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Writing Recommendations

April 18, 2010 am30 11:49 am

This week I had two juniors ask for college recs for next year. I’m glad they asked early (I told them what artifacts and documents I wanted from them). And it made me think a bit about one of the advantages of working in a (well-functioning) small school, with stable staff.

“In a small school the adults get to know the kids.”  In high-turnover small schools, this does not happen.

Usually I teach freshmen and one senior class. But I was tired of the little kids (in high school math, everyone thinks “Ooh, calc!” or “Aah, Precalc!”  “those must be challenging to teach.”  They are wrong. They should be saying “Ouch, freshmen!  They are a LOT of work”) so I asked to rotate to upper grades this year. And, if I’m lucky, next. (one year I’ll go back to the little kiddies. But I needed the break)

Anyhow, I teach most of the juniors, and I taught the entire grade when they were freshmen. Which means I can write about growth over time. And that is a huge advantage for a recommendation. What can I pick from?  Work habits?  Enthusiasm? Growth? Native ability?  I can write about kids calming down. Focusing better. If they are not so hot today, I can dwell on their adorable 9th grade self. I can fill in with other positives from around the school.

The mantra is, “in a small school the adults get to know the kids.”

The reality is, in high-turnover small schools, this does not happen. With a revolving door of adults, who knows anyone?  (the kids know each other, but beyond that?) And the majority of mini-schools set up over the last eight years or so, faculty turnover is high, and there are not many adults who get to know kids well. There’s a Nadelstern link there, but that’s for another post.

But not every mini-school is high turnover. Mine is extremely low.

So what do I do?

Back in freshman year, I tell all the kids to hang on to good work. Projects. Tests (with stickers!). Anything super hard they did. (I tell them they should do this for all their classes).

And senior year, or in these two cases with I hope more to come, junior year, I ask them to dig out those projects and tests, and to write me a little note about the kinds of stuff they remember doing as freshmen. That’s it. Oh, and I want their more recent work, too. Plus what they are thinking about for college. (place, field, etc)

What do I write?

It falls into a predictable formula. Not because I started with a formula, but it just sort of developed.

Four paragraphs.

  1. First impression. Emphasize small school. Something specific (to scream to the reader, I really do know the child – this is not a generic recommendation)
  2. A bit deeper. Some specific strength, with a classroom anecdote or reference to specific work to back it up. Usually some sort of weakness from the freshman class.
  3. Picture of the student today. Growth (show how the weakness has been addressed). Current level of achievement. Emphasize grades, or personality, or drive, or leadership, or wherever the student’s greatest strength lies.
  4. Sum up. Recommend. Positive comments, as possible, linking the student’s performance, ability or aptitude with the direction they think they are headed in.

I hope this works. I am not sure. At least I seem not to be doing harm. I do want to help them. It feels like a big responsibility.

As I teacher I devise grading systems that reward (to some extent) effort, since I know greater effort often leads to greater achievement. But Admissions Officers? I doubt they have any idea how much time I put into each rec. I wish they did. I wish they graded for effort.

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