Goodbye, Hello: In Which I Look Backwards Before Going Forwards

photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc
photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc

The Fall semester has come to an end and the Spring term is about to begin. Each new term brings with it heightened anticipation as we feverishly map journeys of discovery for our students and blueprint what we hope will be engaging and challenging learning environments. It is a strange season of flux as we look forward with one eye and backward with the other, reflecting on what worked and what failed before so that we know what to recycle, repurpose, and reconsider and what to chalk up to experience. We share much with gardeners, who spend the fallow season plotting and planning, first allowing space for the necessary and the reliable, then squeezing in some untried novelties, deciding what needs to be rotated to revitalize the soil, prepping the ground, sowing the seeds, then waiting patiently for the fruits to flower, tending, weeding, brooding, second-guessing, nurturing, assessing.

Before finalizing my Spring classes, I wanted to reflect, in writing, on some of my more experimental practices from the Fall, especially those about which I promised to post follow-ups.

In “Flips, Cartwheels, and 360’s? Oh my?” I posed the question: “What if I asked my hybrid FYC students to help design a 21st century university?” I wondered if they would be willing or able to accept my challenge. I’m happy to report that they accepted it wholeheartedly and did not disappoint me or the 21st Century Classroom Initiative Committee members who attended their presentations (more on those in a bit). I handed the class a real and intensely relevant problem to solve with no conditions or requirements attached (other than the fact that they had to be able to explain their work in 15 minutes or less). Some of the solutions that students developed were phenomenally outstanding. You can see a sampling of what they came up with at Storify.

In a subsequent post, “This Is What a Final Exam Should Look Like,” I shared my discovery of the research slam–part poster session, part poetry slam–and pondered the questions: “What if final exams looked more like [research slams]? What if students shared their learning with one another in the kind of interactive, experiential, small-group method encouraged by the research slam? . . . How powerful would that be?” Pretty powerful, I thought. And it was. Students arrived early and set up their presentations: a collage of tri-folds, laptops, brochures, and scale models. Small groups of students moved from display to display, as the presenters gave a 15 minutes or less overview of their project and answered questions from the audience. Members of the 21st Century Classroom Initiative were also in attendance, asking questions, jotting down student email addresses, asking for links to presentation materials. I wandered from station to station, filming snippets of presentations and conversations. The room was saturated with voices–discussing, questioning, responding, laughing, debating, critiquing. After such a heady experience, I don’t know that I could ever go back to the traditional final exam–those bent heads; those cramped fingers; those flat, stale pieces of paper; that deathly silence.

In “I’m Bringing Paper Back (‘Cause It’s Still Sexy),” I discussed my plans to strike a balance between the digital and the physical in my classes. I had students digitally and collaboratively annotate one of the texts we read, but I provided hardcopies of their annotations in class and had students use them to develop discussion questions. We also practiced blogging on paper first and students responded so favorably that I plan to have next semester’s classes perform peer review on paper versions of every blog post. I’m slowly falling back in love with paper, especially after reading Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole (which I’ve blogged about a lot recently), and I think it will be making an even bigger comeback next term.

In “Hacking Assessment: Redesigning the Numbers Game,” I continued reflecting on my ongoing battle with assessment. I considered two kinds of assessment, in particular, this past term: peer assessment and contract grading. As I reported in a subsequent post, I ended up giving peer assessment a try in my Basic English Skills class with great success, so much so that it is the primary form of formative assessment in both of my FYC courses next term. Contract grading was less of a success, though that had more to do with my lack of clear communication than anything else. Despite providing exhaustive guidelines, on the end-of-term course assessments several students expressed discomfort with not knowing whether or not each criteria was being met as the semester progressed. On the plus side, I’ve only had two grade complaints so far. I plan to improve my communication with students regarding their progress on grade-level criteria and will provide them with assignment checklists so they can have a visual representation of what they have and have not completed.

In “Remediating Remedial Composition,” I expressed trepidation with some of the radical ideas I had for my Basic English Skills class. Overall, I think the class was a success. Quite a few students disappeared (as is unfortunately typical of remedial classes), but only 4 of the 18 students who finished the class did not receive credit for it. I had to drop the VoiceThread assignment (it was technically too overwhelming in an already tech-heavy class), but the blogs turned out to be very interesting (though not mechanically superior) and I discovered another awesomely invigorating collaborative writing method in the silent dialogues I had students complete in Google Docs (another novelty that will be added to my tried-and-true writing practices).

Overall, I would rate the Fall 2012 semester a success for me, but more so for my students. There were those stellar presentations in my FYC classes giving voice to college students facing a radically revolutionized socioeconomic future and needing a radically revolutionized learning environment to prepare them for it. My Basic English Skills students made great strides in pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones and relying on one another for writing support and nurturance. And my Oral Communication students went above and beyond my expectations as they created public service campaigns that not only raised awareness of important issues but provided a means to act on those issues in positive and impactful ways. I think I’m a little closer to a system of assessment that I believe to be both meaningful and fair. I’ve discovered some awesome techniques to integrate into my composition classes and am especially excited by those that foster collaborative writing practices. And from now on I’ll actually look forward to my final exams rather than dreading and rueing them.

And so it’s time to begin a new semester and a new adventure with a whole new set of experiments and discoveries to anticipate.

“Hoe while it is spring, and enjoy the best anticipations.” ~Charles Dudley Warner

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Remediating Remedial Composition

Osmar Schindler (1869-1927): David und Goliath, 1888 via Wikimedia Commons

I’m a big fan of Mike Rose because I think that what he says makes a lot of sense. I just don’t understand why more university administrators and those in charge of remedial writing courses aren’t listening to him.

If you don’t know who Mike Rose is, you should get to know him by reading his blog or a few of his books, especially Lives on the Boundary, which is the first book of his I ever read. I read it after discovering his seminal article “Remedial Writing Courses: A Critique and a Proposal.” As the title of the article suggests, Rose first critiques the praxis of remedial composition and its theoretical underpinnings and then offers an alternative method for teaching students who require remediation in writing in a way that better eases their transition into the first-year composition course. Rose’s critique, then and now, questions the idea that students who arrive at university with substandard writing preparation need to be taught the very basics of writing, i.e., grammar and mechanics and sentence construction, as though they were primary school students, rather than the adults that they are, and the assumption that the mastery of these basics will somehow allow them to go on to succeed in the typical FYC course and their other college classes. As Rose points out, the entire construction of remedial composition courses dooms them, and by association the students who must take them, to failure:

Many of our attempts to help college remedial writers, attempts that are often well- intentioned and seemingly commonsensical, may, in fact, be ineffective, even counterproductive, for these attempts reduce, fragment, and possibly misrepresent the composing process. I believe we may be limiting growth in writing in five not unrelated ways. (1) Our remedial courses are self-contained; that is, they have little conceptual or practical connection to the larger academic writing environment in which our students find themselves. (2) The writing topics assigned in these courses—while meant to be personally relevant and motivating and, in their simplicity, to assist in the removal of error—in fact might not motivate and might not contribute to the production of a correct academic prose. (3) The writing teacher’s vigilance for error most likely conveys to students a very restricted model of the composing process. (4) Our notion of “basic skills” has become so narrow that we attempt to separate the intimately related processes of reading and thinking from writing. (5) In some of our attempts to reform staid curricula we have inadvertently undercut the expressive and exploratory possibilities of academic writing and have perceived fundamental discourse strategies and structures as restricting rather than enhancing the production and comprehension of prose.

Rose goes on to propose that remedial writing courses do just the opposite of what they (typically) do now. He envisions, and in fact has helped to design and administer, remedial writing courses that don’t assume students can’t meet the challenges of academic reading, thinking, and writing, but actually ask them to dive headlong into the proverbial intellectual deep-end, with the instructor guiding and coaching them as they struggle to navigate  academic discourse and add their voice to the academic conversation. This is not much different from how many of us approach traditional FYC courses. The main difference in remedial courses, at least in my experience, is the crucial need to not allow remediation to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In remedial writing courses the challenge is not so much overcoming students’ unfamiliarity with the praxis of academic discourse as it is overcoming the label that students who are placed in remedial classes are given and the expectations (or lack thereof) that are associated with that label. In general, I have found that three types of students end up in remedial writing classes. The first group are those students who know that they have been placed in a remedial class and either resent it (because it does not count towards their degree hours and forms a barrier between them and the “real” classes that their peers are taking) or see it as a judgement on their writing ability and perhaps even on their merits and prospects as a student (I suspect that many of these students hypothesize that remedial is synonymous with “not meant to be here”). The second group of students do not even realize that they are in a remedial class or what that means. These students are often shocked to learn that the class signifies a deficiency on their part and will only count as institutional credit. The third group of students overlap with the other two, but I identify them as unique from their peers because they don’t actually belong in a remedial class but, because of poor testing skills or some other fluke, have been placed there. These students could do very well in my traditional FYC classes and therefore excel in my remedial classes, providing models for their peers to emulate. (On the reverse side of this is the fact that I always end up with a handful of students in my FYC classes who would greatly benefit from a remedial writing class and rarely are able to pass the traditional class).

Because of the precarious emotional and intellectual states of many of these students, the main function of a remedial writing class often becomes one of constant and intense encouragement as you arm your students to go out and meet the forces that they believe have been arrayed against them. If they feel like David going out to meet Goliath, then writing is the rock you must convince them they can sling. They have to believe that becoming a better writer is achievable or you have lost the battle before it has even begun (and it is an ongoing battle that you must fight all semester long). But forcing them to write self-contained paragraphs for a semester is not going to prepare them for FYC. Mollycoddling them with simplistic writing prompts is not going to help them face their next college writing assignment. And knowing a verb from a gerund is not going to help them compare and contrast two psychological theories or analyze a political cartoon or classify and analyze the medical symptoms of a hypothetical patient.

So, I’m doing things a little differently in my remedial writing class this term (the first that I’ve taught in a while) and following Rose’s four-tiered plan, which is founded on real writing challenges (the kind that students will be faced with as college students, not primary school students) that are situated within highly relevant contexts.

The Context

I have designed the class much like a journalism course in that the students will work together to design and publish a blog. The theme of the blog will be completely up to the class. At the moment, students are writing their first blog post, which is their proposal for the blog’s theme. Once students have identified potential themes, I’ll allow the class to vote on which theme they think will be the most interesting to write about this term. Once the theme is selected, the blog will function much like an digital newspaper, with students working together in groups to identify relevant stories, compose the stories, design the post layouts, and publish the stories by a deadline.

The Challenge

Students will write in small groups of three to four, rotating the role of lead editor each week. The week’s lead editor will be in charge of identifying sources for a story and sharing those sources with the other members of the writing team. The team will work together in class to brainstorm and outline the story and the lead editor will draft the story before the next class meeting. At the next meeting, the team will use Google Docs to collaboratively revise, edit, proofread, and design the blog post before the editor publishes the story to the class blog. The writing team will then have to create a VoiceThread that contains both the Google Doc in which they collaborated on the post and the final post itself. I will use the VoiceThread to provide feedback both on how effectively they collaborated as writers/designers and on the strengths and weaknesses of the final post, and the team will respond to my feedback and establish goals for their next post.

Rationale

My hope is that by having students publish their writing on a blog and select the topic of the blog, they will be more invested in the  act of writing and what they are writing about. Also, by asking students to work in writing teams, I hope to take the onus off of the individual student and provide them with a support group of peers. Because we will be using Google Docs, I will be able to monitor each team’s writing process and function as a member of each team myself. Since the class meets in a computer lab, I can be present both physically and virtually (a veritable hybrid teacher!), depending on where I am needed most by any given group.

The Technology Sticking-Point

I hesitated about using technology so heavily in a remedial course. My first instinct was to teach the course naked (figuratively speaking), going bare bones in an effort to achieve a type of Zen simplicity that I hoped would funnel over into the students’ thinking about writing. I did not want anything to complicate the already complicated relationship that many of these students are likely to have with writing. But in the end I could not get past the power that asking students to “publish it” rather than “hand it in” holds for my traditional FYC classes. I am sure that there will be some students who struggle with the technical aspects of the class and this may stifle their writing progress or even lead them to resent me and/or give up on the class. But I am hopeful that the risk of losing a few students will be trumped by the empowerment that the rest of the students will feel as they make a tangible footprint on the digital landscape.

I may be completely off my head in how I’ve planned the course. It may be that too many of my students will allow the remedial label to narrow their vision and foreshorten their potential. Too many may go into technology panic mode or feel that their writing skills are too inferior to be publicly evaluated and commented on. I may lose my nerve and ask them to abandon the field in mid-battle if I begin to see too much fear or hesitation on their part.

But, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I’ll let you know how we fare.

In the meantime, if you’d like to read about another instructor who is taking a radical approach to remedial composition, read “A Model for Teaching College Writing,” which describes how Barbara Vance helped a group of struggling writers become a team of documentary filmmakers.