Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I hope everybody is having a good semester. It is probably busy, but there are a couple things I would like to share with you. First, I went to a really good workshop on Writing Across the Curriculum a couple weeks ago. Second, we had our first Collaborative Assessment Conference this past Friday. Both of these have really helped me look at teaching writing in new ways.

Dr. Mezler, from Sacramento State University, put on a very informative workshop that focused on writing across the curriculum. There was a lot of good information, but what I took away from it was that sometimes we need to allow our students to work outside of the normal writing paradigms. His research showed that a majority of college writing is done to essentially regurgitate information, but regurgitated information doesn't always equal learning. So, instead of simply asking students to repeat information, we should consider allowing our students to look at writing as a way of exploring and expressing ideas about themselves, their communities, and the world. Yes, this might mean writing poetry, but it's not only for poetry. There are a number of ways for students to creatively explore and express their findings; and the ability to creatively and effectively communicate their ideas can be a difficult task. Email me if you want to discuss this further because it will take up a lot of space to discuss the possibilities here.

Pat Kelly, from ESL, created and hosts the Collaborative Assessment Conferences where teachers get together to look at student work. It sounds simple, but looking at the level of work that students produce in relation to our expectations as teachers is a rather daunting task. The thing I began doing immediately after our first meeting was to look for trends in student successes and errors. Again, this sounds simple, but as we grade the stacks of papers on our desks it can be easy to look at each piece of writing only as an individual piece, not as a reflection of class readiness or needs. I just sat with a notebook next to me while grading papers and took notes of what I was seeing; and it didn't take long to see some writing trends that need to be addressed. You might want to give it a try.

Well, I won't take up any more of your time today. Remember that we can all learn from each other, and as teachers we're usually pretty nice about our suggestions. So don't be afraid to get input from your colleagues; you might be happily surprised with the results.

Happy teaching.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

NCTE Position Statements on Writing

NCTE Position Statements on Writing

During my insomniac Internet manderings and attempts to learn how to subscribe RSS feeds that I might find useful as an English teacher, I actually took some extra time to explore the NCTE website. Many of you know that the National Council of Teachers of English has a website. Some of you might even use it. What I have found over the past couple of years is that the NCTE is one of the few places that actually addresses our needs at the community college level.

Take some time and look around the site. I found more than things than I could possibly input in one morning.

Happy teaching.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Getting Back to Business

I know that you don't really want to see this email, especially if you check your inbox before the semester actually starts, but that's just the way it goes sometimes. Anyway, if you haven't already begun, it is about time to start thinking about your classes and what you're going to do this semester. But don't worry, I'll keep this one simple.

There are two problems that students often mention when we begin to discuss writing. The first is so simple that it is probably just an oversight by professors. The second can be a little more tricky, but is extremely important.

First of all, just give your students a format for anything they write. If your discipline uses APA, then have them format their writing assignments in APA. The same goes for MLA or any other style your students should use. Its good for them to know that different disciplines have different formatting styles, and it just might be a little easier on your eyes. We focus on MLA format in the English department, so you might even choose to use that as a default. Just make them format their papers please.

The second issue is that students are often at a loss as to where to begin an essay. This often starts with their topics, so just give them specific topics to write about. They are in your class for you to teach them, and that means you need to guide them. Some students need a gentle hand, others need more. Set the boundaries for the essay, including the topic and have them work within those boundaries. Allow them to create an alternative to your parameters if they don't like the assignment. Have those boundary-less students problem solve in a way that satisfies your requirements. Everyone else should be able to do the work you assign. Its alright to make them write about something they don't like because it forces them to consider something outside of their comfort zone. In the end, it will probably even make them better students.

As we begin to create our semester calendars and assignments remember that it is alright to give students formats and boundaries for their writing assignments. It might even make your job a little easier. Happy planning.

If you have any questions or comments about writing or Basic Skills please feel free to contact me anytime at mwickert@swccd.edu. I won't pretend to have all the answers, but together I am sure we can find a workable solution.

See you all next week.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Getting Started

As an English teacher, things just happen sometimes when it comes to teaching writing, but the college pays me to think a lot about writing. It should come as no surprise that writing instructors can sometimes pull good writing prompt out of our brains at a moment's notice. However, we also need to realize that the same is not true for everyone, and even we get stuck once in a while.

There are a number of ideas about how and why to create good writing prompts. One philosophy that might work well for you is to give students specific parameters about the intended topic and allow them to craft their own individual prompt. Of course you need to teach them how to craft those prompts, but then you are fairly well assured that you will receive essays that address a variety of issues from different points of view.

In order to teach students how to craft a prompt you need to be able to do it yourself, which takes time, thought, and revision. Here are some things to consider:

1. What is the theme or topic you want your students to address? This makes the presumption that you are teaching a topic or theme, but since there is probably some theme being presented in class, build upon it. Use this as a parameter for their essays. If the class is studying the topic of family dynamics, make students write about family dynamics. Don't let them whine or wriggle their way out of it. If that is what is being taught, then that is what they should write about.

2. Is this theme or topic too broad or too narrow? The topic of family dynamics is a too broad of a topic because a lot of students will just get lost in the idea. On the other hand, sibling rivalry between adolescent sisters in second generation Mexican-American households in west Chula Vista might be too narrow.

3. If it is a broad topic, is there a way to break it into smaller components so students are better able to focus on a specific issue? Most themes can be broken down to help students. We can look at family dynamics from a number of perspectives and students can even narrow their topic to address a group they personally belong to. An example of this might be: Describe three ways that sibling rivalry between adolescents manifests itself in Mexican-American households. Even that might be too narrow, but a prompt such as this acts as a guide and allows students to do first-hand research, including interviews, to complete the project. Another example might be: Discuss five (positive/ negative) affects of growing up in a two parent household. This might be a great topic for students who grew up in a traditional, nuclear family or for someone in a serious relationship considering getting married. Either way, students learn something about the world and about themselves.

4. What do you really want your students to learn from this process? If you don't teach composition then you might want them to learn content, so make sure they learn something about the content. If you want them to learn how to research, then be sure to focus on how to do good research. If you want them to learn how to do analysis, be sure to teach it to them. You should also have a focus in regard to what you expect from students so you know what to teach.

5. What format do you want students to use? Most likely you will want the format that is most popular within your discipline. It doesn't take much to teach the basics of how and where to place headings, page numbers, titles, number of pages, and any other details in regard to formatting. If you don't teach them, then you might get no formatting at all.

Once you can answer these questions try crafting a couple prompts and even put together a quick outline of how you would organize your ideas for the prompt. Look at the prompt critically to see how it can be improved and make the adjustments. After going through the process yourself, you will be better equipped to teach the process to your students. You will probably even use some different questions than the ones mentioned above, and that's good because then you are thinking about writing.

Take some time and look at the themes in your classes and consider how they can be broken down. You can even write out specific prompts for students who cannot create their own, so when they say, "I can't come up with anything," then you can say, "No problem, I already have a prompt for you." Honestly, it does create a little more work in the beginning, but we are in the business of teaching students to think for themselves so let's transfer some of the thinking responsibility to them.

As you are considering that big research paper, the next essay, or that mid-term exam question consider trying this. You just might get some surprising results.

Have a good rest of the week.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Writing Process

As we move into the midway point of our semester many of us are preparing to assign that big essay. Maybe it will be a research assignment, maybe it will be about a novel, or maybe it won't have anything to do with your discipline and you just like to see your students break out in a cold sweat or possible faint as they stumble out of class. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but you know what I mean.

Writing those big essays is difficult for students in many ways. One way to make it easier for everyone is to have students follow the writing process. Keep in mind that these suggestions can be modified in a number of ways to fit individual needs.Below is a list of steps in the writing process. Although these are for your students, you should look over your students' work to ensure they are on the right track.

The Writing Process:
1. Pre-writing: This is a way for students to get their initial ideas on paper. Examples of pre-writing are free writing, creating webs, lists, and even talking with others to brainstorm topics.

2. Organizing: Once students have settled on their individual topics, have them consider a single question to be answered as the overarching theme of the essay. This will help keep the essay focused. As they answer the question, have students categorize their answers. Those categories will soon become the body paragraphs, so this is also a way to ensure that the components will create a unified essay.

3. Drafting: Unfortunately, a lot of students stop at the first draft. They don't like the grades they earn when this happens, and you probably don't like grading essays that have not been revised. Let students know that this is not the final draft, and it will be fixed.

4. Revising: This isn't just editing, this is where students make substantial changes to the content of their essays. In order to make those substantial changes, the teacher needs to be part of the process. Guide your students to the right path in their content, ideas, grammar, structure, analysis, and support. Make them write on the page when they revise, too.

5. Editing: Even after students make those big revisions, there is a good chance that they still have some stray capitals and lose commas. Show them how to fix those problems in class. I know most of you don't teach writing, but you can teach about how to properly insert citations or get upset when they are done improperly. There's a good chance they won't learn the first time, either. Sorry, some of that stuff is difficult.

6. Publishing/ Final Draft: Publishing? Yes. Treat their work like a big deal, as though it is being published, even if you are the only one to read it. Students need to know that everything they put into their essay counts, and regardless of how hard they worked on their assignment it is the final draft that gets the big grade.

Everyone has their own way of teaching writing, and there are a number of instructors here at SWC that do make their students go through this entire process so it's nothing new. However, although the students know how to go through the entire process that doesn't mean they actually will. Pick and choose the pieces you feel are most important and make them requirements for your assignments. Hopefully, your students will begin producing better work. And you can have an easier time grading.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Greco Roman Only Knowledge

Greco Roman Only Knowledge

I came across an article about the fight in Arizona between the Department of Education and Raza Studies in Tucson. Even though the state is against Raza Studies, teachers keep on teaching and student keep on signing up for the courses.
This gets me thinking about academic freedom. When I first came to Southwestern College I was still in the K-12 mindset that having a common goal also meant having a common curriculum. However, my former principals were rather trusting of our judgment, created curriculum leadership teams, and encouraged us to go beyond textbook-centered, prescription lessons. Here I have grown even more in my understanding of academic freedom, so it is sad to see the Department of Education restrict what students can be taught in the entire state of Arizona.

When it comes to teaching, each and every time we walk into our classrooms, we must be aware of the social responsibility we have to our students and community. Arizona is doing a great disservice to its entire population by restricting the point of view teachers can use when teaching history. The same could potentially happen at any school, which is why it is important to create lesson that will engage students in some very practical ways and also reach into the core of who they are.
At least we don't have these sort of restrictions at the community college level in California, but when it comes to curriculum there are a few questions to consider when putting together our lessons. We all have our own style of teaching and, I believe, the overwhelming majority of us work hard to challenge our students in regard to the amount of meaningful work students can produce, what types of thinking students need to do to complete that work, and how well students understand the real-world connections between their classwork and issues we face on a daily basis. When considering a text or a lesson, you might want to ask yourself some of the following questions:
1. Is this essential for building knowledge in this field of study?
2. How do I relate the importance of our studies to the real world?
3. When is it important to take student interests into account, potentially recreating a lesson for a day? A week?? An entire semester?
4. Who does the information from this lesson ultimately empower?

One might not readily see the connection between Arizona's fight over Raza Studies and the everyday realities of our community college classrooms, but it is there in two important ways.
First, we need to teach students things that they might not have previously learned. This includes exposing students to additional perspectives and potential realities that directly affect them and their families. Raza Studies does just that and the state of Arizona wants it stopped. We do the same thing here when we introduce alternate views on history, sociology, health,and literature.
Second, we need to introduce contemporary issues that will directly affect the future. By exposing students to real-world problems, students can begin to understand the interconnectedness of our global civilization. As Hispanics, mostly those of Mexican decent, become the majority in some southwestern states, it is interesting to see official legislation being introduced that limits Arizona's students from learning real facts about itself and its population. Obviously, this is not the WASP point of view, but the same could happen in biology, chemistry, accounting, or political science. We don't want administrators telling us that we cannot teach an idea or theme because someone who isn't even a teacher feels uncomfortable.
As teachers, we need to be informed about what is happening in Arizona because the potential for close-mindedness can easily make its way into California. Even if you agree with restricting Raza Studies, you probably wouldn't agree with some politician restricting what you can teach in your classroom. We are all professionals and we all deserve support from our colleagues, especially when it pertains to exercising academic freedom to teach facts. The students in our classrooms are our responsibility, and we need to take that responsibility very seriously.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Credit Recovery and BSI

Above is a link to an article I just came across in the Pittsburgh Gazette about credit recovery programs for high school students. Credit recovery is a way for students to make-up credits so they can graduate from high school in a timely manner. Something we might consider is whether or not these programs teach students what they need to be successful at the college level, and then look for a way to articulate our ideas to the Sweetwater Union High School District. Here at Southwestern College we often come across students who participated in credit recovery through one of SUHSD's Learning Centers, so a number of us might wonder if they are as well prepared as students who have only taken traditional classes.
This is not meant to take sides on the issue, it is only meant to make an inquiry. I wonder if there is any data to show how many of our basic skills students have been in some sort of credit recovery program. It would also be interesting to see firsthand how these programs work. In some instances, they might be set up more like a college course that meets for only a few hours a week, where students can get direct help from instructors, and students complete assignments that fulfill the state standards and show a necessary level of proficiency. Clearly, these type of programs should work, even with the "non-traditional" students.
On the other hand, I have heard stories from students about programs that were much less rigorous. Some of this can be attributed to teenage apathy, but it would be interesting to understand how much guided hands-on work is actually done in some of our feeder programs. It would also be interesting to see if, after one semester in college, students felt that the CR program they were in prepared them well for college level work.
From the perspective of a writing instructor, I would surely like to know how much and what type of writing happens in these classes. Most teachers would probably agree that grammar is important, but it needs to be put into practice. Simply filling in multiple choice answers does not give a complete picture about how well students can use grammar. Vocabulary is another important component of most classes. It is one thing to have students fill in the blanks or choose an answer on a multiple choice test, it is something else to check for understanding by having them write a paragraph using correct grammar and the appropriate vocabulary.
It might be useful for instructors to take a look at some of their struggling students and find out which ones were in a credit recovery program. We might actually gain a better understanding of what is working and what is not. More importantly, we might figure out some relevant trends so we can better educate those students. We might also find that credit recovery has nothing to do with student achievement, but we would also be remiss if we didn't take a look.
What are your thoughts? This could be a good piece of research for the entire educational community in South Bay.