Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Freshman college writing: No small thing

Good morning, class. My name is Dr. Roberts and this is ENG101: Expository Writing. We'll spend some time reviewing the syllabus to make sure you understand my expectations for this class.

Please note that the syllabus can be considered a contract between me and you. You have a responsibility to read it and refer to it as it contains most of the information you need.

You will write more than one draft for most of your papers. You will write several short papers, about 3 to 5 pages, and you will write at least two longer papers, about 7 to 10 pages.

Questions so far?

[A hand is raised with evident reluctance.] We'll write all of those papers this semester?

And so it begins.

I read Michael Laser's article and chuckled. Yes, I laughed. Poor guy. He never knew what hit him. When I first started teaching writing I had a romantic idea of how it might work until I realized, with no small alarm, that I had no idea what to expect because I'd gotten CLEP credit for ENG 101 and 102. Huh. So I gathered up as many ENG101 syllabi as I could
and I figured it out. Reasonably well that first time and increasingly better over time as I realized I had to meet my students where they were and pull them to improvement. That was often like convincing your cat to take a bath. Sure there are some cats that don't mind a bath or will go along with it to get it over with, but most, not so much.

Those first diagnostic essays were often excruciating. I learned to give my students prompts so they could write about something that interested them. I found and developed activities that could mimic experiences they would find in other classes as well as the kind of writing they would do in the so-called "real world."

I had my students do activities that would challenge them to think about word choice and sentence structure. I bantered and badgered to remind them to think about the audience and quite often they wrote not for me but for an imagined audience: their best friend, a boss or a future boss, a grandparent, someone from their church or community, etc.

I learned that some of my students were incredibly insightful and creative but many of them were stuck in 5-paragraph loops because of the way they had been "taught" to write. They had no idea how to identify the main idea of a paragraph let alone the theme of an entire text. They didn't know how to summarize nor were they able to analyze.

My colleagues in other departments claimed I and my other ENG colleagues weren't teaching kids how to write. . . for business, for science, for whatever. So my writing colleagues had a workshop in which we asked our business, science, education, and other faculty colleagues to work in their table teams of mixed disciplines to come up with their top seven peeves. That was enlightening. For all of us.

Then we had them assess a collection of freshman writing papers. We used a topic that was fairly broad and asked them to score it using a 6-point scale. Then we compared results and the rationale each faculty member used. The discussions were fascinated as they discovered each was looking for something different in a paper. It took them a long while to understand that they had some responsibility for teaching domain-specific elements of writing in their classes. They began to realize we have only 15 weeks--and really closer to only 10 weeks--in ENG101 to repair some damage, help students unlearn bad habits and bad practices and begin to learn better habits and practices. That's a lot.

As department chair I organized a symposium. It wasn't as well attended as I hoped, but the insights were sufficient in that local principals and teachers came to talk with the freshman writing faculty about their challenges in teaching middle and high school kids how to write. The diversity of the community represented was important and the writing faculty got quite an education in understanding why middle and high school teachers struggled to help kids learn how to write more than a 5-paragraph essay.

Now that college was not a selective school but I was also an adjunct at a very selective school. Most of those students were in the top 10% of their classes and had never had a grade below an A. Imagine their shock and alarm when they got a C on a freshman writing paper. Why? How? Well, not all high schools are equal and what might constitute an A at one school might not have been an A elsewhere. And, well, this is college. So some of those kids had similar bad habits though, in general, they had the fundamentals and better vocabularies.

There are several components, I think, to the problem of teaching writing in school. First, most teachers have no idea how to teach writing. Check out most education programs and look closely for that writing methods course. Yep, good luck with that.

The NCTE has a position on the teaching of writing, but that has made much difference in teacher education curricula. Reading methods? Check. Math methods? Check. For secondary education English majors, literature content? Check. Writing? Anyone?

Could it be integrated somewhere else? Actually, I think it could be integrated in a lot of methods courses except there is already so much for students to learn in their methods courses. Writing is something that tends to be overlooked. My theory is that teaching writing is associated with teaching grammar and teaching grammar makes people cringe.

But there is also the math. Let's say you're a high school teacher and have 6 classes of students a day. Let's say you have a manageable 20 students in each class. That's 120 papers to grade. Let's say it takes about 45 minutes to grade each paper: that's taking the time to skim, then read more carefully and make marginal notes so the student can improve his or her writing and, perhaps, write an improved draft. That's 5,400 minutes or 90 hours. And let's say I stagger my assignments so I don't get 120 papers in one day. That's still 45 minutes times 20 students (45 * 20 = 900) which is 15 hours (900 / 60 = 15).

And let's acknowledge that having only 20 students in a class would be a gift.

So universities have writing centers and writing tutors, which may or may not be helpful but is better than nothing. I always recommend that students who struggle with writing get to the writing center ASAP and/or find a writing tutor along with their math or science or whatever tutor. There is no shame in finding a tutor; it is, I think, a significant quality of character to admit when and where help is needed.

But I also think that teachers confuse quantity with quality. Writing more papers is not a reasonable approach. Writing fewer papers well is a better idea, but that's a different post.

Teaching writing is not for the faint-hearted but, as a former college writing teacher (who would do it again in a heartbeat), watching kids blossom, discovering their voices and their strengths and learning to manage their weaknesses. Yea, that's amazing.


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