May 2008 Archives

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.)

While I was out on a glorious springtime run today, I had a revelation.  I've been scanning articles on developmental education, and have gathered information and ideas from our composition director, writing lab director, and academic counselor.  It's all felt like a lot of blundering--after all, I'm a medievalist by training and a creative writer by background, so what do I know about developmental education? 

Yet for better or worse, that's where my curiosity is leading me.  Today, amongst the wildflowers, birdsong, and rusted-out factory remains, it all clicked into place.  I came up with a master plan for helping developmental students at my university. 

We need to set up a learning community involving basic composition, an expanded "reading and study skills" course, and the required core course called "Faith, Religion, and Society" that most first-year students take in the fall term.  The theology course would provide content for the reading and writing courses.  Since we no longer are able to have an extended summer success program, we could incorporate a summer reading program we do with all of our students, offering our developmental students an audiobook option and email or chat-type electronic encouragement to get the summer reading done thoughtfully.

For the second term, we do a slightly-less intense learning community of, say, Seminar in Thinking and Writing (our college-level writing course) and Basic Math or Spanish I . . . still providing extra support.  Do something online over the summer (a book discussion group!  popular novels! available on MP3 players for reluctant readers!) and then try to keep the learning community together for one sophomore course, like Western Cultural Traditions.

The challenges:  scheduling, obviously; getting a theology prof to sign on; keeping the class size small enough to give lots of individual attention but big enough for a realistic amount of attrition (and of course, financing that smaller class size).  Plus, if we're going to teach reading, then both our academic skills counselor and I need to study reading . . . but no problem there, we're both interested in doing that.  This plan takes account of two strategies that, according to a recent Chronicle of Higher Ed article,  University of Alabama has used in bolstering minority and first-generation graduation rates:  learning communities and ongoing attention to at-risk students.  Ideally, we'd also use a third strategy cited in the same article:  track students in the pilot learning community to see if their graduation rate is better than that of students outside the community. 

So that's the "how."   The "why" I'll have to get to next time.    



Over on Community College English, Holly posted this after seeing a film and hearing a presentation about learning disabilities:

My reaction after seeing the film was to wonder how many of my students who seem to have difficulty reading might have some of these processing/perceptual problems and, more importantly, what I could do as a writing teacher to help them, to bring them towards competency in their reading, which is obviously what we want, I asserted confidently. No, said the ODS specialist firmly, not necessarily.

She talked about the technological possibilities now: student textbooks can be scanned in and converted from print-to-speech, web pages can be read aloud, and students can compose by talking into a microphone (a comprehensive, at least to my eyes, list of such technologies is given here). Within five years, she said, textbooks will be available as old-fashioned bound books, CD-ROMs, or downloadable mp3 files, format to be chosen by student.

So will my reluctant readers and writers now be eager listeners and talkers?

I share Holly's assumption that getting reluctant readers to become more competent at it is the goal.  But maybe reading-print-on-the-page is not the only way to go.  I'm excited about the notion that textbooks could be readily available in multiple formats.

But, wow, listening to audiobooks takes a lot longer than reading them.  I'm guessing that, for taking in extensive chunks of text (i.e. Moby Dick), reading on the page is still the best way to go.  Or am I wrong about that?



Learning Communities

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I've been reading rave reviews of learning communities in Honored but Invisible:  An Inside Look at Teaching in Community Colleges by W. Norton Grubb and associates.  Not online learning communities, but academic set-ups where the same group of students take two or three classes together, and the instructors work together to create assignments and activities relevant to all subjects involved.  Typically, learning communities include a "content" course like introductory biology, plus a math or reading course, often at the developmental level. 

Students in learning communities have higher grades and retention rates.  Learning communities can help to close the gap in graduation rates between black and white students, according to an article in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education.   People are really interested in online learning and online communities these days, but the warmth and connection of in-person learning communities seem to make a difference with students who need extra support.  I'm wondering if a learning community might be a way to support struggling students at Seton Hill.  Or is everyone, students and faculty alike, too time-pressed to participate in such a venture? 

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