Transitioning to College Writing: A Discussion among Educators

By Amber Nichols-Buckley, Ellen Shelton, Josh Green, Mary Ann Parker

In this piece, Ellen Shelton, of the University of Mississippi, reports on an initiative at her school to bring together high school and college instructors to discuss approaches to teaching writing. Her introduction is followed by a discussion she conducted with three educators about the initiative. The remarks have been edited for clarity and concision.

In a technologically connected world, preparing students for the next step in their education—from middle school to high school, from high school to college—should be seamless. Educators often share plans and strategies on social media and blogs; yet discussions among secondary school instructors remain siloed from those among instructors in higher education. Even within higher education, community college faculty members seldom sit down with their university counterparts to discuss writing instruction. Without clear communication from all parties, our students experience a disconnected curriculum.

In an effort to support students, the University of Mississippi started the annual symposium Transitioning to College Writing (TCW) to bring all levels together to discuss pedagogy and practice. We purposefully combine secondary and community college and university presenters in each session to explore writing instruction from middle school through postsecondary education. The goal is to create an environment for dialogue, to share ideas, to understand, and to learn from one another. While the annual event is a place of learning and sharing, its larger impact has been to open the door for ongoing discussions across the K–16 landscape.

Here, three educators from different educational milieus respond to the larger impacts of the symposium: Mary Ann Parker is a high school English teacher, Josh Green is the writing center director at a local community college, and Amber Nichols-Buckley is a university writing instructor. Each explains the benefits of shared conversations as all three support students transitioning from one academic level to the next.

How have you been empowered as an instructor by interacting with high school, community college, and university instructors at TCW?

Josh Green: As a community college instructor, I am positioned between high school writing instruction and writing classes taught at the four-year institutions. Because of this, the discussions at the symposium are critical. Collaborating with both high school teachers and four-year college writing instructors is key. This helps me ensure that I am doing whatever I can to prepare my students for the next level. The value of these interactions cannot be quantified, but they are definitely felt in my classroom.

Mary Ann Parker: One of the standout opportunities unique to TCW is time devoted to conversations concerning the teaching of writing. It is not uncommon to see university professors engaged in passionate discussions with middle school teachers, or community college instructors conversing with high school educators. A tenth-grade English teacher recently said to me, “In today’s world of standardized testing, it is difficult to measure student success on such a subjective skill for state accountability models.” There is power in seeing so many professionals engaged in talking about the importance of writing and helping teachers understand they are not alone in touting the value of teaching writing. 

Amber Nichols-Buckley: Interacting with writing instructors across levels is empowering because, in many ways, it validates the importance of what we do in our profession. Whether we’re working with sixth graders in a rural school district or sophomores in college, we share a mission: to help students write in a variety of ways for a variety of audiences. One middle school teacher I spoke with recently said, “Well, I don’t do that much. I just teach them to put ‘The author states’ in front of a quote.” I looked her in the eye and reassured her and said, “But you’re doing so much! You’re teaching an eighth grader about source attribution. Each teacher from here on will build on that skill, and all of this prepares her for the work she’ll do in my class in college.” Having a space to candidly discuss these issues adds to our collegiality as writing instructors and reinforces why we do what we do.

Why do teachers from across grade levels and institutions need a space to discuss writing instruction?

AN-B: I have often heard (and, at times, participated in) conversations with colleagues that sought to place blame for students’ writing struggles on their writing instruction earlier on. We blame our colleagues at different levels, or we blame it on this era of standardized testing as opposed to inquiry-based research and writing assessments. And, of course, there’s a debate happening now about Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, as well as dual enrollment programs [programs in which students take a higher education course at their high schools and receive college credit as well as high school credit]. The debate questions whether we even need first-year writing at the college level. These conversations in isolation are rarely helpful and can even damage relationships we seek to build with our colleagues across levels. But providing a space for this dialogue can result in healthy, productive ways to energize and professionalize teachers and, thus, improve writing instruction across the board.

MAP: Truthfully, as a secondary teacher, when discussing the type of writing I thought my students would do in college, most of my ideas were based on my personal college writing experiences, not a discussion with current college instructors concerning their specific writing practices and assessments. Certainly, state writing standards center around teaching students the skills needed for college readiness; however, teachers seldom gain a glimpse of current collegiate instructional practices. Once higher education instructors understood secondary educators’ writing instruction focus from conversations and presentations at TCW, they understood why students have not felt free to take risks in their writing. This understanding in turn has helped higher education instructors better reach their students and help them break beyond the high school essay-writing format. Also, at TCW secondary teachers have had the opportunity to hear firsthand about the writing skills their students need for college success. From this collaboration and understanding, a mutual respect has emerged among educators of writing from all areas.

How can high school and college teachers adapt instruction to support students throughout their academic transition?

AN-B: As a first-year writing instructor, one of my biggest concerns is preparing students for the breadth of writing assignments they may receive farther into their university careers. The 2018 TCW symposium on information literacy and digital writing inspired me to focus on the role of research in academic writing. Our keynote speaker, Troy Hicks, emphasized that research functions differently based on the purpose and audience of each assignment. Students may be asked to write formal research papers in APA or MLA format, but they could also be asked to create a marketing platform for a potential product in business school or write a detailed lab report in biology. Each of these assignments calls for a different kind of research, so in my Writing 102 class, I had students take their main research project and remix it into multiple modes for multiple audiences, including poster sessions, podcasts, and Twitter feeds. Students ended this unit by reflecting on what it taught them about how research functions for different audiences and purposes. My hope is that later in their careers, my students will see how vast and varied composition can truly be.

MAP:  As a current dual enrollment teacher, my focus is ensuring students are prepared for university-level writing. Because I teach Composition I and II, some of my students will enter universities taking 300-level English classes. Therefore, collaboration with colleagues from higher education has proven vital for helping me structure my assignments to ensure students leave Composition II ready for higher-level course instruction. Discussions with higher education colleagues concerning students’ specific areas of writing deficiencies upon entering college have helped me adapt my writing instruction accordingly. For instance, this past year’s discussion opened my eyes to the need for incorporating more digital literacy in my classes. Although in the past I have stressed to my students that academic writing takes many forms, I found a weakness in assigning multiple presentation mediums. After attending a particular session with university instructors focusing on digital literacy, I felt inspired to incorporate digital literacy into my secondary classes. Not only did students complete academic papers, they also created storyboards and presented their research as a digital story.

JG: As a writing center director, I am constantly emphasizing the writing process and trying to figure out ways to present process writing to students in a way that supports them not only on a particular assignment in a specific class but also throughout their academic career. I have found that short, reflective writings at every stage of the process allow students to examine their writing decisions. This approach credits students with authoritative knowledge and helps build a self-awareness that often carries over into other subjects and supports students in various subject areas.

As a high school instructor, what’s one thing you would like college writing instructors to know about teaching writing to high school students (or about high school students’ struggles with writing)?  

MAP:  Secondary literacy instruction tends to lean heavily on reading instruction. Although writing instruction has increased this past decade with implementation of revamped state standards, many educators still feel pressure to teach writing for specific, structured outcomes as opposed to creating a culture of writing throughout schools. Often, what higher education instructors encounter with low student preparedness is not based on a simple lack of writing instruction but writing instruction with a narrow focus of student performance on a state-mandated test. After high school, students often struggle with writing free of parameters, fearing they are going to write the “wrong” way, and many students lack confidence with writing. 

As a college instructor, what’s one thing you would like high school instructors to know about teaching writing to college students (or about college students’ struggles with writing)?

AN-B: I like talking about this question with my colleagues, especially those of us who teach college writing but also have experience teaching at high school or middle school levels. When I was an AP English-language instructor, I felt that by teaching students to write to rigorous, timed-essay prompts, I was giving them everything they needed to know to be successful in college writing. Now that I teach first-year writing, I see that though I was giving my high school students quick reading and analytical skills, I was not properly emphasizing academic research or process writing enough. In my experience, many first-year writing students struggle with close and critical reading, conducting academic research, navigating the expectations of inquiry-based writing, understanding the rhetorical situation needed in digital writing, and understanding the value of academic reflection. 

JG: As a first-year writing instructor at a community college, I find that the students’ struggles are often very similar: understanding writing as a recursive process, thinking about composing from sentence level to paragraph transitions, and analyzing sources effectively. For this reason, the first-year writing course is helpful in addressing these issues before students move into their upper-level coursework, and in this vein, the first-year composition course is often looked to—rightfully—as a class that serves as an introduction to college writing. However, what is often overlooked is the fact that composition is its own discipline with its own conventions and concerns. I try to find balance between those two aims; I must prepare students for writing across the curriculum, but I also feel that there are some concerns within composition studies that must be examined.

Published 8 October 2019

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