There’s Time Left for Teaching
A colleague of mine recently suggested that because of all the important areas to be covered in basic writing classes, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, plus giving attention to the actual writing process, class size should be limited to ten students. In an ideal world this would certainly be the case, but it’s highly unrealistic in today’s economically strapped schools. The actuality is that basic writing class size varies widely among colleges and universities. Given the finite time resource and the growing expectations placed on teachers to address individual student’s needs and foster transferable knowledge and skills while improve writing test scores, how do writing teachers determine what areas to concentrate on to use class time to the best advantage?
When creating a class schedule, after allowing for institutional holidays and professional enhancement activities, etc., the juggling game truly begins. On the one hand, student’s individual needs must be addressed, and on the other hand, institutional and course objectives are expected to be met by all students regardless of prior writing experience. Mina Shaughnessy, in Errors and Expectations, produces page after page of examples for addressing various common grammar and punctuation errors that plague basic writers, but she places much of the responsibility for correcting those errors on the student. The teacher’s role, according to Shaughnessy, is to point out error patterns and offer solutions for self-correction, allowing the student to see that “although he has twenty errors he has only five problems” (127) which can be corrected through the use of handbooks, handouts, and other tools. Relegating more responsibility to students for the self-correction of their work allows teachers to maintain high expectations for student writing by utilizing class time for more writing practice.
Along with high expectations for the traditional aspects of writing such as spelling, grammar, and punctuation, comes today’s emphasis on twenty-first century literacies, the ability to produce text s that engage the student in a participatory discourse community. These types of skills can be time consuming to introduce and hard to measure; they may also be counter-intuitive in American society where individuality is stressed. The reward for including these frameworks, however, is a more reflective and creative learner prepared to do well in other college classes as well as on the job. Because writing classes structured around collaborative projects that address student’s real world needs and concerns are best at producing meaningful and transferable learning and skills, traditional lecture-based classes may be becoming obsolete. Creative use of class time including collaborative activities requires many hours of preparation for the teacher, but might be offset by student self-assessment and peer review activities.
Given that there must be a trade-off between time allocated to the rudiments of the writing product and the creative reflection of the writing process, even Shaughnessy acknowledges that making writing better isn’t necessarily making it right. Teachers, therefore, are charged today with setting goals that are both attainable and relevant in an economically, racially, and culturally diverse society. The challenge is to constantly self-reflect on individual teaching practices and to refine student assessments in able to fine- tune course content and also to continue to encourage institutions to acknowledge the importance of class size for the success of basic writers.