Motivated and unprepared

Antoine, a B student at a mostly black, mostly poor high school, learned to refine his college admission essay at a summer program sponsored by College Summit. The New York Times story left me uneasy about Antoine’s future. The assumption seems to be that having a good poverty story to tell is the key to college.

One staple of the affluent students’ essays is the service trip to Latin America. “It’s the first time they’ve seen this wrenching poverty,” said Lee Coffin, the director of undergraduate admissions at Tufts University. After a while, however, the trips sound the same.

. . . But the lives of Antoine and the other 36 students at the workshop, which is run by College Summit, a nonprofit organization, are defined by struggle.

The workshop is intended to help them discover — and prove to college admissions officials — that their life stories can be as powerful as high SAT scores and stellar grades.

High SAT scores and stellar grades predict a student will be able to take advantage of college opportunities. Below-average grades and scores predict the student will struggle academically; family poverty and dysfunction increase the risk of failure.

Antoine is motivated to succeed. His first draft reads:

“I will not become a stereotype/statistic because many African/Black Americans proved that we can achieve greater heights,” Antoine wrote. “Richard Wright is a great, black American writer. Have you read his famous book, “Black Boy.” I have, and if you have read it, you should know that he defeated the odds. Same with Martin and his dream.”

“Just like these incredible men,” he wrote, “I, too, want to defeat the stereotypes.”

I’ve seen a lot of essay drafts by Mexican-American students who don’t want to be stereotypes. (Who wants to be a stereotype?) Motivation is good. But it needs to be coupled with academic preparation. Teach Antoine to write a research paper.

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  1. This is the very issue I am preparing for this coming year. I will be teaching our first AP US Government course for seniors this year and I and the teacher who teaches the AP US History course for juniors decided to collaborate on teaching the students how to write a research paper. It was horrifying to me when I first assigned a basic 5-paragraph essay to my seniors one year and discovered over half of them couldn’t even form a coherent thesis statement. So we are now going to try a new thing in Social Studies: an 8-week seminar on how to write a research paper, taught along side of content beginning the 2nd week of school. The students will be required to turn in 2 research papers this year and will also have other essay assignments. I’m also incorporating basic essay writing skills/literacy into my other courses for sophomores and non-AP seniors. I want my students (largely poor and minority/immigrant) to be able to communicate their unique points of view, but in a literate way.