open letter

ENG 101/101H: Project 1, Open Letter

 

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This project along with the course readings is focused on connecting your past experiences with writing to the new information you are encountering in this course and the, perhaps, very different understandings of writing you are developing from your interactions with what writing scholars have learned through their study of writing. From your early experiences in the first few weeks, your past experiences, and our class discussions, I will ask you to write an open letter. An open letter is a unique genre; it is ostensibly directed to a particular person or persons, but it is published in a publicly available place. Because of this, it is written as if directed to its stated audience but with an awareness of a broader public audience. It thus works to make a public argument, but does so by addressing a particular person or group in a letter. I want you to address your letter to someone with some level of influence over high school writing education, whether a past English teacher, principle, school district superintendent, school board, state or federal department of education, or Arne Duncan the US secretary of education. You will need to choose where this letter would be published: high school newspaper, hometown newspaper, the New York Times, a community newsletter, Huffington Post, etc., which will help you determine who your readers are and make decisions about what they might find persuasive and how you can connect with them. In your letter, you will attempt to persuade your audience (the addressee, but also the public) to come to agreement with your new understanding of writing and a proposal for changes to how writing is taught in high school based in that understanding of writing. Your explanations about writing should be based in published scholarship, including but not limited to our course readings. You should also use your own past and current experiences to help ground your argument in specific real world examples.

 

A well-written open letter will

In the introduction

  • Address the ostensible audience while also getting the attention of the wider public audience
  • Clearly indicate what the letter is in reference to (writing instruction) and why that subject is important
  • Briefly summarize past and current conversations about writing (include both public conversation and the findings of writing scholarship—which tend not to agree, providing an exigency (need to write) for the letter
  • Clearly introduce what this letter will argue. This should be specific enough not to be vague, even if it only hints toward details that will be fully explained later.

In the background

  • Summarize and synthesize what writing scholars have learned about the nature of writing and writing instruction from your sources, integrating quotes and paraphrase into your own language skillfully and ethically (avoid incidental plagiarism).
  • Compare and contrast this account of writing with how writing is often taught in high school (standardized tests, focus on literary analysis and story telling, conflation of writing instruction with English teaching more generally, etc.), preferably drawing on your own experiences while connecting them to educational trends (which you know and present from your research and class readings).

In the positive argument (the positive and negative arguments can happen in either order depending on what your feel makes more sense

  • Present reasons and evidence to support the proposal you indicated in the introduction, adding specification and evidence.

In the negative argument

  • Address any arguments against either the ideas about writing you present or your specific proposal; these arguments may either come from your research or you should try and anticipate the arguments your audience might make.
  • Agree with, disagree with, and/or partially agree with these arguments in a way that respects those objections while also explaining why you still support the conception of writing you present and the proposals you make.

In the conclusion

  • Elaborate on the implications and importance of both the explanation of writing you present and your proposals. Amplify the benefits of your proposal.

Overall

  • Make sure to guide your reader through your letter with clear and timely transitions that help them to follow your train of thought and put everything together meaningfully.
  • Through revision and editing, craft your writing to effectively suit the audiences you are writing to in ways that correlate to their expectations, including expectations regarding genre, level of formality, valid evidence, grammar, punctuation, usage, and style.

 

We will workshop and peer review both individual parts of the letter and the finished letter, so make sure to keep track of all due dates on the course schedule. After revision of the whole letter, I will read and respond to your work and we will meet to discuss my experience reading your letter. I will do my best to read as a member of your target audience and respond accordingly, and we will discus how well we think the text is working. After we discuss your text, I will let you know whether it meets or exceeds my expectations for this project or if I will need you to revise (based on our discussion) before I can give you credit for completion of the project. We will also discuss possible directions for revision for the final portfolio regardless of my current assessment of the text.

Cover Letter

 

I will ask you to write a reflective and thoughtful letter that explains the strengths and weaknesses of each project in order to orient your readers as they approach your text:

 

º First: for your Peer Review partner(s), due on the scheduled Peer Review date

º Again, revised: for your Instructor, due on the scheduled final draft due date

 

Description

Each Cover Letter will give you the opportunity to reflect on and critically consider how your Project is successful and, at times, unsuccessful or where it could be better. It also provides space for you to reflect on what you learned about writing, your own writing processes, and your analysis of writing ecologies and rhetorical situations.

 

Purpose

A primary reason for the Cover Letter is to orient your reader to the rhetorical choices you’ve made during your composing and revising processes for the Project. It also allows you to step back and reflect on the overall effectiveness of the Project you’ve produced. Most importantly, it helps you to reflect on your evolving understanding of writing, from Project to Project, which will help you to better articulate the many ways to skillfully navigate multiple writing situations, which will help generateideas for the final Project (#4).

 

 

Cover Letter Criteria: What I’m Looking For

  • Use formal business style letter conventions: format, state the purpose of the letter first
  • Explains the main purpose you wanted to accomplish with the Project and discusses/justifies the rhetorical choices you made
  • Describes why you thought your project would be effective
  • Explains what changes you made after Peer Review feedback and why; if you did not make recommended changes, explains why not
  • Discusses what parts of your project you think are working well and which parts you think could be better, as well as anything you would like your peers to make sure to comment on
  • Reflects on what you think you’ve learned about writing – what it is, how it works, your own relationship to it – and attempts to articulate your developing understanding of writing based in that reflection.

 

What Makes it Good

A good Cover Letter is not thrown together at the last minute, or approached as something that simply “has to be done” to meet a requirement. This letter has the power to set the stage for the relationship between the reader and writer, so it should be genuine and thoughtful. Take the time to carefully construct the letter to effect a good impression on your reader – a writing situation that will be useful to practice for the future when you are applying for jobs! Be sure to use the conventions of a formal letter; for example, use first person, address the reader as “you,” make a thoughtful request to the reader to provide specific feedback about a potential problem area, and provide a comprehensive appraisal of what is successful and what could be improved within the Project. Take the time to read your peer’s letter carefree,.

Is the Current K-12 Writing Curriculum Effectively Preparing High School Students for College?

 

Dear Board of Education,

 

Writing is one of the most important skills taught in the K-12 curriculum. Each year, beginning in kindergarten, students are drilled with grammar rules and writing structures that allow them to put together a five-paragraph essay. The five-paragraph essay is a method used to aid students in taking tests and completing projects. Students are taught that if they correctly demonstrate this writing model with no grammatical errors, they will be effortlessly rewarded with an A each time.

Perhaps this “magical” writing model is too good to be true. As I enter my second semester of college, I am beginning to question the effectiveness of the writing curriculum and the five paragraph essay that I have been exposed to my entire life. Is writing really only about grammar and test practice? Are teachers failing to show students the importance of social involvement in writing? Perhaps the five-paragraph essay that pleases teachers each year is not applicable in every social situation.

The high school writing system focuses almost entirely on writing as a test practice. However, writing scholars have shown that writing is also a social interaction. Writing scholars such as Robertson, Taczak, and Yancey argue that high school writing courses are allowing students to enter college with a lack of prior knowledge necessary for successful writing in various settings. These sources show that K-12 writing focuses too much on literature and not enough on writing. As I reflect on my first semester at Ohio University, I have a clear, firsthand understanding of the “problem with transfer” that these authors have dedicated so much time attempting to eliminate. This fall, I was introduced to various new ecologies in which the five-paragraph essay was no longer sufficient. When I have been handed a writing project in the past, I always resorted to the only way of writing that I was taught in k-12. This is a problem because I was not correctly transferring any of my prior knowledge or adjusting my skills to make my writing appropriate for different situations. I am writing this letter because along with many other students, I was not taught about the various writing ecologies that have different expectations and ideas of what “good writing” is. In addition, I was not taught the importance of the relationship between social interaction and writing. I believe that if the K-12 writing curriculum had focused more on these ideas and less on literature, testing, and grammar, I would not have been so lost during my first semester of college.

Before I argue my point any further, I’d like to give you a brief summary of how I was taught to write before college. In kindergarten and first grade, the focus of our writing curriculum was on spelling words and forming sentences. In elementary school, classes were focused on reading fictional books. We were also asked to keep a journal. Every morning before class, the teachers gave us a writing prompt and asked us to take 25 minutes to journal about the prompt. At the end of the week, our teachers would collect the journals and critique all of our grammar mistakes. However, in addition to critiquing our work, our teachers nearly rewrote our entire composition every week. What was once a child’s meaningful reflection was now solely a piece of paper covered in red marks from our teacher’s pen. This experience impacted me at a young age because I became so worried about grammar mistakes that I stopped putting reason, voice, and passion into my writing.

In middle school, I began to learn more complex grammar. At this time we learned what we thought was a universal writing structure. We were taught that essays and research papers must include a thesis statement, an opening paragraph, 3 body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Regardless of what class we were in, we used this model for every assignment. This lead me to believe that the five paragraph essay was the ideal and preferred form of writing. Looking back at my learning experiences before college, I am beginning to realize that I was not taught to write. I was only taught to use the five-paragraph essay to manipulate my way through writing classes in order to receive a decent grade. I entered college with the misconception that I could conquer any project with this format. I figured that I could apply this skill in all of my classes and receive straight A’s. After only one week at Ohio University, I quickly learned that successful writing is not that easy.

I believe that many college writing professors are aware that the K-12 writing curriculum does not align with college writing courses. It is not fair that professors must reteach the entire concept of writing to incoming students merely because their K-12 curriculum was so limited. Students arrive at college with no knowledge of social context and ecologies of writing. They are not aware that their prior knowledge and skills cannot be applied in every situation. After twelve years of schooling, the only writing skill students have involves putting together a five paragraph essay with proper grammar. This is where the problem of transfer arises.

Scholars have consistently shown that one of the main results of the separation between high school and college writing is that students are incapable of transferring their writing skills according to context. This is identified by Linda Adler-Kassner in Liberal Learning, Professional Training, and Disciplinarity in the Age of Educational “Reform”: Remodeling General Education. Alder-Kassner explains “Competencies are always situated within contexts.” Her view is that there is no such thing as general writing skills and that a writer’s competency must be specific in different settings. In the current writing curriculum, high school teachers do not teach students to analyze individual contexts and understand each context’s expectations for writing. Students are so used to practicing the five paragraph essay that they are not able modify their writing and move to new formats that are more appropriate for certain groups of people. I encourage you to consider that instead of teaching only grammar and structure, high school teachers should teach students the different expectations and accepted activities of each ecology that affect the format of their work.

My suggestion is to steer the focus of the K-12 writing curriculum away from structure. Yes, grammar is important, but only to a certain extent. Instead, the emphasis should be placed on 3 things. First, teachers should train students to recognize various audiences. This is important because there are many different writing ecologies that have different values and ideas about writing. Students must know what type of person they are writing to and what the reader will expect from them as a writer. Scholars such as David Russell explain that students do not develop writing expertise until they learn to make connections between social contexts. I highlight this because students should not enter college with the belief that they can use the same writing approach in various classes, writing projects, and real life professions. For example, if a student decides to pursue a biology major, it is likely that the five-paragraph essay will not apply to all of his or her work. Second, students need to be taught how to effectively transfer knowledge to different situations. It is one thing that students know who they are writing to, but their writing will not be successful if they do not know how to analyze their audience and decide which skills to apply to their work. Robertson, Taczak, and Yancey, suggest that students use the skill of remixing to help them with this. Remixing is revising knowledge that we already have and adding it to new concepts that we are currently learning. This relates to transfer because students must be able to remix what they already know instead of blocking out incoming knowledge and only sticking to what they feel comfortable with. Transfer is about stepping outside of your comfort zone to reach out to different ecologies, rather than unsuccessfully using one form of writing in every situation.

I support Robertson, Taczak, and Yancey’s argument that transfer of knowledge should be an active and dynamic process. I urge you to add this to the K-12 writing curriculum because in order for students to get their purpose across to different audiences, they must be able to understand various writing contexts and recognize what skills they need to apply to their process. I believe that mastering this skill is important for writing expertise because many contexts are significantly different from each other and require different skills that cannot successfully be transferred without modification and revision. Finally, teachers must encourage students to put a reason behind their writing. In my experience, students get so involved in trying to get a good grade that they do not put any passion or personality into their writing. Instead of writing for a purpose, they are only writing for a grade. When they get to college they have no experience with engaging their writing. I believe this problem is the effect of teachers focusing too much on grammar. If students are able to understand why they are writing, they will be able to put a personality and a voice into their work, and their writing will be much more successful.

On behalf of all young students who will one day be attending college and pursuing a profession, I urge you to rethink the writing curriculum. Allowing students to develop genre flexibility at a young age is a much better approach than waiting until they enter college. Please consider the importance of teaching students to have a mental schema in order to analyze audiences and know which skills must be applied to make their writing appropriate for different genres. Finally, please put an end to students viewing their teachers as an examiner. Student’s are too caught up in grammar and grades that they are not putting any meaning into their writing. With these simple changes students will be much more prepared for writing in college and for their work place in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

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