Monthly Archives: June 2012

How Do You Spell “Big Picture”?

brain connections

cc image posted at Flicker by Image Editor

I have always had difficulty with spelling, so I was relieved to learn, while reading chapter five of Errors and Expectations that some college instructors also confessed to this deficiency.   Shaughnessy reassures us that poor spelling is not the sign of a lack of intelligence, but I already suspected this of my colleagues; haven’t we made it to, or through, graduate school, for heaven’s sake?  The bad news she says is that it’s harder for adults to learn to spell. That’s what I like  about Shaughnessy; she has a “this is the problem, and this is the solution” attitude about basic writing topics that baffle many of us. She has a knack for prioritizing, observing, and then dissecting the most complicated writing error issues and then offering a recipe for improving the outcome.

The main problem, she says, is poor preparation for writing; we learn to spell by seeing, hearing, and writing words in our younger years.  Is learning really, as Shaughnessy claims, more difficult as you grow older? Naturally, I was intrigued by this observation that concerns not just me, but everyone over forty.  It turns out that it is more difficult to learn new information as we get older, but complex learning that requires synthesizing information, which is important to academic writing and thought, actually improves:

 The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can. The trick is finding ways to keep brain connections in good condition and to grow more of them (Strauch).

Though my brain is a complicated map created from a lifetime of thought connections, I find that I need to make lists and maps of all kinds. So, I like Shaughnessy’s suggestion for making error and vocabulary lists, but I also thank the gods for spell check.


Strauch, Barbara. “How to Train the Aging Brain.” New York Times, 29 Dec. 2009. Web. 21 June 2012. Link.


A Scientist Debates a Pollyanna: No Easy Consensus

Slideshare presentation by Sharon Salyer

The ongoing debate about and the frustration surrounding the unpreparedness of students for post-secondary education seems no closer to resolution. In economic terms, the answer would seem to be that, yes, society could save a lot of money by detouring underperforming students toward vocational/technical schools. On the other hand, besides preparation for a career, higher education offers many intangible benefits as well, such as increased critical thinking skills, cultural awareness, and improved communication skills, all considered to be critical illiteracies in the twenty-first century.  But, can a few years of post-secondary education make up for a life-time of societal and educational neglect?

Patricia Cross (McAlexander 2000) seems to be saying that, no, it would be more realistic and humane to steer under -achieving students toward their own level of success― spare them the disappointment of failure.  Many would agree, and none can deny that many families of the nineteen fifties and sixties prospered with even less than high-school educations.  In the long run though, there are many more ways that societies as well as individuals with less education lose out.  The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement finds that higher education results in these key indicators of a successful society:

• regular volunteering for non-political groups,

• active membership in any groups,

• raising money for charity,

• working with others on community problems,

• membership in political groups,

• regular voting,

• contacting officials,

• signing e-mail or paper petitions,

• and being “hyper-engaged” (involved in at least 10 different activities).

Higher education seems to be the rising tide that raises all boats, but a surprising, secondary indicator of economic success is the educational level of mothers. Although there are many other variables involved, like family stress and parental involvement, this indicator seems to hold true for Shaughnessy, whose father only had a grade-school education, but whose mother held a teaching degree.

mother reading to children

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Mina Shaughnessy had the capacity to feel what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes ― empathy.  She isn’t surprised by Basic Writing student’s “ambivalent feelings about ‘making it’” because of their many previous failures. But, motivation, one of the reoccurring reasons cited for underachiever’s lack of success, is paradoxically, precipitated by success. Few of us would remain motivated without the occasional success. Without educational success, especially the ability to write well, when we move out of the hypothetical into the real work-a-day world, she reminds detractors that

a person who does not control the dominant code of literacy in a society that generates more writing than any society in history is likely to be pitched against more obstacles than are apparent to those who have already mastered that code (13).

The problem I have with Shaughnessy is that her empathy with students sometimes verges on condescension, much like Harriet Beecher Stowe, the writer of one of my least favorite classics, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Like Stowe’s novel, however, the empathetic and emotional tone of Shaughnessy’s writing moved many people to action.  Other educators may also object to Shaughnessy’s mantra because her Current Traditionalist beliefs ooze conformity and ideology (Bloom 1996, Foley 1989).

As we’ve become a more culturally diverse and inclusive society (at least on the surface), there is another progressive linguistic movement that says that all language dialects should be valued and preserved. Reconciling these various beliefs requires ongoing dialog between empathetic educators. Until a consensus is reached, we must aim to educate all students as if they were members of our own families.


McAlexander, Patricia J.  “Mina Shaughnessy and K. Patricia cross: The forgotten debate over postseeondary remediation”,   Rhetoric Review, 19:1-2 (2000): 28-41. Web.

On Shaughnessy, Syntax, and Students

The introductory chapter of Mina P. Shaughnessy: Her Life and Work by Jane Maher is filled with so much emotional energy that it threatens to chase off the timid graduate student preparing to teach composition in community college.  Faced with the new policy of open enrollment in New York City, in 1966, Shaughnessy was tasked with creating a basic writing program that was inclusive of all the dialects and writing ability levels of the previously underserved students of poor and immigrant New York City neighborhoods.  Ever a politically charged issue, in 1998, New York mayor Giuliani wages war against what he sees as a waste of money and class space.  Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Jeff Sommers, in their article “Professing at the Fault Lines:  Composition at Open Admissions Institutions,” paraphrase the attack:

Incoming students who do not pass gateway placement exams in reading, writing, and math will be barred entrance, ending the open admissions policy established in 1970. During this public campaign of ridicule, confusion and duplicity abound as the mayor first attacks the community colleges, then the senior colleges.  No one is quite sure what will happen at the city’s community colleges . . .

Currently, open enrollment is policy in Virginia’s community colleges, and once again controversy simmers over the poor quality of college writing.  Nobody seems happy, teachers are demoralized because they are “torn between their knowledge that teaching writing is important and challenging the harsh public voices attacking their enterprise” (442).  I must admit that I too have been noncommittal about what environment I believe is best for teaching BW courses that sometimes don’t carry college credit, use up tight funds, and often result in students never graduating.   The cost to students is more than economical though; their dreams are often shattered.  I questioned a while back when a student I was tutoring at Tidewater Literacy was accepted into the local community college, but I also knew that this student had goals that wouldn’t be met by the rudimentary reading assignments TL’s adult literacy curriculum espoused.  Besides, learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  Education is cultural and participitory, requiring the embedding of habits of mind as well as academic skills, so I’m gratified to find that there are many teachers today equally as committed as Shaughnessy was back in 1966 to finding new (and old) ways to reach Basic Writing students in college. I hope the changes that are now taking place, combining the reading and writing programs, defining twenty-first century literacy skills, among others, will do teachers and students justice.

Errors and Expectations, written before computer classrooms were a reality, is still relevant for its skill at confronting another, still controversial issue; grammar correction. Shaughnessy, however, confronts both grammar correction and  the nay-sayers who think teaching writing process is “a little soft” by pointing out that even though grammar errors are plentiful and therefore shouldn’t be ignored, there are discernable patterns of error in most basic writing that are explainable and manageable.  Shaughnessy’s point that “the issue is not [the student’s] capacity to master the unfamiliar forms of formal English . . . but to write,” emphasizes voice over code.  The four most important syntax issues she recommends addressing with BW s are:

  • Sentences
  • Inflection
  • Tense
  • Agreement

Shaughnessy also places a lot of responsibility on students to self-correct grammar errors through the use of handbooks and handouts chosen for specific problems so that the writing process can remain the dominant focus of class time.  This is the approach I would like to take to teaching grammar as I develop my Basic Writing course outline. The key issue will be how to assess grammar and mechanics as an “important to know” rather than a “core task.” This may be one of those areas where Dr. Phelp’s (2012 ODU Faculty Summer Institute) suggestion for daily quizzes might come in handy – maybe a cell phone quiz would work.


Bowler, Mike. “Dropouts Loom Large for Schools.” Retrieved from

Maher, Jane. Mina Shaughnessy: Her Life and Work. Urbana: NCTE, 1998. Web. URL

Open Admission. Retrieved from The New York Times Article Archives.  URL

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Understanding, Knowing, and Doing

understanding, knowing, doing = participatory culture

CC image posted at Flicker by Thomas Hawk

This week I’ve been contemplating the difference between the words “understanding, knowing, and doing” in a course objective template I’m using, and the implications of those differences in how course standards are written and interpreted.  Taking a Constructivist viewpoint, I have also identified words that signal key objectives in a typical, community college course standard in order to work toward a successful, student-centered model of a first-year writing class, structured on the book I spoke about last week, Understanding by Design. How key words are interpreted become the basis for a robust course outline.

Understanding is defined, in Understanding by Design, as the long-term and transferable goal that drives true learning. What we thoroughly understand stays with us as a building block for future learning that transposes itself over time and space. If, for instance, a person learns that there are numerous ways (and no single right way) to approach a problem; that as an individual, his or her creative process may be different from someone else’s; that his opinion is valued; and that her first attempt is only practice, that person is well on their way to becoming successful in school, at work, and in life.

Unfortunately, many students arrive in college writing classrooms with a more ingrained understanding― that they can’t write. Even though they effectively communicate verbally with family, peers, and employers on a daily basis, emphasis on “correct” writing has devalued not only students’ writing products, but also their language codes and social cultures (Shaughnessy 92). One can certainly see that by making a long-term goal that is seemingly both unneeded and unreachable; little motivation to succeed will result. With broad, transferable goals and deep understanding of the purpose and process of writing, hopeful teachers believe that, given the right tools, even basic writing classes can confer an acceptable level of success to each student.

Knowing is the word used in Understanding by Design to identify the attainment of skills required to accomplish a task or solve a problem.  Teachers, of course, can’t guarantee that all students will become excellent writers, but they can provide the necessary tools for each student to do their best.  The basic skills needed for proficient college writing that Mina Shaughnessy discusses in her 1977 book, Errors and Expectations, including handwriting, punctuation, and spelling, are still recognized today by experts Henry Jenkins and the Carnegie Corporation as essential. Along with the basics, however, there are new technological skills, social skills and ethical frameworks that are necessary for students to function in today’s participatory culture. The long list of “how tos,” however, should be refined and prioritized to provide individual students with the power and self-confidence to participate effectively in school and life.

I went to college, but I learned to write by reading – and writing. Daniel Pinkwater

Doing inspires self-confidence, and practice perfects the end product. This is why many experts bemoan the lack of writing practice students are currently getting in school. Because of new curriculum reforms driven by student’s inadequate preparation for college writing, most standards will now be including more writing practice, both in writing classrooms and across disciplines. The Carnegie study linked above discusses the transferable skills developed through reading and writing.  Writing, as well as reading, the authors say, “is a predictor of academic success and a basic requirement for participation in civic life and in the global economy” (3). The metacognitive skills acquired through the writing process, experts say, are equally important as the written product itself.


Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). “Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools” – A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York.Washington, DC:Alliance for Excellent Education. Retrieved from  (June 6, 2012).

Jenkins, Henry. “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.” Retrieved from  (June 6, 2012).

Pinkwater, Daniel. Retrieved from

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.