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.
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 http://www.all4ed.org/files/WritingNext.pdf (June 6, 2012).
Jenkins, Henry. “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.” Retrieved from http://digitallearning.macfound.org/atf/cf/%7B7E45C7E0-A3E0-4B89-AC9C-E807E1B0AE4E%7D/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF (June 6, 2012).
Pinkwater, Daniel. Retrieved from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/d/daniel_pinkwater.html
Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.