The Jens

The Jens
jen b & Jen P

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Starting Small

“…going to college is like entering a new culture.” (page 20 College and Career Ready)

Since we’re about to welcome a new group of students into the program in a week, I thought about this quote and wondered how we can best acculturate students to their new environment.

Being on a small community college campus makes part of this easy. Some of the college classes, especially the developmental or prerequisite courses, still feel like high school. The prerequisite courses by definition are pre-college level so the skill level should feel like high school, I suppose. However, there are professors on campus who teach rigorous, transfer-level courses and who have university-level standards, and many students have difficulty transitioning to these new, challenging expectations. After sailing through high school classes where participation at any level was good enough, students receive an essay or exam with C or D at the top instead of the expected A or B. This brings me to what Dr. Conley writes on pages 36-40 (pages I marked up heavily!) – the overarching academic skills required for success, the core academic subjects knowledge and skills needed in college, and the academic behaviors or self-management skills that bring everything together and make academic success possible.

Here are some of my responses to what he writes in the first part of this section:

[Students] will also be expected to reread materials in order to discern deeper meanings and nuances and to deconstruct texts.  They will often be expected to read above and beyond the minimum assigned materials, investigating a topic on their own by independent reading. (p. 36)

We tell students to reread, actively read, reflect on what they read, but most don’t. They don’t have time, they can’t focus, they have too many other assignments to complete, they read too slowly, the texts are boring, etc. Many are surprised when they learn I read the texts in English 4 with them and have done so for many years (how many times have I reread Oedipus??), but I share with them that every time I can learn something new or appreciate a different aspect of the text. Rereading is an important studying strategy when reading a text to learn, such as reading a chapter in a chemistry or psychology text. How can we show students that rereading and that reading beyond what is assigned is expected?

One strategy I will try this year is to better model how I read and reread. I plan on showing students the texts I’ve read this summer – my scribbled notes in the margins, the parts that I’ve highlighted, my longer reflections in a notebook. I’ve done some modeling and scaffolding with students, but after thinking about the quote above, I think I need to do more. With non-fiction pieces such as the ones we use for articles of the week, I’ve asked students to annotate, paying attention to how the writer has structured the piece and what s/he is doing in each section of the article (similar to this or this). With our whole-class novels, I’ve used dialectical journals to show students how I keep track of plot, themes, characters, and how make meaning of the text.  Jen B, as our resident reading specialist, how else can we make our students into the readers described on page 36?

[Writing] is the medium by which student thinking is expressed and assessed most frequently… Students need to know how to prewrite, how to edit, and how to rewrite a piece…College writing requires students to present arguments clearly, substantiate each point, and use the basics of a style manual… (pp.36-37)

Okay, here’s where I really struggle. I love reading what my students have written, but have difficulties providing meaningful comments in a timely manner. Peer review helps, but not significantly, since the quality of feedback ranges so widely. I need to figure out how to conference with them and/or get a faster turnaround on papers, and make peer review more worthwhile. What I really need to figure out is how we can help students learn to revise on their own -- real revision, not just superficial word swaps. How can we set up regular writing assignments that have been taken through the complete writing-revision process and not get buried under papers or get tired of reading the same drafts over and over again?

We know from experience that strong reading and writing skills are critical to college success. Dr. Conley confirms this on page 36. As we get ready for a new year, what do we need to do help students develop these critical skills that are needed across the curriculum so they can thrive in their new academic setting instead of feeling frustrated and lost like a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language?
~Jen P


You're really throwing me a softball here, Jen P!
Your main questions seem to be:

  • How can we instill in our students the drive to go beyond the minimal when it comes to reading?
  • How do we (as mere human beings) give students enough meaningful feedback on their writing to help them toward becoming self-sufficient writers for a variety of purposes?

Well, of course the irony here is that if I had actual answers to your very big, difficult questions then I'd make so much money from my books and workshops that I might never actually teach teenagers again ;-)
My short answer is, I don't know! But we're teachers, so we persevere, right? 

Thus, here are my initial thoughts:
Some kids do what we ask of them on their own--mainly for a few reasons:
--because they care about the grade on their transcript

--because they love the subject matter
--because their instructor has inspired them in new ways

All three of these students have a motivation, whether extrinsic or intrinsic, and students with motivation will take the initiative to learn, ask questions, and aspire to a higher level. But what we're really talking about in your questions are the students who lack motivation--students who have no clue what they'll major in, where they'd like to go to college, why they need another year of math when they hate it, why understanding Invisible Man relates to them in any way at all. How do we ignite these kids?

First, you bring up modeling. Modeling is, I think, really important. Talking about the books we've read for fun, sharing our marked-up pages in books and articles, continually talking about how stories matter in big ways; all of that is good. But I think what comes before modeling is establishing a rapport and a credibility with our students. What teenager is eager to take advice from someone s/he has zero respect for? I think we're able, in part due to the close-knit nature of our program (and also in part to the fact that we're awesome!), to establish this kind of relationship with our students pretty effectively.

So, then what?
I think at least some of the answer is in our College & Career Readiness class. If through that class we can help lead some of our least motivated students toward some concrete ideas of what path might be the right one for them, much of the rest will fall into place. Guest speakers, class discussions, college and career research, exploring the different major options, looking at salaries and job availability in variety of fields, putting together a first resume, understanding the necessary requirements needed to be eligible for colleges and careers...all of this knowledge can lead students to a new-found motivation for school. Students who know what they want are willing to go after it, and willing to put in the hard work necessary to achieve it. At that point, helping them to bring up their skills in order to allow them to succeed is the best kind of teaching. And it's in this way that we're so lucky to not only be English teachers, but also College & Career Readiness teachers, and counselors, and administrators, and attendance clerks, and parent liaisons, etc, etc.

So, I know I haven't answered your questions--and haven't even broached the writing conundrum. That will have to be an ongoing conversation we have...because it's just really hard to provide enough meaningful feedback for so many students on their writing, which is only testament to how much they need it. I know they should be writing more--but is writing more effective if they're not getting the right kind of feedback to improve? I wrestle constantly with my feedback for students. I'm a Nazi when it comes to having a thesis and providing concrete support, and I'm comfortable with that position. But I also think I get too caught up with the grammatical. I can't seem to help myself. If the egregious errors are preventing me or at the very least distracting me from focusing on the content, how do I get past that as their English teacher? Enough questions on writing for many future posts!

:-) jen b.

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