Now to the second half of our profile of a Public Relations graduate who has become a high school English teacher. She talks about her writing process, her curricular recommendations, and, perhaps most interestingly, her approaches to two common elements of high school writing instruction—the five-paragraph essay and the index card technique to note-taking and bibliography preparation. Readers, please recollect your own experiences with those elements and whether they are of any use to you in your current writing.
The subject’s writing process usually is to draft directly onto a computer, using Microsoft Word. “With some of my academic writing I’ll outline some things on a piece of paper. But I’m not much of a pre-writer, I just kind of sit down and go.” When she wrote news releases as an intern, she kept a copy of one she had written for the Introduction to Public Relations class and used it as a template. The only times she could recall drafting in cursive were for the first magazine story, written as an undergraduate, and for the comprehensive graduate exam, which is meant to be composed without a draft in a monitored environment over the course of a few hours. “I actually wrote the story on the elephants pretty much all out by hand … It’s sad to admit but I think I wrote it during one of my general ed classes.” For the comprehensive exam, students are given the questions well in advance and can prepare for them in any way they choose. The subject apparently wrote a draft, outlined what she had written, “and then on my way from home to Slippery Rock, I recited everything by memory so I could try to … memorize my outline.”
Regarding software, she had gained experience with Microsoft Publisher and Adobe Page Maker and Photo Shop through her undergraduate courses, but hadn’t really used them in her external writing experiences. The zoo, for example, has its own “graphics department so they handle all layouts of anything.”
The subject said that while responding to student papers much of what she recalled came from her own high school’s “very strong writing program.” She did credit our College Writing I and II courses, taught to her by one instructor, with giving her valuable approaches to “revision,” although her example suggests she was really discussing proofreading. The example involved reading from the bottom of the page to the top, to discover errors. Her revision techniques are incorporated into the instructions she distributes to students when engaged in peer editing, and she has them draw a pyramid to help go from “broad down to narrow” in the construction of five-paragraph essays.
She seemed unsure of whether to be critical of herself or not for waiting until the last month of her term to focus on the five-paragraph structure, which the students would have to employ when doing their state-wide writing exams. “And I flat out told them … if you do not write your paragraphs in a five-paragraph essay, you will not get a three or four, so you need to write a five-paragraph essay style. … But I edited it with, you will not do this in college … your professors will not want to see this.” The subject also recognized the kind of no-win situation schools place themselves in when they actually have success in high-stakes testing. “North Allegheny has a 97 to 98 percent proficiency in writing, which is excellent. But, I mean, eventually it’s going to have to go down.” She did conclude that “even though I did it backwards I think in some ways it was better” to give students the freedom to write as “many body paragraphs” as they needed to express what they had to say. “I know when I was in high school we were out of the five-paragraph essay by sophomore year … They pushed it on us in eighth and ninth grade, and then tenth through twelfth, you write what you need to get done.”
In making recommendations for alterations in curriculum or teaching, the subject emphasized writing practice that would more consciously prepare students for their futures. On a prescriptive level, this meant teaching “the standardized intro and conclusion so they get an idea of what a person should have in writing.” On a more general level, she preferred more writing within disciplines and greater exposure to a variety of genres. “I think there should be more writing classes within each major … I think each major should have a major writing class.” The first-year composition courses should offer opportunities to do creative writing, and expository and persuasive writing that stretched beyond the standard academic paper with the instructor as sole audience. As an example, she hearkened back to her own experience in College Writing I and II, when the instructor had them “do a paper on this reading, and then a final one was … similar to this article that I wrote about some experience, and turned it into a kind of journalistic approach.” Portfolios had been required as part of her undergraduate program, as well as writing “a resume specific to [an] area.” The subject thought these assignments were valuable, as would be “basic stuff, memos, letters of recommendation…”
Because of her current career interest, the subject’s research focus was still primarily academic, even though she would also like to do “PR for nonprofits. … I mean, I love writing stories like that [Referring to her zoo and animal shelter articles.] and if I had the chance I would definitely love to continue to do so.” Around her sophomore year she learned to critically assess web sites, which came in handy when working on the conference paper. “I would do some Google searches, because some of the tech magazines would have articles online; of course, as long as it was a valid source we would pull it in.” Around the same time, the subject also became familiar with and learned to use the article databases linked to the library web site.
Her last comment on researching involved the “whole index card” approach to recording researched material, which she abandoned as soon as she left high school and replaced with printing out and then highlighting information. “Maybe on a piece of paper I’d say, here’s the subject, here’s all the resources I can go to. I’d have bookmark after bookmark sticking out of any textbooks that I had.” This rejection of index cards was also mentioned by another graduate, perhaps because the card approach assumes a sense of direction for the subsequent writing that writers frequently will not possess when first reading into a subject and accumulating material.