Last night I was grading a set of basic comp paragraphs.  The assignment was a response to an excerpt of Stephen King's On Writing.  (Thanks to my colleague, Christine Cusick, for encouraging me to using readings about writing in the course.)  Two issues arose.  The first:  a number of students just did something different instead.  Okay, I didn't remind them the class period before that this paragraph had a specific text to work with, so this mistake was understandable.  The second:  one student wrote about the fact that he didn't understand what the essay was talking about.  Now, if he'd interacted with his own misunderstanding in any kind of a thoughtful way, I would have liked what he did.  But he simply paraphrased a couple of short sections of the essay and then stated, repeatedly, that he didn't know what it had to do with writing.  This same student had stated in class that he didn't follow King's reasoning, and we had gone carefully back over it.  I felt frustrated because I thought he'd broken through.  In fact, I do think he understood the essay in class.  I know there are attention problems involved, but still . . . this was one of those moments when I wish I could just open up a student's brain and pour the knowledge in. 

I guess this is one of those occasions when I have to go back to my Pilates model of teaching Basic Comp.  I am no athlete, and just because my Pilates instructor shows me how to do something repeatedly . . . and just because I did it once successfully . . . that doesn't mean I'll remember to, or be able to, do the same move again one week later.   

I just attended the College Reading and Learning Association national conference in Cleveland, Ohio.  It's part of my effort to educate myself about developmental reading and writing.  Since I've mostly attended creative writing conferences for the past few years, I was curious to see how a social-science conference differed. 

Obviously, everyone was much more focused on research.  If someone presented a method of teaching reading, others would always ask if it was backed up by research.  Which, of course, is good.  We in the humanities tend to resist research and assessment, but I could certainly see the value of insisting on data.  Before dumping one teaching method and adopting another, it would be useful to know if students actually read and wrote better under the new technique. 

However, the field of developmental studies as an academic discipline is in its infancy, according to several of the scholars I met, so research is a hazy thing.  Some speakers had assessed their techniques via student surveys about how much they learned; others used standardardized tests to measure student progress, but lacked a control group with similar characteristics who hadn't taken the class in question.  In an odd way, the haziness was reassuring.  Sometimes when I hear social scientists talking about the need for assessment, I get the impression they have it all figured out, but these developmental educators were open about feeling their way. 

I found everyone eager to share their techniques and strategies with me, a newbie to the field.  There wasn't the kind of grandstanding you occasionally see at MLA or creative writing conferences, but a real service ethic.  Which makes sense, considering that most attendees teach developmental reading, writing, and math, or work in learning centers.  These are not the high-status areas at most colleges and universities, and indeed, it was apparent that a lot of these instructors and tutors struggle to have their voices heard on their campuses. 

I'll be sharing more of what I learned in upcoming entries.   

Developmental education is everywhere--at least, according to this series of articles in this week's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  Students at colleges and universities across Western Pennsylvania are needing, and getting, help with basic and advanced courses.  Faculty are updating their teaching styles to reach a wider range of students.  I asked my basic comp students to write a paragraph on the story about lifestyle factors that can lead to college failure . . . craftily enticing them to choose this topic by showing the article's photo of college students partying hearty, as we used to say back when I did it myself. 


Here's a link to today's article on cool ways to enhance learning in particular courses; see related ones on the left-hand list. 

The Knowledge Gap

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I just read an article in Reading Research Quarterly about a research project in the Philadelphia Public Libraries.  In an effort to "level the playing field," the city had updated the technology and resources in many of the Free Library of Philadelphia's branches, focusing especially on those in low-income neighborhoods.  When researchers observed library use, though, they found that the gap between the reading activities of low and middle income kids actually grew.  The problem was that the higher-income kids were mentored from preschool age on by parents in how to select age-appropriate books, use computers, and acquire information, while the lower-income kids had little adult support.  They ended up reading books (and later, visiting web sites) far below their reading level. 

The gap increases exponentially as the years go by.  It's almost biblical:  to all those who have, more will be given.  Once you have a little knowledge, it's easier to gain more.  But when you have a hard time finding out what you need to know, then you get less practice, and grow even slower that your peers at acquiring information.  I guess our information-rich age augments this problem. 

So I'm thinking on the one hand--by the time kids are in college, is it too late to close the gap?  On the other hand, if it's not, we ought to be loading down our most challenged kids with more and more reading, in order to help them succeed?  This is the principle used in a lot of at-risk K-12 schools, with their extended school years, long school days, and elimination of recess. 

I would like to USE technology, specifically online summer reading courses, to help close the knowledge gap.  Any ideas about how to make this work?

I'm teaching composition again this year and am on the lookout for fun class activities;  this   Stephen Colbert video clip mocking Wikipedia, posted by Jason on Community College English.   Jason is actually using this clip to talk about positive uses of wikis in the composition classroom.  Interesting stuff!

Back to School

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My university had its official opening workshop today, so even though classes don't start for another week, we are back to school.  During the workshop, we did a strategic planning process, one of those groan-inducing participatory exercises that actually work pretty well.  Mixed groups of students, faculty, and staff met and generated ideas related to mission and direction. 

I brought up my concern, underprepared students and how we help them, and one of my breakout groups got into a good discussion about it.  However, my perception was that this is not the most exciting of topics for my colleagues.  People get more excited about making our shuttles hybrids so our campus can be a model of green-ness, or expanding our footprint into the downtown of our small city and thus helping to revitalize it, or winning a big grant for campus technology.   

I wonder if there's a way to make developmental education as exciting as a hybrid shuttle or a student's avatar? 

Summer Reading

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My seven-year-old daughter is having a blast reading this summer.  She's newly literate and devouring series books (The Pet Fairies, Puppy Place, Katie Kazoo) with a passion.  Between library fines and Barnes and Noble expeditions, I'm going broke!  But, of course, I love it.  And I'm not the only one supporting her habit; the library has a reading program for kids in the community, Barnes and Noble is offering a free book to anyone who reads eight books, and her school is awarding "special prizes" to kids who complete a certain number of books. 

So here's the question:  what are college students reading this summer?  I asked my magazine-writing students this question on the last day of class.  Some are reading teen novels, like Stephanie Meyer's  TWILIGHT series.  Some are reading A. J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically.  But some of them--English majors!--admitted that they didn't have much time to read in the summer.

And given that these students are among the most literary on campus, I wonder what students at the lower end of the reading spectrum are reading, and how we could encourage them to do more of it. 

I wish Barnes and Noble would give college students a free book for completing eight novels over the summer.  I wonder if my university would spring for some tacky prizes for those who complete a certain number of books.  Or how about a weekly book club, the college-aged equivalent to the library programs my daughter attends every week? 

Seton Hill does have a summer reading program, in which all freshmen are given a book we then discuss en masse and in small groups.  Many other schools do the same.  Is there more we could be doing, though, to promote reading among upperclassmen and all students? 

Tom Mortenson, a higher ed policy analyst, offers these sobering statistics on his Postsecondary Education Opportunity blog:

By any conceivable measure students from families with incomes of more than $100,000 are doing extraordinarily well in the education pipeline. They have the highest high school graduation rates (92.5%), college continuation rates for those that graduate from high school (87.0%), and bachelor's degree completion rate by age 24 for those who start college (90.1%). As a result they earn bachelor's degrees by age 24 at far higher rates (72.6%) than do students born into lower income families (27.9% in the third quartile, 16.6% in the second quartile, 12.3% in the bottom quartile).

The common statistic that 50% of those who enter college don't graduate is misleading.  Actually, 90% of wealthy kids who enter college graduate.  Meanwhile, only 12% of the poorest kids earn bachelor's degrees.  That means--yep--the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, given what we know about how a college education improves one's chances of earning a high income over a lifetime. 

A key reason poorer kids don't graduate from college--indeed, a reason some don't enter college--is that they're weak readers.  Through no fault of their own, most heard a smaller spoken vocabulary as preschoolers, had fewer books in their homes, and attended weaker public schools.  When they arrive at college, they're overwhelmed by the requirements of background knowledge, comprehension of difficult texts, and the sheer volume of reading required.  It's been said that 80% of college learning comes through reading.  If you're a weak reader, you're not passing the tests, earning the degree, nor achieving the professional and income advantages of your wealthier peers.

Lots of work is being done on this situation at the Pre-K - 12 levels, but that doesn't help our current students who are dropping out of college at alarming rates.  Can we make up for reading weakesses in college reading classes or through some other type of intervention?  What do you think?   

Today I read an article in the November 2003 Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy by Dr. Cynthia Fischer about reading comprehension strategies, and although her examples were taken from a secondary school class, they struck a chord for me.  Student Tammy, reading a set of instructions aloud, says:  "Sit at your disk with feet firmly on the floor."  She doesn't notice that she's misread "desk" as "disk" because she didn't expect the text to make sense.  She reads on, reciting most words correctly but not paying attention to their meaning.

I suspect that a number of my college students read difficult texts this same way.  When I assign Plutarch's "Consolation to His Wife," students encounter this sentence:  "Peculiar poignancy attaches to tenderness for children when their presence is altogether welcome and completely untainted by ill will and reproach."  As an instructor and experienced reader, I'm plunging ahead: asking students to discuss the oddly detached tone with which Plutarch writes to his wife about the death of their beloved daughter, eager to move into a discussion of stoicism.  But some of my students (judging from their low quiz grades) have pronounced each word in their heads without doing the things skilled readers do naturally:

  • noticing that "peculiar" in this context doesn't mean "strange," but rather the older meaning of "especially intense";
  • defining the word "poignancy," a word more often seen in print than occuring in speech or popular culture;
  • realizing that Plutarch has switched from the particular (his own dead child) to the general (children who are wanted);
  • thinking about the issue of wanted vs. unwanted children, how children are not always a Hallmark-card blessing to a family, something they may have experienced in their own lives or communities.

The question is, how do we teach students to read carefully enough to pick up on the nuances, define the terms, and ask the questions . . . without making reading into a joyless trudge through texts?   Fischer teaches her secondary students sentence by sentence, first modelling how to ask questions like those above, then transferring question-asking responsibility to the students.  Would that work with postsecondary students, or would they resent the slow pace?  And if you're tackling a few sentences per session, what's a college freshman to do about the sixty pages of a psych text to be read by tomorrow morning? 

The other issue Fischer raises, which strikes me as relevant to college students, is that they don't always know they don't know.  "But I read the essay," moans Student A, frowning at the "F" on her reading quiz.  In fact, what she may have done is to sit in front of the book, running her eyes along lines of text, but not taking them inside.  Maybe she didn't expect them to make much sense.  That's certainly how I read a detailed article about, say, lacrosse.  I don't know much about it, and I don't want to know much about it.  If pressed to read it, I'll run my eyes over the words . . . but the connection with my brain isn't made. 

I do notice that certain essays provoke student interest, and are thus better understood.  So maybe I need to (a) assign essays more immediately relevant to students; or (b) do enough pre-reading during the class beforehand so that students can connect the essay to their own interests and lives.  Even stoical old Plutarch.   



An essay in June's Atlantic Monthly, "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower," bemoans the difficulties of teaching developmental students. 

"Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes," writes the anonymous Professor X. "Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence."

And this, according to Professor X, points to a larger failure in our society:

"No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass. The colleges and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces—social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need, financial necessity on the part of the colleges and the students alike, the desire to maintain high academic standards while admitting marginal students—that have coalesced into a mini-tsunami of difficulty."

The Atlantic essay is beautifully written and much of it rings true.  I've certainly participated in my share of grouchy end-of-term rants about impossible students.  But I think we're charged to avoid that absolute thinking about students who "will never pass," "can never write a coherent sentence," enrolled in classes "they cannot possibly pass."  If you think that way as a teacher, you're doomed.  We have to add the word "yet" to all of those clauses:  "cannot write a coherent sentence . . . YET."  "Cannot possibly pass . . . YET."  After all, where's the challenge in teaching students who could just as well learn on their own?  Why revel in the successes of students who have had spectacular home advantages before arriving in our classes and who go forth to connections, cushions, and opportunities far beyond the norm?  The truth is, we have little to do with those folks' life outcomes, even if the emotions of graduation day make them hug and thank us for teaching them the finer points of Hamlet. 

I'm with Holly, who writes on Community College EnglishBut what of the glorious optimism of the community college mission? (Pardon the violins...)  In the face of too many underprepared students and, probably, too many students whose ceiling-level abilities do not stretch to college-level, what do we say to that one individual student who wants to try?  

Not only that, but many have thought about the larger implications of admitting underprepared students to univerisity life.  We've been doing it in the USA since the first Harvard students in 1636 "had to be tutored because they did not know Greek and Latin well enough to study classical works written in those languages," according to Hunter Boylan's introduction to "Teaching Developmental Reading."  The 1960s and 1970s were all about reopening the universities to older students, to the poor, and to minority students. 

Boylan also points out that, given the declining size of this country's workforce and the increasing demands on it, "we can no longer afford to deny educational opportunity to those who might not yet be fully prepared to take advantage of it."  We need workers who can read, write, and think critically.  

We in academia are supposed to be the smart ones, the super-educated ones, the ones who can theorize about anything.  It's our job to figure out how to get all those underprepared students from incoherent sentences and certain failure to a decent level of success.  That might even be more important than the another metafictional analysis of Chaucer's Parliament of Fowles.   (And before my fellow medievalists jump down my throat, that's my master's thesis I'm dissing.)

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