David Mulroy, the author of the 2003 book “The War Against Grammar” and a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, . . . asked his students to analyze the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, without telling them what they were reading. One mistakenly interpreted it as, “When dealing with events in life, one should drop preconceived knowings and assume that everything that happens, happens for a reason, and basically life goes on.”
Modifying the Subject by Kate Zernicke – New York Times – 11/7/2004
This morning, texting with Katharine about second-person reading & writing and why I’m suddenly seeing so much of it in my students’ work, I began to think that Common Core probably overdid the argument-with-evidence business:
The fifth point is about writing. Do people know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today? Texting someone said; I don’t think that’s for credit though, yet. But I would say that, as someone said, it is personal writing. It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or it is the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with those two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a sheet [I didn’t hear ‘sheet’ but that’s what the transcript says] about what you feel or what you think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me. It is rare in a working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.” That is rare. It is equally rare in college, by the way. So a group of Minnesota professors got together and they very, very wonderfully created a program called “Ready or Not,” where they accepted essay submissions from around the state from high school seniors to see whether they’re college ready or not. Ninety-seven percent of what was provided to them was narrative and 97% of that was deemed not college ready. The core standards thus mark a shift. They do support training in narrative throughout K-12 but what they make primary as you grow is the ability to write an argument based on evidence and convey complex information. This is an essential shift. [emphasis and some punctuation added] – David Coleman “Bringing the Common Core Standards to Life” | April 28, 2011
2nd-person writing, I think, is entry-level argument.
Or, more to the point, 2nd-person writing may be what New York state teachers and textbooks counted as argument once the Common Core shifts-and-standards crash-landed onto their home planet from the heavens above.
Advice is always (usually?) an argument, at least to some degree. When you give a friend advice, you are asserting that your take on the world and the way people ought to comport themselves is a) different from what your friend is doing now, and b) better.
It’s an argument.
I wonder whether New York classrooms shifted from personal-narrative writing to personal-advice writing (and reading?) in response to the new standards.
Speaking of what we’ve been doing for the past 6 months ….
I hadn’t taught freshman composition for two fall semesters while Katharine and I were working on the textbook (and I was working on my neverending basal ganglia project…)
When I got back to the classroom last September, I found something new: my students seemed to have spent an inordinate amount of time in K-12 reading and writing in the 2nd person.
I’m never surprised to see a lot of first-person papers — not given how many personal narratives K-12 students have been producing for the past … how many years has it been?
Twenty at least. Twenty that I know of personally because I lived through them.
That reminds me.
My neighbor told me about her then-8th-grade son’s reaction to being assigned a personal narrative about an “afternoon memory” or some such. He had been writing personal narratives since 3rd grade, and now it was 8th grade and time to write a personal narrative about an afternoon.
He told his mom: “I’m running out of memories.”
We cracked up over that one. Kids are so sweet.
Anyway, back on point: I’m never surprised to see first-person writing in freshman composition.
But I don’t remember ever seeing so much second-person. This fall, reading my students’ work, I felt as if I were seeing as many “you’s” as “I’s.” Maybe more.
To some degree, that was my fault. I was teaching a brand-new course, and the first two topics I assigned left themselves open to advice-giving.
But I saw the same thing in reading, too.
My students always find college-level texts challenging. This semester, however, I encountered a form of comprehension error I hadn’t noticed before.
My students would hopscotch through a sentence, lighting on some words and not others, then repeat the process with the next sentence and the next until the end of the paragraph, where they would fashion the words into an injunction.
“You should be yourself.”
“You should set goals.”
“You should write the way you talk.”
Things like that.
This is in no way a criticism of my students! They haven’t been taught to read college-level prose, and all of a sudden here they are, in college, reading college-level prose. They don’t complain and they don’t balk; they put their heads down and plow ahead. I admire them.
I’m not complaining or balking, either. I love teaching these students.
Instead, I’m writing this post to report a college-reading issue people may not have picked up on.
I have a couple of takeaways that I’ll circle back to tomorrow.