by Ann Jurecic

Every fall, first year students arrive at Rutgers already having heard that Expos 101, the expository writing course that most of them are required to take in their first semester, is writing boot camp. On the first day of class, there’s a palpable anxiety among the students as to whether their high school education prepared them for writing college essays.

Having taught writing for many years, I know that, although this anxiety can be transformed into motivation, it is also an unfortunate consequence of a lack of communication between secondary and higher education professionals about what is expected of college writers.

In 2006, I had an opportunity to bridge this perception gap. I gave a keynote presentation at a meeting of the New Jersey Writing Alliance in which I described Rutgers’ expectations regarding writing and reading to high school and college faculty from across the state. Afterward, I received a call from Michael Wojcik, an assistant to the superintendent in the Hackensack school district, who asked me to meet with a group of teachers and administrators to discuss how the district could better prepare high school students for college. We began our collaboration with a workshop modeled after the training that the Rutgers writing program offers to its new instructors. After the workshop, I posed the question: “If this is what will be expected of your students when they begin college, what should you do to get them ready?”

On a warm day this May, nearly a year after my keynote presentation, I met with 20 middle school and high school faculty and administrators at the conference center on Douglass Campus. After handing out copies of The New Humanities Reader, the textbook used in our expository writing classes, and co-edited by my colleagues Richard E. Miller and Kurt Spellmeyer, we worked on selecting readings, composing assignments, and evaluating samples of student writing. By mid-afternoon, we were ready to discuss what teachers could do in their classrooms to prepare students for college writing. The teachers saw immediately that they could make small changes: assigning longer readings and a greater range of texts, and giving assignments in which students respond to problems or puzzles that have no easy solutions. They also talked at length about initiating larger institutional changes that would support the creativity and learning of teachers as well as students.

By the end of the day it was clear that the conversation should continue and this marked the beginning of a collaborative relationship between the Rutgers Writing Program and Hackensack High School. Since then, groups of English and social studies teachers have visited composition classes at Rutgers and met with writing program instructors; in exchange, Rutgers faculty and writing program administrators have observed classes at Hackensack High School. With each exhange, we bring more teachers from both institutions into the discussion. With the goal of deepening the engagement between Rutgers English and Hackensack High School, we hosted a two-day intensive version of the Expos 101 training program this summer in Writers House for a dozen Hackensack faculty and administrators. In the future, we plan to work together on faculty development and curriculum revision.

What will come of this institutional partnership? Ideally, our two institutions will create a new model to bridge the gap between high school and college writing instruction. At the very least, we hope that, from now on, graduates from Hackensack High School will arrive at Rutgers and walk into Expos 101 fully prepared to take up the challenge.