The Middle School language arts department at Sycamore, made up of Beth Simpson, Courtney Corcoran, and me - Emilie Molter - has been closely examining the way writing is taught and how well our students are prepared for the writing they will be asked to do in high school. After surveying alumni who are sophomores and juniors in high school, I caught up with three alumni. From talking with these students, it was clear that our students are well prepared for the writing they do in high school, and there are still areas we can enhance to prepare them even more.
From the survey, it was clear that our alumni are asked to do a lot of writing in high school: 79% of the students surveyed reported being assigned five or more pieces of formal writing each semester. These writing assignments come from a variety of classes including AP US History, Honors English 9, Sociology, AP Computer Science Principles, and Honors Spanish.
It is no surprise that our alumni choose to take challenging courses, and in order to get more insight into what their writing experiences have been, I interviewed Aditi Dey, a sophomore at Park Tudor, Maggie Boncosky, a junior at Brebeuf, and Morgan Stickney, a junior at Cathedral. Their insight helped illuminate both the preparation they received at Sycamore and the writing experience they have in high school.
Dey has a lot of confidence as she approaches her writing assignments in high school. “Whenever I've been assigned any formal writing or essays in high school, I've never felt intimidated by it,” Dey explains. “In comparison to a lot of my new peers, I've noticed I'm significantly less stressed out about how much I'll be able to write or how high quality my writing will end up, even if the assignment is worth many points or takes up a large percentage of my final grade.”
This confidence that Dey possesses comes from her experience with writing at Sycamore. She credits both her language arts teachers and Mr. Young for giving her writing assignments that helped her build the skills she is now employing in high school. “While analyzing texts in my English classes over the past two years,” Dey reflects, “I remember many of the concepts – such as extended metaphors or specific grammar instructions – felt more like review than anything. Freshman year history consisted of many, many writing assignments and projects, but I never found them to be as intimidating as they sounded, and I'm extremely grateful to all the essays and writing practices we did in Mr. Young's class for that.”
Boncosky feels similarly about her writing experience at Sycamore. “My freshman year,” she says, “the only essays I was assigned were in my English class. We had two or three essays from three to four paragraphs. These were not exceptionally difficult, and I felt very well prepared by Mr. Young and both my language teachers at Sycamore.” Despite the easier assignments from her freshman year, Boncosky experienced very challenging writing assignments during her English 10 Honors class. Despite the challenging essays, Boncosky has found the feedback she has received from her teachers at Brebeuf to be encouraging. “So far, feedback I have received on my writing has been very positive,” Boncosky says. “I have... been commended on my vocabulary, ability to understand texts and craft a strong argument.”
Stickney has found that even daily assignments at Sycamore have helped her with the writing she has done at Cathedral. “One thing Sycamore does very well is assigning homework that encourages long form answers,” Stickney reflects. “Having practice with this format has really helped me in high school. Where others have struggled with answering assignment questions in developed paragraphs, I have found that it’s easy for me to recall how to word them based on the things I did in middle school.”
Like Boncosky, Stickney has received positive feedback from her teachers. “One comment that I have continually received from my teachers about my writing is that they like the variety of sentence structure that my writing features,” says Stickney. “Sycamore definitely helped with that because that's where I learned about the different types of sentences and how to use them to enhance my writing.”
Boncosky wished that she had had more experience doing essay writing during middle school experience, and both Boncosky and Stickney would have liked to have spent more time writing literary analysis papers. Additionally, one student surveyed said that her essay requirements have shifted from literary analysis to rhetorical analysis. Based on this feedback, the Language Arts department has begun incorporating rhetorical analysis into the curriculum.
Writing is a skill that will benefit our students in their continued education and their careers. Teaching students to be critical thinkers and excellent writers is a tall order, and it is a task that the language arts department is eager to take on. Hearing about our alumni’s writing experiences drives home the point that the work we do here is valuable. Stickney summed up her thoughts by saying, “Sycamore requires a lot of writing from its students, but the skills I have from all that work are completely worth it.”