing tends to be more formulaic compared to that of college writing ( Applebee & Langer, 2011; Newell, Bloome, and Hirvela, 2015). In his recent article, “Disciplinary Literacy in English Language Arts,” Peter Smagorinsky (2015) posits, “Writing is not writing is not writing.” Smagorinsky’s adage is useful to remember that students, in their transition, from high school to college writing will be exposed to different writing experiences–experiences that can be fruitful but also confusing and frustrating. But rather than perpetuate undue confusion and frustration for students, what can we as college instructors leverage from those differences students are exposed to, instead of focusing on what students don’t know?  Learning from new and unfamiliar experiences can prompt fruitful learning experiences, to be sure. I just want to make sure that I am prepared to support students in new learning environments as best I can, without assuming students will be altogether unprepared for what’s in store for them in FYW.

If educators, policy makers, and other stakeholders in American education invite students into the conversation, how might our expectations shift about student preparedness? How might inviting students into the conversation affect their level of preparedness for college writing? I don’t know the answer yet, but this semester, FYW won’t be the “same old, same old” for me. This time around, I resolve to ask my students about their writing experiences and listen closely for how I might learn from them.


Applebee, A., & Langer, J. (2011). The national study of writing instruction: Methods and procedures. Albany, NY: Center on English Learning & Achievement. Retrieved December, 27, 2011.

Fanetti, S., Bushrow, K. M., & DeWeese, D. L. (2010). Closing the gap between high school writing instruction and college writing expectations.English Journal, 77-83.

Newell, G. E., Bloome, D., & Hirvela, A. (2015). Teaching and learning argumentative writing in high school English language arts classrooms. Routledge.

Smagorinsky, P. (2015). Disciplinary Literacy in English Language Arts.Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 59(2), 141-146.