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.
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.
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:
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 www.usnews.com
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.