TO: The Chief Justice of the United States
FROM: A high school writing tutor
SUBJECT: Your opinion in the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard decision:
“… nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”
You are referring to a senior’s personal statement in their application. I believe you and the Court might not realize what has happened to the personal essay in our schools. It is discouraged, even disparaged.
I began to tutor with Aurora’s College Track program a decade ago. Its students are often the first generation to graduate high school and to obtain a post-secondary degree.
In their college essays, Mr. Chief Justice, as you suggest, many seniors speak with conviction about the prejudice and the policies that anger and confuse them. College Track staff and tutors help them find their voice, but the experiences and the truths are all theirs.
What a joy it is to see those who completed College Track years ago, now college graduates, at reunion events. They are not my concern. Today’s high school students are. Even more so with the Court’s decision.
A New York Times article on its impact asserted: “The personal essay becomes more important.”
The problem, Mr. Chief Justice, is that the personal essay has grown less important in our K-12 schools. The trend has been clear for several years.
I ask juniors and seniors how often they have been allowed to write first-person essays. A typical answer: “Almost never.” Teachers insist that they use “the preferred academic voice,” the third-person, in their essays. For AP Language and Composition, I suppose, but in all classes?
A K-8 school leader tells me little first-person writing is done after the early grades. Part of her bewildering rationale: “After all, that is not how they will write in college or in the business world.” To invite more first-person writing, one educator told me, would be “lowering our standards.”
The notion that good writing can be about self-expression and self-knowledge is outdated. At a time in their lives when students are asking, who am I and how do I make sense of this world?, adults have made the English classroom a little colder.
I believe the two main reasons for this narrowing of the Language Arts curriculum are the Common Core State Standards, adopted in Colorado in 2010, and the new state assessments meant to align with these standards, the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, fully in place since 2016.
The Common Core lists three “types and purposes” for writing: “write arguments to support claims…”; “write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas…”; and “write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences…” Only the latter gives students a chance to write about their lives.
The state’s current English Language Arts assessment is even more restrictive. For example, the “constructed responses” for grades 6-8 are all packaged under “Reading Comprehension and Written Expression.” Each writing task is tied to a reading passage on the test.
Little wonder, then, that the Colorado Department of Education no longer provides distinct reading and writing results. We only see an English Language Arts score. Sure, if the writing tasks are tied to how well we read, why look for a difference?
I support our standards. But the Common Core cannot replace common sense. Something critical is missing.
I respect efforts to “prepare our students for college.” But how foolish to let the strictures of college professors determine what we ask of adolescents. To meet our 12- and 14- and 16-year-olds where they are, we must let them write about their lives.
Mr. Chief Justice, you and the Court — and now colleges, too — must hope the personal essay enables high school seniors to explore their identity and their race. I hope so, too.
To make this possible, K-12 education must rediscover why the personal essay is important.
Peter Huidekoper Jr. lives in Parker.
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