For a few years now, a debate has been simmering in my department about the college application essay: what’s our role? Some of my colleagues think we have an obligation to help the students with this very important piece of writing, and they’re not alone. Many of the school districts around us require all juniors to write a college application essay in the spring. Others in my department think students need to write these completely on their own. This piece of writing is a representation of who they are and how they want to be seen by colleges; teachers should keep their paws off it.
I’m somewhere in the middle. We’ve taught them that good writers ask for feedback. They draft. They revise. I think it’s appropriate to continue that process with them on this high stakes piece of writing. Still, something just feels wrong about grading it. What does assigning a grade to a piece of writing like this accomplish, anyway? “This earned a C! Good luck getting into college!”
Last year, in response to my students clamoring for help with the essay post-AP test, I tried my middle ground approach. We worked on the essays in workshop, we conferenced, we shared portions aloud, we drafted, and we revised. I sent them on their merry way in June with essays that were well underway but had never been “finished” or graded.
It was fine, but I knew it could be better. The students struggled to write authentically. They were determined to tell colleges what they thought they wanted to hear and, in many cases, their essays struggled to move beyond cliche. This year, I realized I needed to slow the process way down, and I attempted to do that using infographics.
I’d been tossing around the idea of incorporating infographics in my AP Language and Composition class all year, but hadn’t quite figured it out because,frankly, I had no idea how to approach it. Luckily, I stumbled on this post by Rebekah and discovered this wasn’t a unique feeling. Her post gave me lots of ideas and assured me that it was okay to jump into it without having a clue, but it didn’t occur to me to put infographics together with personal essays until I found a compilation of personal infographic resumes.
Suddenly, it all started clicking into place. These personal infographics said so much about the people who created them. The colors chosen, the fonts, the graphics–every choice revealed a piece of the person’s character. What a great tool they could be for my students to brainstorm for their personal essays!
Here’s what we did:
Step One: Mentors (of course!)
We spent a day examining a bunch of samples and quickly, my students had opinions–and they were all vastly different.
One group decided one of the infographic creators was “clearly an annoying hipster.” The same guy was described as “really funny and cool–I’d hire him!” by a different group. Another’s color choice was deemed “over the top” by some and “fun” by others.
“This is stressing me out even more,” one student cried from the back of the room. “How do you know what’s right? How do you put the right stuff on there?”
Ah ha. There it was. The biggest problem with college application essays. Students get caught up in answering these giant, often philosophical questions with the “right” answer and they lose themselves in the process. Their differences of opinion about the infographics we were using as models gave us the perfect opportunity to get at that question of authenticity. What’s the purpose of these, anyway? Some kids said “sell yourself”; other kids said “show yourself.” I made the case that the latter would lead to a better–more genuine–product. I could tell some weren’t completely convinced, but they were at least intrigued enough to play along.
Step Two: Create
And so we dove into creating infographics. I gave very few “rules” or instructions. I simply kept returning to the question, “What do you want people to know about you?” For Mary Grace, she realized that she needed people to know that although she’s really funny and lighthearted, she does a lot of serious, thoughtful things. Emily had a story to tell about her journey through depression. Raisa wanted to communicate that she doesn’t just want to be a doctor; she needs to be one.
For some students, it was a long, frustrating process. They wanted lists of things to include and an example of the “right” way to make an infographic. All of the models we looked at were so different that there wasn’t a template for them to follow. Others loved the freedom and needed little encouragement to experiment.
Step Three: Discuss and Share
Still, despite the struggles for some, by the time they were finished, most of the students were eager to share. We set the Chromebooks up all over the room and did a gallery walk through everyone’s infographics. They stopped to discuss specific elements, asked for clarification, commented on choices their peers had made, and deepened their understanding of one another. One student remarked that she wished we’d done this early in the year because she learned so much about her classmates that she’d never known (file that suggestion away for next year!).
Step Four: Write
Finally, it was time to write. Of course, infographics are complete texts in their own right, but my goal for this always was to create a springboard for the students from which they could write their personal essays. This was, by far, the longest “brainstorming” I’ve ever done for a piece of writing. Instead of beginning with the college application essay questions looming, they started by thinking about what they wanted people to know about them as people. They considered how they wanted to be perceived, and they reflected on what made them unique and special. The infographics helped them get away from the lists of accomplishments or recitations of Important Experiences and focus on their authentic voices.
Conferences begin this week and I have high hopes that the authentic voices they developed in their infographics will spill into their writing. Already, I can feel a different energy in the room than what I felt last year. They are less intimidated by the essay questions and less bewildered about what to write. Fingers are clicking away on keyboards and, hopefully, they’re drafting pieces that will show what they want others to know about them.
I’d love to know what you do with infographics or college application essays! How do you help students move beyond the cliche and share their authentic voices in these high pressure essays? Leave a comment below, tweet at me @TeacherHattie or connect with me on Facebook.