Composition Theory and Pedagogy
College Prep II - Preparing to Write
by Brendan S. Casey
For the entirety of my undergraduate career I had the distinct ability to successfully write research papers, critical essays and journal entries. On the whole I feel that my writing was successful due to the fact that I received excellent grades as well as glowing comments of support from my professors. Please understand that I am not boasting about my grade point average, class rank or even attempting to claim that I am a good writer. However, I do feel confident in my abilities to write papers that speak directly to the question at hand while simultaneously addressing, although not necessarily adhering to, the professor’s point of interest. I must credit much of my success as an undergraduate to Mr. Kevin McCann of the Columbia High School English Department. My outlook on academic writing was drastically altered during the fall of 1997 with the help of Mr. McCann and a writing course entitled College Prep II.
Any Columbia High School Senior who wishes to matriculate at a four-year college or university can enroll in College Prep II. The purpose of the course, as if it weren’t obvious from the title, is to adequately prepare outgoing seniors to write effective research papers and essays at the college level. Before I delve into the specifics of the course itself, I must briefly acquaint you with the quirky Irishman mentioned above. Mr. McCann came across as the type of wise old Irishman you might run into in a quaint pub and spend hours sipping Guinness, telling jokes and exchanging personal experiences with. Perhaps the reason why College Prep II became such a welcomed challenge for my classmates and I had something to do with the high level of respect Mr. McCann showed us. Although we were nothing more than scared, immature high school seniors, he talked to us as if we were levelheaded, confident college students. The majority of high school teachers adhere to the “department store” method of teaching, whereby they must actively advertise and promote their educational product on a daily basis. Conversely, Mr. McCann opted for the “Wholesale” approach to teaching, allowing us to determine the importance of his educational product on our own, rather than bombard us with lectures and speeches on why College Prep II of the utmost importance. This style of teaching allowed our class to feel as if we were in on a secret that held the key to our college careers. In effect, Mr. McCann created a scholarly atmosphere in opposition to the disciplinary doldrums found in most classrooms.
Socially speaking, Mr. McCann also viewed my classmates and I in a very realistic fashion, knowing full well that mistakes would be made in the tumultuous sea of teenage life. He became someone we could talk to if trouble arose outside of class; I sought his advice when I was kicked off the track team for underage drinking. In viewing Mr. McCann as an equal or peer, perhaps it was easy for us to surrender our fears of writing and seek out his expertise. Putting pen to paper is such an intimate extension of ones thoughts, feelings and emotions that it can often seem impossible to share such personal notions with anyone else. However, Mr. McCann became a friend to us all, so that no one would feel awkward about discussing yesterday’s game or the party over the weekend, let alone a writing assignment.
The object of College Prep II is to force students to write a college level paper before they graduate from high school. With this daunting task at hand, Mr. McCann seemed to push the class along at snails pace, ignoring no detail, restating everything. He provided our class with direction, but allowed us to make headway on our own. We were forced to formulate our own topic and subject areas with minimal assistance or outside influence. I chose the topic of “prayer in school” with the subject areas of “public vs. private”, “separation of church and state” and “the needs of students.” Personally, it felt fantastic to be blessed with the decision of what would be important enough for me to spend a half semester writing about. I was inclined to discuss school prayer because I was raised Catholic, but attended public schools. With our topic and subject areas established we set out to compile a preliminary bibliography of at least ten works. This portion of the process led me to understand the importance of intense research and the need to establish a wide variety of sources from which to draw. Throughout the semester Mr. McCann met briefly with each student, myself included, for seven progress checks. These meetings were not for grading purposes, but more importantly to ensure that each student understood the importance of creating a solid foundation for the writing process.
With our preliminary bibliographies established, we began to finalize our topics, subjects and research questions. I came to settle upon “prayer in public schools” with a focus on “the courts and school prayer.” I developed several questions that would serve to propel my research and hone my ideas. I created questions such as, “What is the legal basis for the separation of church and state?” and “To what extent should this separation be carried out?” Through the development of such questions I began to see the creation of a structure that would eventually become the framework for my paper. At this point in the process Mr. McCann would provide no easy answers, but would force us to work through the planning stage ourselves with very few hints. We eventually compiled a list of fifteen sources that would be eligible for our final bibliographies. This step ensured that we were all making sufficient progress with regards to reading and were taking the project serious. For me, as a high school student doomed to forever read assigned texts, it came as a delightful change to actually decide what I would read for a school assignment.
Once we had finished our preliminary research our next step was to develop an initial thesis statement. This strongly focused assertion would serve as the lynchpin to our entire project. The concept of an all knowing, all powerful thesis was nothing new, after all we had been holding it as the Holy Grail of writing assignments since ninth grade. However, This time around the thesis would come primarily from our own research and intellectual assertions, not to be forced down our throats by a teacher’s ideas or class notes. I eventually scribbled down a tentative thesis, “The United States Supreme Court has been an inadequate mediator for the school prayer issue.” After the next progress check with Mr. McCann I realized that my thesis was vague and indirect. I then modified my thesis to read, “The Supreme Court has timidly approached the issue of school prayer due to political sensitivity and has therefore inadequately dealt with the problem.” With this shaky thesis in hand, I worked to develop an outline for the body of the paper. I decided that the first portion of my paper should deal with “Historical views of school prayer” with emphasis upon “Constitution” and “court rulings.” Furthermore, the second portion of my paper should focus upon “Reasons why no concrete decision has been reached (pro/con)” dealing with those “in favor of prayer”, those “against prayer” as well as all the relevant “legislation”. With an outline coming together I could finally see that my paper was moving in the right direction with continuity towards some final declaration.
Rather than attempt to force fifteen pages to grow out of one all encompassing thesis statement, Mr. McCann suggested that we develop at least two sub theses in relation to our thesis. Upon reconsidering my research, planning and central thesis, I came to the conclusion that “By clearly separating church and state the United States Constitution has laid the foundation for court rulings on school prayer.” This statement would solidify the importance of the Constitution with regards to school prayer in my paper. I also developed the notion that “Although the Supreme Court has made several rulings opposing school prayer, it has avoided a final or definitive decision, hoping that a compromise will make the court’s involvement unnecessary.”
With our papers divided up into two sections, each section would be based on a fifteen-point outline. Although this may seem a bit taxing and formal, the outline would ensure that we included each and every perspective that would support our thesis. Once we had completed our outlines and reviewed them with Mr. McCann it came time to quote the texts which we were researching. Each student would write any relevant quotation on an index card and label the card to correspond with the proper section of the outline. I remember compiling nearly thirty quotations that appeared to support my argument, but eventually chopping that number down to about two dozen. This strategy made the actual process of writing the paper extremely simple. The argument had been made and the important points had been supported, all that remained was to breathe life into the process with my own words.
Perhaps I truly did not understand how valuable the time spent with Mr. McCann was until I came upon the readings for this week’s class. Writing had always seemed like a hastily fired shot in the dark, for I never had a teacher who emphasized the importance of the creative process rather then the all mighty final grade. I remember everyone in my College Prep II class pulling out their hair, chewing on pencils and constantly begging for an extension before the final draft was due. We were concerned that a few minor grammar mistakes, an awkward sentence structure or maybe even a few contradictory ideas would take our paper from a B+ to a C-. However, no one knew that Mr. McCann was not grading us solely upon our final draft, but on our ability to embrace writing as a continuous process where there is always room for improvement. Whatever the case, the methods Mr. McCann taught carried me through four years of college writing with relative ease, yet I never realized that I was adhering to his school of writing until I began to ponder this writing assignment. He did an excellent job emphasizing the technical structure of the process, while focusing intently on the personal or humanistic side to writing. Will my outlook on writing change during my future as a graduate student, straying from the ways of McCann? Probably, but I think a part of that process will always be in the back of my head, for better or for worse.
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