On the Verge of Future

AVID juniors in high school stand in a frustrating quagmire.  They are knowledgeable about the campus, protocols, teachers and events- real big fish in a little pond.   As  upperclassmen they are very aware that their time in high school is  edging towards graduation.  Especially as their older friends and classmates begin narrowing their college choices and worrying about their future roommate.  However, a high school junior is still in high school.  They see the future, yet are stuck in the same desks that they have plopped themselves into for the past two years.  As their AVID teacher, my job is to have them writing for prompts that they are not expected to be able to complete for another year, all while convincing them that they should always strive for college level writing.  I basically tell them that although most of them are not writing close to the collegiate level, I still expect them to strive for that ability before they reach their senior year.

According to my students, this makes me merciless in how I ask them to write for me.  Admittedly, I have heard my name and “the devil” thrown around a couple of times.  However, if one were to  subtract the horns, I can at times, identify with their feelings of inadequacy.  I am ripping them out of their comfortable genre of writing.  As Devitt describes traditional genre: “Traditional genre study has meant the study of the textual features that mark a genre: the meter, the layout, the organization…” (Devitt 575).   This equates to the five paragraph essay that is adopted curriculum from the district (majority of student body discourse), and the rigorous writing that comes from AVID curriculum.  All of my students know, and at least, appreciate the five paragraph essay.  The students who understand the formula relish it, and the kids who hate writing have the silver lining in knowing that it will only last five paragraphs.

However, when my AVID students come into my classroom, the five paragraph essay is taken out of the equation and the three part thesis is dismantled as well.  I take them away from Devitt’s ideas of traditional genre and move them towards writing and thinking that does not require three reasons with an introduction and conclusion tacked on either end.  For example, I took an article from a Harvard publication giving tips on writing a college admissions essay.  The hints were valid as well as ambiguous for my students.  There were comments on making students stand out in many ways, not only in their academia, while also narrowing their topic so as not to clutter their essay.  The article suggested implementing dialog, and how to use diction that would covey emotion, but not be sappy.  My students critically read the article, then put the directions into their own words, and discussed as a class to clarify any problems. Then I introduced them to some college entrance prompts.  1) What is your favorite word and why? (William and Mary).  2) You have just finished with your 300 page autobiography, submit page 217. (University of Indiana).  3) Ask and answer a question that you wished we would have asked you.  (Stanford).

I asked my students to pick any prompt that “spoke” to them.  Then I asked them to take the prompt through the writing process and implement the tips that we had covered.  My best students were floored, my struggling students were angry.  Students demanded to know if they were supposed to use dialog to show their favorite word, and then asked if they could be finished.  My instructions to them were  to give me their best effort.  By the end of the twenty-five minutes of class that they had to brainstorm, few kids had more then a couple ideas, some papers were full of scratched out ideas.

My purpose was not to make them feel like failures.  However, I feel that this exercise served two purposes.  One, I needed them to see that the genre of general high school English could be a stumbling block for them in the next level of education.  Two, I need to show them that there is another genre of writing that is not the prescribed five paragraph essay and that together, we can make it through the style of writing that has dominated their education since middle school.  We discuss how the genre in AVID is different from the general education classes, and how this elective was designed to place them in a college setting without the need for remediation, and I stress to them that this will only happen with practice.   We then discuss Devitt’s ideas on a new concept of genre, “Genres develop, then, because they respond appropriately to situations that writers  encounter frequently” (Devitt 576).  I introduce these ideas to students in other words of course, but I do hope that it will inspire a change.  Similar to the words of Bazerman, I hope that the practicing of college prompts will make it a habit, that it will be, “organized complexities of communication shape our ongoing relationships and identities, and within these complexities we change and develop through our sequences of mediated participation” (Bazerman 15).    Then maybe my students will also stop referring to me as “the devil.”

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7 thoughts on “On the Verge of Future”

  1. Christa,
    Your tale of woe mirrors mine in so many ways, and I would very much like to stand with you in solidarity. I attempt the same process with 9th and 10th grade English students (last year I had 11th). I too remove the five-paragraph formula and dismantle the 3-prong thesis – and yes, it is most definitely an experience not unlike “ripping them out of their comfortable genre of writing” and becoming the equivalent of the devil in their eyes. They are angry, they struggle, they fight, and everything they “relish” about those old comfort zones has been taken away. It might seem a bit much that I begin this with 9th and 10th grade, but as a previous 11th grade teacher, I don’t want it to be something new anymore when they get there. I want them somewhat prepared, warmed to the idea of higher level reading and writing expectations, and less hateful of their junior AVID teachers who so truly need “them to see that the genre of high school English could be a stumbling block for them” – how everything we do here is because we love them enough to challenge them, empower them, and push through the very real and very angry struggle right alongside them.
    You point out that getting them ready will “only happen with practice,” and I am working to start that practice early on and right out the gate to support every level of English instruction that they will face during their high school career, regardless of their enrollment in on-level, AVID, or honors. I cannot and will not ever discount the notion of my on-level students choosing college as a path for their lives later on, and therefore believe deeply in the importance of college readiness – again – regardless of what class they have chosen to enroll in (though I know, too, AVID does a plain-and-simple wonderful and beautiful thing for college-bound kids who could otherwise be left behind and the kids who already know it).
    I think that between the two of us we can maybe achieve this “habit” we want to develop for our students… and hopefully if 9th and 10th can do their part too, 11th AVID teachers will, as you hoped, stop being referred to “as ‘the devil’”.  Thanks so much for sharing this!


  2. Hi Christa!

    Thanks for keeping this blog. AVID sounds like a great program. I am wondering if you should open with explaining what AVID is, however. I had to look at your previous blogs to understand the acronym. Do you think it’s worth it to carry the explanation from blog to blog?

    I chuckled with a complete understanding when I read, “According to my students, this makes me merciless in how I ask them to write for me. Admittedly, I have heard my name and ‘the devil’ thrown around a couple of times.” I’ve heard similar things as I deliver my lesson on Internet research and how to evaluate the worthiness of any one Web site. The question: is this site worthy for college-level essay use? When I tell them Wikipedia is not allowed for use in any of my courses, my, oh, my, do I get the looks and groans! I laughed even harder when I read, “However, if one were to subtract the horns, I can at times, identify with their feelings of inadequacy. I am ripping them out of their comfortable genre of writing.” Yep! I’m ripping my students away from the only Web site that they’ve ever referred to for anything research related!

    I also like your idea of breaking away from the traditional five-paragraph rule. I never count anything when I’m writing, and I tell my students that there’s no reason for math in a writing assignment.

    Overall, nicely done.


  3. Christa,
    You made me laugh with your devil comment, I don’t know any teacher who hasn’t had their name and the devil mentioned at least once (and the devil is one of the nicer terms I have heard). I am glad your students take to the 5 paragraph model, I had my pre-AP freshmen write a 5 page research paper (3 sources) and with their response you would have thought I was asking them to write War and Peace! I don’t think you should have to explain what AVID is in each post, usually a blog is on a certain topic and each post branches off of the initial one and for those who would be “following” your blog there wouldn’t be an issue. I really loved your style of writing and I am glad that you continue to write about the AVID program. I wish that I could get any students to take to heart the lessons you are trying to implement. My students felt they were above the assignments and that college would be a breeze, and as I was a student teacher at the time they did not respect me and their main teacher was a push over and believed in rainbows and kittens and good grades for all the little children, (note my sarcasm). She gave them A’s as long as they turned in a piece of writing with their name written on it, it was unbelievably pathetic. I think your use of sources was great and I really liked those prompts (though thinking back to my AP English class when I was in high school I probably would have been grumbling about them). I can’t wait to read your next post! Thanks!


  4. Christa,

    The five-paragraph rule, in my opinion, is one of the reasons kids hate writing so much in school. It’s all rules, rules, rules. Today I had my students write a paragraph based off a picture I showed them. They were using sensory details. I said they had to write in 5 sentences, no exceptions. Obviously, this isn’t a hard task. I got many hands to tell me that they finished the assignment in 4 sentences. And guess?? They were fine. In fact, a lot of them were really good Where do these arbitrary numbers come from?

    Great Job!


  5. Christa,

    Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! I have never taught the five paragraph essay EVER! I detest it and I am so glad someone is, perhaps not as passionate or hateful towards it as I am, but at least acknowledging the fact that it is very and all entirely too limiting. Thank you.



  6. Hi Christa,

    Your first paragraph about the quagmire the Junior’s feel they are stuck in was awesome! It totally reminded me of how I felt in high school, and it setup the context for the rest of your post. My only suggestion for this post is to introduce genre a little sooner–perhaps when you mention the five paragraph essay. If you define the new genre at that point, then you can explain that the five paragraph essay is a genre, and that one of your concerns as an English teacher is showing students that there will be genres other than the five paragraph essay asked of them later in life/college.

    Oh, and thanks for putting a positive twist on the five paragraph essay! I used to loathe it, but because of posts like this I’ve learned to embrace it, and use my student’s background in it as a stepping stone for other genres/longer essays.

    All the best,



  7. Christa,

    I did not experience any sort of help for organizing research papers in high school. I think the genre of the five-paragraph essay must have appeared on the educational scene after I finished high school. While it may have helped some nascent writers grasp a concept of structure and organization, it is disturbing how quickly the form can become a crutch for teachers and educators in addition to students. Some students depend on the five-paragraph essay as the only way to write a college paper. They are filled with fear, trepidation, uncertainty, and frustration, when that foundation crumbles around them. It is difficult to shake them away from dependency on a familiar form; they clutch and hang on to it for dear life, that form that helps them to write something! Your idea of using college entrance prompts to get students looking at writing differently is brilliant! New context. New purpose. New audience. Great idea.

    I love your photo at the end of your post!



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