Monday, November 16, 2009

On Writing, Personal Essays, And Our Schools Today

This past weekend, we returned to Camp Roberts for the first Training & Elections Conference of the new program year. What program is that again? Thanks for asking - it's the California Youth & Government Program run by the YMCA. It's a model legislature and court program and you can learn more about it here. Also - my delegation needs money, so if you have any extra around and are feeling charitable, we're a 501(c)(3) and can give you a receipt. But anyway....

I've been urging the program to begin integrating a college prep component because I've witnessed just how badly California high school students need solid - hell, any - college guidance counseling. You thought only art and music were gone from our schools? Nope - add to the list a depressing shortage of qualified, dedicated college counselors. Even if schools employ qualified counselors, those counselors frequently spend half their time dealing with behavioral problems and the other half hoping the few likely college applicants will figure it out on their own. I don't blame the counselors, but the effect on our state's high school students is dramatic.

So much potential unrealized. So. much.

I spent two consecutive days in early October representing CMC at local college fairs. The first was held at a local public high school, for public high school students. The second was held at a local private high school, for private high school students. I was curious whether there would be a difference in the types of students attending each or the types of questions students asked.

The short answer: mostly the same level of questions and that level was not particularly high nor did it evidence much prior research by students in either population. The single greatest difference, however, was this: at the public schools event, most students who stopped at my table were seniors. At the private school event, they were juniors.

When a junior wanders up to your table and says she doesn't know whether she wants to attend a big university or a small college, you can forgive her and, in fact, you should expect that she's just drinking in this collegiate world and all the options spread before her.

When a senior wanders up - in October of her senior year and doesn't know which environment she prefers (because she's never considered it), that's all the evidence you need that we are failing our students. You can figure if she hasn't thought about what size school she wants, she's probably not very far along her application process. She probably doesn't know many schools offer application fee waivers. She probably doesn't know that in a down economy, her best bet can be a small, monied, liberal arts college over a state school that is broke as a joke.

She doesn't even know what she doesn't even know.

We've got 2500 or so bright, motivated high school students in Youth & Government. If we can get them 40 minutes of college advice, that might be more than they'll get at school.

Back to the weekend: as a small step into this preparatory field, I was asked to present a session called "Y&G to Go" for seniors in the program. What does that mean? Whatever I decided it meant, as it happens, which is frankly far too much freedom. I settled on a goal of giving kids some tools to better talk about their Y&G experiences. How do you present this program in a way that sets you apart from competing job or college applicants?

It was a bit of a haphazard presentation, I'll admit. Not bad on a few days notice, but not as clear as a few months notice might have made it.

I had the kids fill out a work sheet with a three-circle venn diagram. In one circle, they would enter the traits developed in the program (responsibility, honesty, confidence, etc). In another circle, they would enter the skills they developed (research, video editing, newspaper layout, whatever). The last circle was for concrete examples supporting the first two circles.

Traits they had down pat. Lists and lists of big-thinking, fancy words.

Skills? Their confusion here was troubling. I suppose responsibility is a skill as well a trait (and maybe my diction could've been more clear than "traits" and "skills"). No delegate - not one - suggested "research" as a skill learned or developed through the program (which makes me wonder what in the hell most of them do when writing legislation).

Concrete examples? Stories of their time at conferences? You'd think this would be easy, but 85% of the responses we heard were of the "Youth & Government is a great program because in it you develop responsibility and confidence and this makes me more qualified for being a college student."


Few got to the because.

I can't blame them - I'm the teacher here. At least I was correct in identifying the problem, however.

We divided the kids into groups and had them compete for a selection of hypothetical jobs, telling them to create the pefect, mashed-up candidate using everyone's venn diagrams of skills and examples. Only one group hit it spot on. That group managed to even make a page's role fetching coffee relevant to service as an intern to a congressional candidate. That group was probably already headed to college however.

Of course - it's so, so easy to want to shake a kid and say "why can't you just follow this simple instruction? How hard is it to fill in what comes after 'because?'"

That's the big secret all teachers and counselors withhold though, isn't it? That it never gets easier. After personal statements for college come essays for grad school. Then come cover letters for resumes in which we struggle and often fail to avoid saying "I am uniquely qualified for this position because" - blah blah blah.

Most prompts boil down to "describe something unique about yourself that will help us evaluate your application."

All the venn diagrams and all the practice in the world never make it any easier, do they?

1 comment:

Pazzer1 said...

Normally,you soon leave me behind, when commenting on American politics, but here your accounts strike cords ringing true across the Atlantic.