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.”