College Essay Institute, Session 4 Getting Great Essays from Students Who “Can’t Write”

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hello and welcome to college essay institute i’m susan oppo CEO of while writing workshop and i am very pleased to welcome you here today the session will be recorded and those who would like to listen to it at your convenience are welcome to do so today we’re going to talk about getting great essays from students who can’t write and I put can’t write in quotation marks on purpose you’ll learn more about that as we go through the session today’s session is number four in our four webinars for the 2015-2016 season starting in October we were going we are going to switch from webinars to every other month Colin sessions these will also be recorded they will be conversations there will be no slides but the idea is similar to what we’ve been doing during our webinars we will be posting a schedule in a few weeks to give you advance notice of the dates and i invite you to send in questions topics concerns things you’d like us to explore in more detail that we’ve covered in our webinars items that are difficult for you challenges you’re facing this will be during the busy time for most of us with students and i encourage you to send in the challenges that you’re facing let us know where we can help what kind of assistance you need and we will look at those issues together as i said this is the fourth of four webinars if you have not already gone to your member homepage i encourage you to do so and check out the link to college essay institute if you’re not sure how to do that you’re welcome to get in touch with us and let us know on that page you will find webinar recording I will post this recording within the next day or two there are resources which I will reference today they’re not necessary to have in front of you they’re more meant as reinforcement and support after the session and I will also have the slides today’s slide aids and the schedule for upcoming sessions today we’re going to focus in two directions one is common scenarios things that we all experience and also awareness and change that’s what we do in every one of these webinars where we talk about what can we do what can we do differently this is not just theoretical we want you to be able to take action and make improvements and changes so that you can have more success and be more effective with your students I want to remind you that this is informal we encourage your questions please type them into the question box and I will either address them as we go along or at the end of today’s session I also encourage you to practice what we talked about there are handouts I hope that you will use them I have heard from many that they found them useful if there are other resources that you think would be helpful to you please let us know we’d be happy to consider creating more for you but do practice try it out see how it works make these suggestions your own and find ways to use them with your own students so what kind of scenarios are we going to talk about we’re going to talk about focus and concentration issues reading and writing challenges we’re going to talk about students who lack passion or appear to lack passion we will talk about the typical math and science kids the ones who say I’m not a writer or more commonly whose parents say my son or daughter is not a writer and I’m worried about it we will talk about procrastinators those who wait to the last minute those who depend a little too much on you and ask for your approval every step of the way and we’ll also talk about students for whom English is a second language that presents its own types of challenges our resources include some suggested in take questions they come from our questionnaire that we use with our own students we have a very extensive questionnaire and I’ve given you a sampling of some of the questions we ask because this gives us a lot of insight to what we need to know about our students a lot of this information helps us as we go through the writing process we also have some guidelines for handling reading and writing challenges especially kids who either have dyslexia or have other reading problems kids who have ADHD or for some reason cannot focus easily we’ve learned we’ve talked to experts we feel that we’ve developed some very strong methods for dealing with students like this I would like to give you a caveat however we are not mental health professionals we are not physicians we are we are learning this as we go just as you are we’re trying to make practical use of all the good advice that’s out there and applying it to the college essay process I want to make one overall statement we have learned from working with our own students that the introductory what we call the intake process is crucial we can learn a lot just by asking and listening asking parents asking students you can learn a lot about the relationship to reading and writing how they feel about themselves as writers their skills their experience and you need to know what you’re dealing with for most of you you work with students throughout the college application process you’re not meeting them for the first time when they begin working on essays you have a lot of opportunities to pay attention and learn things that will help you during the writing process if you wait till you’re already frustrated the student will be discouraged and so will you the goal is to have as we’ve said in other sessions to help all everyone feel successful for you to feel successful for the parent to feel successful for the student to feel successful we’ve learned by experience that we really can spend less time and effort by being prepared so watch for clues and we will we’ll talk about those as we go along some of the problems you’ll see occur during brainstorming some come during the brought the drafting process and there are different different um techniques you can use at different stages of the process but let’s step back a little bit before we talk about solutions let’s define the problem those terms we use them in our description because it’s the way people talk about it with us but I want to know what makes a great essay so here at while we’ve had a lot of conversations about this my business partner Kim and I talked about it we talked about it with our writing coaches many of you who are part of our while Partners Program or participating in our boot camp program these are conversations we may have had with you at some point our definition is a great essay conveys something meaningful about the student it rounds out the application in some important way and that’s it now your definition might vary that’s our definition you can use it if you like it a great essay convey something meaningful about the student and it rounds out the application in some important way it doesn’t say anything about perfect writing in that definition maybe your standards are different and that’s perfectly acceptable but I’d ask you think carefully what does what makes something a great essay what are you looking for what are your standards and expectations and make sure that your students can measure up to those expectations the second so the issue then is if it’s so poorly written that the reader can’t make sense of it it doesn’t convey anything except either sloppiness or lack of skill so that goes to it has to convey something meaningful if it’s so generic and full of cliches that it makes the student seem completely like everyone else and you can’t tell them apart from their peers it doesn’t convey anything meaningful at all NSA like that doesn’t hurt an application but it certainly isn’t going to help so when I’m reading a student essay when I’m working with a student brainstorming ideas going through drafts I keep that in mind is this story going to convey something meaningful about the student does this essay share some that isn’t apparent from the rest of the application does it round out the application in some important way or does it actually make more negative messages than positive so let’s let’s go even further though we talked about students who we say can’t right let’s talk about those writing skills and I’m going to get into more detail as we go along if an essay is poorly written because the student can’t produce anything better then the student should be applying to schools that can accommodate his or her needs that’s an important thing that’s not about essays that’s about fit and that’s an important issue to address with families if it’s poorly written because the student won’t apply herself you can provide guidance but you can’t make her perform you know the old they say you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink you need to be clear however about what you’re looking for what you want we really recommend in all of these cases that you define what success looks like with the student and the parent that you give very specific instructions be very clear about what you’re trying to achieve and you need ways to get there that’s why we use our process because we know that if we follow our ten steps we know what we’re doing every step of the way many of you have a process that you follow as well whether it’s our process or your own process or some hybrid you need to know where to check in how to evaluate success as you go along so there’s no surprises now you also have to keep in mind that a student arrives in your office with certain skills experiences and expectations you do have to work with what you have and that includes both the students commitment and his or her abilities you’re not a magician you’re a facilitator you’re a coach you’re a consultant you’re a counselor there’s only so far that you can go and it’s important for you to recognize that as well so with that in mind let’s talk about limitations that students have one is focus and concentration choose we get questions about this quite frequently this can often be diagnosis of ADHD if there is an actual diagnosis you do need to work with the family closely and address the issue we are not clinicians as I said we’re sharing what we have learned over years of working with kids with focus and concentration issues both those that are diagnosed and those that are either not diagnosed or have not been disclosed to us here’s what we recommend and we do have a worksheet about this with the resources i encourage you to use it first of all plan accordingly divide your meetings and your check-ins into very bite-sized pieces 20 30 minute sessions plan times for breaks make time if you have a student meeting with you make time for breaks get up get a glass of water walk around the block stretch whatever it takes if you find something that captures your students attention especially for kids who have ADHD they often have certain things that they attend to deeply run with it go with it if you engage that student in conversation or they get animated talking about something or telling you something about their essay or about their application go there with them helps them feel successful if you charge by the hour set parents expectations when it comes to essays with kids like this they often get off track and you have to be prepared for that so we’ve we don’t charge by the hour so we don’t have this issue but we have had this conversation with others and we suggest that you frame it this way tell the parents that instead of reviewing eight drafts you’re going to get it done in four drafts but with extra work time built in so there may be more back and forth but those won’t all be full drafts they might be writing exercises they might be discussions also very important build in clear check-ins ask the student to repeat back what the next assignment is what you talked about what you expect never assume that they have written it down never assume that it appears on a calendar never assume that because it was written down that going to check now we’re not asking you to be babysitter’s but we’re asking you to be realistic and to help the students succeed at this task also show what you’re looking for if you want three ideas give the student worksheet that says I need three ideas and for each one I need you to answer these four questions or whatever it is that you do be very clear not I know when I say show examples i don’t mean sample essays but i mean very clear information i need this done by this date in this format don’t leave a lot to chance don’t assume that what you meant was understood by your student and finally and actually i would make this number one ask the student ask the parent what tools they use many students who you will meet who have focus and concentration issues have things that work for them they have apps on their phone they have calendaring techniques they have strategies for dealing with things encourage them to use those strategies to be successful with you as well and ask them to show you how they work best because often they have things that they can show you and that again helps them feel successful helps them feel like they’re in the driver’s seat similarly we talked about dyslexia and reading issues again maybe diagnosed maybe not one of the things I’ve included with the resources are some in take questions we asked point blank very specific questions about how the student likes does a student like to read does the student find reading easy does a student like or not like English class what does he enjoy about reading what is she not like about writing we want to know these things and not only are we looking for the obvious answers I like to write I don’t like to write I like to read I don’t like to read we’re reading between the lines the student who answers in basically monosyllables on the page may not have a lot to say or may find writing it down challenging we have to probe a little bit find out ask the parent we have a lot of experience with this actually having worked with many students for whom reading is a challenge you’ve gotten all the way through high school and they will tell you they don’t like to read when in which is true but the other piece of the truth is that reading is hard for them and so when we give them material to read we also share it with them verbally we ask them to repeat it back to us if writing is hard for them will encourage them to speak into a recorder tell a story many times tell it to us sometimes we’ll even dictate I have to be careful there you want to make sure that you only write down the words that the student said you don’t add anything but it can be very empowering to students who believe they can’t read or write to hear their stories and to see them on the page and to see them in all their richness and to see how interesting they really are they’re often quite surprised and pleased by this and often will run with it and will continue but it’s getting the first words on the paper that’s very challenging for them so let’s switch gears here what about the students who say everything is okay I don’t know what I think about that everything’s pretty cool yeah I had fun it was good they just don’t have anything substantial to say this one actually I have to say that I thank you to the consultant who sent this one in the question specifically was how do I handle the student for whom every single thing in his life has been interesting pretty cool okay or kind of fun non-committal we have a resource here for you too we encourage you to look at our cliche brainstorming tips although I don’t know or everything was ok is not exactly a cliche the issue is the same the student isn’t differentiating between the general yeah I’m pretty happy things are pretty good for me and the specific I went to the beach with my little sister and I showed her how to find great seashells yeah it was kind of fun ok now this can take two forms one is in brainstorming where the student just can’t come up with a specific idea you have to keep probing we have an exercise that some of you have seen before we’ve used and it we use it in another session I’ve repeated it here it’s some it’s called I’m the kind of person who and we ask the student to say I’m the kind of person who likes to take a likes to be outside loves a good challenge has a good time with my friends whatever the generality is has a lot of fun then we go deeper we ask specific questions and like many things we do we start small bite-sized pieces don’t give them though don’t show them the whole plate show them just a little piece because sometimes you have to distract this type of student we stop talking about sa drafts we stop talking about topics we just talk we just probe and explore and see what we can find out now this may sound harsh but some students are not that deep and I don’t mean that in a judgmental way I mean that really life is good things are okay it’s kind of fun they don’t go any further than that they’re not trying to get away with anything they’re not trying to get out of talking more they don’t think that way and that’s okay think about the adults you know some of them don’t go that deep either and that’s ok they’re successful in their jobs and in their families and that’s deep enough now if that’s the case meet the student where he or she is this is not intended to be judgmental or fatalistic I mean you can try to go deeper we encourage you to we do it all the time and often we’re successful but try once try twice send them home with a writing exercise ask them some more questions and if you don’t get anywhere think about the message you’re sending which basically is you’re not good enough because you won’t tell me more if the student can’t or won’t tell you more sometimes you have to let it go when you do this kind of probing you will know when it’s time to stop when you have to just let it go and that’s really really ok because there will be some students who just refuse to play along it’s not because they’re not interesting it’s because they aren’t going to engage they should be fewer and farther between i have not had one of these in dozens and dozens and dozens of students in a couple of years i did have one years ago and the reason i want to tell you about this is because it wasn’t an essay writing issue this boy did not want to attend the school that his parents had in mind for him he didn’t wanna so he wouldn’t participate in the writing process in any meaningful way kind of like halfway half-heartedly did his homework he kind of gave me some drafts he’d talk a little bit when we met but he was not engaged so the dad then looked at the what we considered the final essay finally stopped I mean it was enough already and the dad was very upset I had a very intense conversation with him and I gently reminded him that his son was digging in his heels because this project this essay writing project this process was actually upsetting and meaningless to him the boy didn’t want to go to this school and the school’s he wanted to go to they didn’t require essay so this felt like a completely useless exercise the larger issue had nothing to do with essay writing and the dad actually after some conversation realized that and I told in this particular case I told him if your son decides that he really wants to do this I will not charge you to go through the process with me again I will start at the beginning with him and take him through the end I didn’t hear from them again because I think the dad realized that this boy didn’t want to do it so watch out for those those are not very common scenarios but it can sometimes be the issue what about our math and science kids the ones who say I’m not a writer I’m I’m really into science but I don’t write I’m not creative I tell them I don’t believe them kids like this are often very creative how many of your math geniuses are also musicians how many of your science kids like to sketch or dream up solutions to all kinds of mundane daily problems I’ve had lots of students like that we’ve had a lot of students like that and what i recommend here and what we’ve had great success with tap into that creativity through a side door these students often have been pigeon-holed their entire academic lives they don’t know that they can write their parents don’t think that they can write and will say oh yes this one’s my creative one but this one’s my brainy science kid she doesn’t write I find that as it is a writing teacher as someone who’s been teaching writing for more than 20 years I have seen very few cases where because where it really is a case of I’m really a math brain and I can’t write it’s very rarely true you have to go step by step with students like this meet them where they are we say that a lot if I’m a scientist I think in steps I think in process I think in testing hypotheses I think in logical going forward in one direction I don’t want things that are uncertain I want to move through this process so do it that way kids love our process we tell them we’re going to do step one and I just need you to trust me to do step one it’s not going to take you that long and if you don’t like to write don’t worry I’m not going to make you write for more than 30 minutes on this first step and then we’re going to do step two and then we’re going to do step 3 give it to them a little bit at a time we lay it out very clearly we give them a timeline i recommend that you do this too it shows them how long each piece is going to take how much time they’re going to have to put in when they’re going to check in with us what their product will be at each step of the process and i’ll tell you over and over and over again they love it they relax because it looks familiar to them it doesn’t look like just a big prompt at the top of the page and an open-ended writing assignment which is often what they find overwhelming so um just a side note those of you who are also part of our while partners or a boot camp program I’m telling what I’m saying here is don’t skip do not skimp on the first four steps you really need to do the pre work for those of you who are not part of those programs what I’m talking about is focus on content make sure you take content seriously before you move to structure and polish make sure that your student knows exactly what she’s trying to accomplish and how to get there and I say stay in that content phase as long as necessary because if you focus on process the product will emerge from the process if you hand students like this a bunch of sample essays they’ll say I’m not creative enough I can’t make one of those and you’ll lose them but if you’ve handed them whatever the thing is that there’s that’s their specialty you handed them a pen and you said I want you to make something like this they’d figure out how it was constructed how it was put together what what they needed to make it work so think of it like that think of it like a science experiment and they’ll follow along our next challenge comes from students for whom English is not their first language whether you are working with overseas students who want to come to the United States to attend college or you’re working with students in the US who may be first-generation immigrants perhaps they speak another language at home one language at home when language in school maybe they came here from another country when they were in middle school or high school they’re spoken English is excellent they’re written English may not be quite as strong if English is not the students first language it is ok for the writing to reflect that I’m going to say that again if English is not the first language it is ok for the writing to reflect that we spend a lot of time talking to admissions officers and this is one of the questions that we ask them frequently we say what do you expect from students who come from china for example what do you expect from students who come from a country where English is not their first language I had a student who was applying to US universities he lived in Norway well he his English was excellent I spoke to him by phone I saw his writing we went back and forth many times but it sounded like English that was written by someone who was not from this country and that was okay the kinds of things you can point out to them idioms if they use them incorrectly by all means pointed out but instead of correcting for them you can tell them in English we wouldn’t say this we might say something like this or what did you mean by that let me help you find another way to say it if they can’t quite get there verb tenses straight and they’re mixing them up you can help to some extent you can point that out you can show them you’re doing this in present tense but this in past tense I’d like you you can tell them I’d like you to circle all the verbs and I want you to change them all to past tense they may get most they’ll probably get most of them they might miss a few it’s okay to correct a little bit but it’s not okay to fix a student’s writing in any case and especially in this case if the TOEFL does not match the essay the college admissions officer will not be happy they notice that it’s one of the first things they’re looking for and I’m sure that many of you have had this conversation with one another and with families as well now you need to be like I said you’d be very careful about over editing you must be very careful about student expectations especially if they’re coming from a country where people package them and try to do it for them where they can purchase anything they want you need to be clear but that isn’t going to help them and in fact it can hurt them they may not know that because they might be getting bad advice from bad sources be the source of good information be the clear and accurate provider for them now the fact is if the student can’t present writing that is up to the school standards that student will not succeed at that college or university the school knows what is necessary a writing sample for a middle-of-the-road State University is not the same an essay is not the same as an essay necessary for getting into Yale the schools have different expectations not everyone is going to write brilliantly as though English were their first language many students who are writing in english as a second language are outstanding at it and have developed those skills but not everyone can do it this is a case we’re reaching out to college reps can be very worthwhile when in doubt ask ask them what they’re looking for and in that way it’s not because I want you to go out and make changes to the essays it’s because I want you to help your students really understand what’s expected talk just for a moment about week English departments I often hear people say well my students can’t write their english is poor they go to you know they don’t go to very good schools whether you’re doing pro bono work or simply of students who do not excel or come from poorer schools you need to reset your expectations it’s the same as the ESL issues if they may need to attend schools where remediation is part of the first year of college what you can do though is helped them find great stories let them write to the best of their ability and then step out of the way they may not be ready yet to present those great stories and elegant prose but you can help them find those stories and put them on paper as well as in the best possible way as well as they possibly can just a couple more and then I’m going to take questions and answers procrastinators what do we do with procrastinators this can be a writing challenge you need to set your expectations up front I really recommend not falling into the emergency trap this is an emergency I have to finish it now well guess what your emergency may or may not be my emergency now if you are willing to go there and deal with student emergencies that’s okay that’s fair that’s absolutely fine but you need to know what you are and are not willing to tolerate now this is something you can watch for upfront with all of your interactions with the student plan accordingly set deadlines that take into account the tendency to procrastinate be clear with parents not to have them overseeing everything but to have them understand what’s expected when it’s due we often will tell students this is going to take you two weeks and the parents has it’s been three weeks and we say no I’ve been sending you notes along the way saying that your daughter has been a little bit delayed and getting her responses in but now she’s on track and she’s doing fine I just need to let them know what to expect and how things are going and finally students who are too dependent who won’t take a step without getting your approval is this word okay should I say it like this I don’t know what to pick in this case you need to turn it back to them ask them well what do you think which idea do you want to write about we always tell our students during the editing phases during the reviewing phases I promise that if you edit out something important I will let you know because I trust you this is huge they need to know that they can do it we used to let students write in our office we stopped doing that the same kid could do perfectly well at home but as soon as she saw an adult sitting in the next office she would come to us and asked over and over and again what do you think of this what do you think of that so our solution to this is to make them right at home if you choose to have students write in your office or do writing exercises be sure to set the expectation that this is the students work don’t get into the trap of approving everything and giving feedback at every turn because it can be too much and they it increases their dependence so as far as awareness and change like I said we have many resources available for you I encourage you overall to avoid over editing having unrealistic expectations and putting product a beautiful SI above process usually the process will lead to a strong sa it will lead to the strongest sa the student can write but if we start out with a vision of a gorgeous product sometimes we can set ourselves up and set up students so I am I encourage you to use our resources that you’ll find on your homepage use them modify them ask us questions about them before we wrap up and ask for questions I do want to go back to our definitions we started with what makes a great college essay what makes a great college essay and what does it mean to say that a student can’t write I said a great essay conveys something meaningful about the student it rounds out the application in some important way simple straightforward that’s a great essay and the greatest essay that that student can write with that in mind I’m going to stay on the line for a little while longer and answer questions i encourage you to type them into the question box I will say I will start with one I have here parents expect me to work miracles what do you suggest this can be a challenge I talked a little bit about this before remember students arrive in your office with a history and as an adult and as a professional you can have that conversation with a student with a parent you have to probe sometimes and ask the parent well what has your child done in the past where has she excelled how has she excelled where has she had problems often the student that the parent will see that the child is having the same challenges that she’s always had and you’re not a miracle worker and you’re not going to be able to do anything differently than six teachers and two tutors have done before you so it’s not to tell the student or the parent I’m sorry there’s nothing I can help you with but it’s to say I’m working with what comes to me i am going to help and we say this all the time I’m going to help you write the best possible essay that you can write and then we move on from there so you’re an expert you can do great things you can get your students to answer questions you can get your students to think about things they might not have considered but you can’t work miracles and you need to know that and your families need to know that here’s another question I have a student who refuses to revise she considers herself a great writer okay so this is another type of challenge the stip the opposite of the math and science issue this is the student who says I am a writer I’m a brilliant writer I’ve gotten praise for everything I’ve ever written since I was in first grade and wrote a paragraph about my summer vacation I deal with this a lot I am a professional writer and a writing teacher so for those of you who are not you can say that you got this from me if you’re if you don’t have if you can’t say that you do this personally I write professionally I revised everything everything nothing is brilliant is nothing is as brilliant as I think it is at the beginning even my best ideas can use some reflection and time and improvement I show everything to my partner Kim she shows everything to me nothing goes out of this office until both of us have read it one of us will write something and think it is the most magnificent thing we’ve ever seen we wake up in our deal is is how we do it we say write it put it away read it again and then show it to the other partner because often we learn to recognize where our work needs more attention so you can tell your students professional writers revised that’s what makes a great writer and if you want to move on to the next stage of being an excellent writer you can tell your student you are an excellent writer I’m not questioning that but I have some recommendations because I’m an expert on the college application process and I’ve worked with dozens and dozens or hundreds of students and here’s what I suggest so in this case we say make specific suggestions and explain why you’re making those suggestions you’re not trying to be random and then you have to step back because ultimately this the essay belongs to the student I can’t make my students revised I can’t ever force it I can only recommend it here’s another one related to our learning issues it’s as parents don’t disclose learning issues sometimes I’m blindsided yeah this can be really hard I we hear you we’ve had the situation to we get partway through and say wait a minute there’s something wrong here it doesn’t happen to us as often anymore because we do have this extensive intake process we ask a lot of questions we talked to parents our questionnaire our student questionnaire includes a section for parents and for students the questions are not there’s not a ton of questions it only takes about 15 minutes to answer them but it helps us get to the heart of what might be behind the scenes that we don’t see so what I recommend here ask if you get to a point where you say oh my gosh there’s something wrong this this child can’t sit still and nobody told me or I’m not sure that she can read very well you know we’re having trouble here you need to ask discuss specific situations with the student or the parent ask and very specifically asked how do you suggest I handle this when this has happened for your son before what has worked what works for you in this case you want to help the parent feel less defensive and embarrassed maybe they didn’t tell you because they were hoping it wouldn’t be a problem maybe they didn’t tell you because they figured you’re so well respected and come so highly recommended that you couldn’t possibly have trouble with this maybe they didn’t tell you because they wish that this wasn’t an issue for their child you can’t know why they didn’t disclose it so you have to help the parent feel not defensive not why didn’t you tell me but how can you help me when this type of situation arises with your daughter what works or say to the child say to the student when you’ve had scenarios like this before what helps you what have you done anything that you are experiencing has happened before whether the family tells you or not it is highly unlikely that you are the first one to have this experience I don’t see any more questions right now for those of you who’d like to log out I thank you so much for your participation I will stay on the line for five more minutes and if there are more questions I will be more than happy to answer them thank you all for participating today you

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