College Essay Questions and What Teens Know

When I was applying to colleges, one school’s essay about a specific choice I’d made that had significantly impacted my life or the life of someone else. My response boiled down to: “I’m 17. What choices have I made of any real significance? I can’t even choose what to write about for a college admissions essay–this is the only essay option given. I still hope my biggest choices and changes are yet to come.” So I was pretty interested in this article at the Atlantic, which questions if college application essays expect too much from students:

“There are innumerable sites that offer advice for college applicants, and almost all of them involve admissions experts pleading with students to “be genuine.” But I don’t blame a 17-year-old girl for thinking her authentic answer to “What makes you happy?” won’t get her into college. My honest response—which probably would have involved Ben and Jerry’s and a new episode of Gossip Girl—certainly would not have gotten me into school. It’s not reasonable to tell a 17-year-old kid to “Be yourself!” while asking him to evaluate the meaning of knowledge in the 21st century or to discuss philosophical theories.”

As a college applicant, I felt largely the same. It was hard to be genuine when you knew there was also a right answer–one that doesn’t necessarily involve ice cream and television.

But reading this now, as a YA writer, I want to give teens more credit than that. Maybe it’s not fair to expect them to have the answers of the universe, but they’re not solely made happy by ice cream and Gossip Girl. They know the joy of riding in the car with friends with the windows rolled down; the pain of not really being friends with anyone in your senior class; the very real anxieties and doubts about the future. Teens are smart and thoughtful and do have real, emotional experiences. Why shouldn’t we expect them to think deep thoughts?

I think there’s a middle ground–questions that don’t necessitate major life experiences but still allow teens to think beyond the everyday. Questions that let them be creative and thoughtful about their own lives, even if that means being really mundane. Questions that don’t have a “right” answer.

Do you think college admissions essays are unfair or valid for the average teen?

A Place for “Weak” Reading

The Hub has a great defense of “weak” YA fiction in the face of rising literary pressure from the Common Core and what this means to teen readers. Maria talks about why not all books need to be weighty works of literature, and why those stories aren’t necessarily going to inspire all readers anyway. One point I liked:

“Thinking about reading for pleasure,  I realized an important point. Literature that is “weak” — not intellectual, not “literary” — is often very enjoyable. It doesn’t require a dissertation; it just takes you along for the ride. And this is exactly the kind of literature that has the most power to motivate a struggling reader who thinks reading is boring.”

Although it’s important to help students’ vocabulary grow and to teach them how to analyze a text, it can be just as important to show students how awesome reading can be. Some students may love The Great Gatsby (crazy drunk parties and romance? heck yeah!) but others might be put off by the initial effort involved in reading and analyzing it. Lighter YA might never show up on the curriculum, but these can be so helpful for students who are developing their love of reading.

On a more personal note, I was always a reader. I was never put off by analyzing books in class or old-fashioned language. But I also read a lot of “weak” fiction in my day. Even though I’d like to claim that my young reading experience was all Madeleine L’Engle and Lois Lowry, I also read a lot of Sleepover Friends and Baby-Sitters Club. Those books didn’t hinder my reading experience; and honestly, sometimes it’s nice to balance reading experiences between the light and the heavy.

Also, I can name at least three times when reading lighter fiction worked in my academic favor:

  • In history class in 7th grade, we were just starting our Civil War unit. Our teacher asked when the Civil War ended and I knew it was 1865 because of Happy Birthday, Addy.
  • On the AP US History exam, I knew the answer to one of the multiple choice questions (can’t remember what it was about, exactly) because of the Felicity books. (Basically, all my knowledge of US History comes from American Girl.)
  • Taking the SATs, I recognized the word androgynous not from our English class vocab lists, but from Francesca Lia Block’s I Was a Teenage Fairy.

Again, this doesn’t mean Great Expectations or Hamlet should be taken off the curriculum. But I think we need to remember that students can get a lot from learning how to love reading and understanding that this experience can be part of their everyday lives. And a lot of times, that connects with reading “weak” fiction for fun.

Critical Reading With John Green

As part of the Crash Course, a great video by John Green on why we read critically:

I know that in middle/high school, I also asked, “But did the author really mean for us to analyze all this?” I like that John points out that authors are trying to use precise and layered and interesting language to communicate deep emotions, not just to torture English students. (That’s a bonus, of course. Mwahaha!)

Can’t wait to read the see of this series!

Has The Catcher in the Rye Already Come of Age?

What does it take for a book to connect with teen readers, and can you teach those books in the classroom? At Slate, Jessica Roake says: “Young readers need a new coming-of-age classic, a book that has yet to be discovered and co-opted by the culture,” because apparently JD Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye just doesn’t do it for teen readers anymore.

I don’t want to argue that The Catcher in the Rye is still what Roake wishes it were–a novel that’s ‘cool,’ that gets passed from reader to reader and deeply affects students. But I think she forgets that English classes aren’t always about reading on your own and discovering books. Most teachers have to work from a syllabus, make students write essays, and analyze metaphors.

A heads up: this is not fun. This is not adventure reading.

Not to say English class can’t be an excellent place to discover literature. I remember diving into The Great Gatsby and being surprised at how awesome it was. But there’s also an aspect of work to it. You’re not allowed to discover the book in our own way because, most often, the teacher is working to make sure the entire class understands the text. It’s a totally different setting than discovering a thrilling and controversial book on your own.

My own Catcher in the Ryeexperience was a good one. I had a fantastic English teacher who didn’t shy away from the book’s racier aspects. (Our final essay was an analysis about the use of “fuck you” in the last few chapters.) I thought a lot about what it meant to save your essential innocence in a world determined to destroy it. I’m really glad I read it in a classroom setting that pushed me to analyze the book.

But I think Roake has a good point–The Catcher in the Rye isn’t a surprise in the same way it was when it was first published. We all know about Holden’s angst and the novel’s use of swears and sex (which are pretty tame compared to what you see on tv). And that’s okay. I don’t think you need to say “we should get rid of it in English classes because it’s not a secret powerful read anymore.” I think it’s still an enormously valuable text and can lead students to a lot of other books–especially YA novels like The Fault in Our Stars, Speak, Story of a Girl, etc. Roake’s suggestion of Black Swan Green sounds awesome, too.

Basically, we should open up syllabi to different and unexpected books. You never know what’s going to connect with students. But I don’t think that should come at the expense of rejecting older works because students already know about them. Students can find something in The Catcher in the Rye or Black Swan Green or Hamlet or Antigone.

Learn All the Things!

John Green talks about why education is awesome:

I’d also add that even though you might not love everything you learn in school, you never know what bit of awesome information will touch you or come into play in other parts of your life. Being a writer means that you need to know everything. Who knows when you character could want to build a catapult, or go to Neptune, or live in feudal Japan, or quote Shakespeare.

If Only Computers Could Write Standardized Test Essays, Too

You know those essay questions on tests like the SATs or GREs? Turns out the ideal reader/scorer is a computer:

“Turns out, though, that standardized test essays are so formulaic that test-scoring companies can use algorithms to grade them. And before you get worried about machines giving you a bad score because they’ve never taken an English class, said algorithms give the essays the same scores as human graders do, according to a large study that compared nine such programs with humans readers. The team used more than 20,000 essays on eight prompts, and you can see in the figure to the right, the mean scores found by the programs and the people were so close that they appear as one line on a chart of the results.”

Says a lot about how we evaluate students’ writing ability, doesn’t it? Ugh.

Ethnic Studies Vanishing in Tuscon Schools

The Tucson Unified School District is losing books on ethnic studies, which even includes Shakespeare’s The Tempest. More importantly:

“In a school district founded by a Mexican-American in which more than 60 percent of the students come from Mexican-American backgrounds, the administration also removed every textbook dealing with Mexican-American history, including “Chicano!: The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement” by Arturo Rosales, which features a biography of longtime Tucson educator Salomon Baldenegro.  Other books removed from the school include “500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures,” by Elizabeth Martinez and the textbook “Critical Race Theory” by scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic.”

Banning books is never a good idea. Please stop.


Confession: I hated Hamlet in high school.

It wasn’t that I hated Shakespeare or English class. In fact, I tended to like most of what we read. But I found it hard to care about the original emo king (“Just kill him already!” I cried at least one) and I’m not surprised current high school students aren’t in love with Hamlet either. The #worstbookever hashtag on Twitter offers a hilarious look into high school reading requirements. Publishers Weekly features a few highlights–Hamlet included, of course.

When I reread Hamlet in grad school, I found myself with a much greater appreciation of the play. (“Alas, poor Yorick!” is a hugely famous quote, so it’s easy to forget the sadness of the scene. Hamlet is holding the skull of the one person who ever treated him with affection. Tears!) So it’s not like these kids on Twitter are totally lost. And honestly, who really loves homework? For me, this brings up the question of what kids should be reading in high school. Is it worthwhile to give them “classics” they hate? You’re not going to win every reader even with the best book, but I wonder if syllabi need to be updated.

I’d be curious to hear English teachers’ takes on this. Any books/plays your students particularly hate or love? What would you cut from your syllabus or make sure to keep?

Fostering a Love for Writing

Over at Education Week, there’s a great interview with Laurie Halse Anderson about teaching writing in school. One point Anderson makes:

“There are a number of corporations that have turned a tidy profit by convincing school districts to invest in their “writing system.” Three tricks, five steps, six traits, eight levels, ten tested-techniques; that wheel gets reinvented over and over again. I can understand why a teacher would look for this kind of guidance; writing well is a foundation stone of education and teaching writing – especially to students who are struggling – is hard.

But I think these programs make the matter more difficult than it has to be.

Imagine this; structuring a writing curriculum around three concepts. Number One: the writer learns how to understand what she wants to communicate. Number Two: she writes what she wants to communicate and tests it out on a reader. Number Three: the reader gives immediate, constructive, written feedback so the writer can see if she achieved her goals. If started as a young enough age, this could be turned into a game, so that the writer is rewarded when she has effectively communicated with text. Not just a good grade; something that has meaning.”

I think the idea of writing in schools being both “a game” and “something that has meaning” is essential, especially for younger students. Learning about grammar and spelling is important, but I think students want to take ownership of their writing. Letting them explore communication and creativity can give students a sense of pride in their writing and be more inclined to write and read more. I’m sure teaching reading and writing can be very difficult for a teacher–it’s a subject without a lot of clear answers, and there are a variety of obstacles students can face. But I would say the more personally invested students feel in their writing, the more they’d be willing to work and continue to work throughout their school experience.

Make sure to check out the whole interview. Some great thoughts from an excellent writer!