Research Project Idea

While reading Stotsky and Mall’s “Understanding Research on Teaching the English Language Arts: An Introduction for Teacher,” the first chapter from Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts, I was considering my master’s research project idea and research model. The following passage describes the type of research I would like to conduct:

Not all studies using quantitative methods focus directly on cause and effect relationships. Many such studies are correlational rather than experimental. They seek to discover whether one entity is related to another, and if so, how or to what extent. Researchers may then try to infer cause and effect, but must do so carefully”(9).

Since 1998 I have taught writing part time at a local community college. The English department requires the use of the writing center for all remedial courses as well as the college composition course. The students are required to pay for an extra credit hour and 25% of their course grade is determined by their performance in the writing center. Over the years I have heard students assert various claims about the quality and usefulness of the center and its workbook. I have often wondered if there is a “type” of student who feels “certain” ways about the writing center.

I have been considering measuring, through student surveys, if there is a correlation between student satisfaction with the writing center experience and any or all of the following: learner types, personality types, or locus of control. For instance, would there be a correlation between level of satisfaction and learner type such as self-directed? Or would there be a correlation between level of satisfaction and personality type like “sensing” from Myers-Briggs? Or would there be a correlation between level of satisfaction and locus of control, which essentially is the extent to which individuals believe that they can control events that affect them?

At this point I need to determine what is most relevant. I would imagine that setting up the survey is going to be tricky because the responders will need to self report level of satisfaction and learner type, personality type, or locus of control.

High-Stakes Testing Killed Learning

In the article “The Experience of Education: The impacts high stakes testing on school students and their families” the authors claim that “these tests are having a negative impact on teacher pedagogies.”

I couldn’t agree more. In a time when administrators and legislators are teaming up to determine what is best for America’s future, kids are learning bits and pieces of what they need to know for a test, and if they don’t, the teachers, schools and administrators of the schools are implicated as the culprits. Never mind that parents aren’t providing a comfortable atmosphere for homework while they blare reality shows on a widescreen television.

Instead, the teachers are to blame and if the administrators aren’t getting their teachers to do the job, then they are to blame. No wonder the teachers are forced to change how they teach. Instead of celebrating learning, America is celebrating good test taking.

To text-speak or not to text-speak

Technology has changed the way students write in some forums, and it is necessary for students to know the difference. There are different genres and formats for writing professionally, so why shouldn’t they be able to distinguish when their informal writing is not appropriate?

In an online discussion forum, high school English teacher Valerie Mattessich wrote the following post:

I am starting reading-response blogs with my students and am torn between allowing them to use text-speak on their blogs, which will maximize authenticity, and requiring proper capitalization and punctuation, which will make me feel better as an English teacher but may ruin the whole point of blogging for them. Thoughts anyone?

The question posed above is simple to answer if you consider the purpose of the blog. Is the blog to encourage reflective or maybe prewriting activities for more formal writing? If so, then students should be able to write how they feel comfortable because the primary goal is to get their ideas flowing. Hampering them with formal constraints in a personal environment (blog) they create to reflect themselves, seems conflicting. If the purpose of the blog is to encourage them to write publicly and establish themselves as an authority on different subjects, then more formal writing should be required.

This seems to be a “hot” topic in our profession yet I have not personally experienced the issue in assignments.  Have I ever? Yes, but rarely, and it is not the common occurrence that teachers, administrators and parents seem so worried about. At least it is not evident on the surface. Instead, I am more concerned that while the sentence styles are formal and properly punctuated, the content of the essays are becoming more brief and disjointed, likely a reflection of social media and web influence.

Instead of students having difficulty “code-switching” they seem to have more difficulty writing a lengthy, linear essay with a developing argument or supporting points.





Celebrate All Reading and Writing

Amber Heffernan’s article, “Rethinking Graphic Novels in the Classroom: Broadening Our Concepts of Literature to Benefit Readers” helped me recall a fond undergraduate student memory. I was taking a 300-level creative writing course focused on short fiction. It was the first day of class and the professor arranged us into a circle. She started by introducing herself and describing her writing and authors of inspiration. Students subsequently did the same, almost. A few students tried to impress her with classic and/or trendy, respected authors of the time, but a few students were more honest and cited authors like Danielle Steele as their favorites. The professor and dignified students snickered and judged outwardly.

Finally, when it was my turn, I talked about what I was currently reading and writing and it wasn’t exactly profound. I might have been reading RubyFruit Jungle and writing ridiculous love poems, but at least they were honest reads and writes. Sure, I had likely recently read Beloved, but I didn’t choose it, another prof did, so I didn’t offer it up or pretend to be enthralled and inspired. In closing, I praised the other students who read Danielle Steele and Stephen King and their goals to be as accomplished as them because at least their books were being read and not gathering dust on some pretentious bookcase.

Heffernan has the right idea, albeit kicking and screaming the whole way, validate reading of writing! We want students to learn to read and write with academic or discipline literacy, but we won’t celebrate the reading they do now? Learning starts with confidence and for a lack of a better term–a starting point. Heffernan designed a legitimate lesson plan using a graphic story, and just like with the classics, she won some and lost some, despite the cool and trendy genre.

When is Talking Teaching?

Schenbach and Greenleaf highlight to classroom studies in “Fostering Adolescents’ Engaged Academic Literacy.” In a history course, the teacher’s “monitoring of the students’ reading as they think aloud with partners to surface and solve comprehension problems is strategic. She is helping students build a repertoire of strategies for this kind of rigorous work with text, punctuating students’ sustained work with metacognitive conversations (Schoenbach, Greenleaf, Cziko, & Hurwitz, 1999) and discussions of the text” (109). At the same time they are learning history, and they know it.

I love to teach writing but sometimes I wish I could teach a different subject, like maybe history. I’m sure it’s not any easier. It just seems less murky. I don’t really even get to teach literature. I teach writing. That is my charge. Sure, I can use a short story as a prompt for writing, but if I spend too much time talking about the story versus writing, one of my students looks at me like, “Hey, this ain’t no lit class. Are we going to be tested on this story next week?”

I am tired of trying to justify to my students why we “talk” about material other than “the act of writing” in a writing class. If we talk about an essay in the book and look at the author’s strategies, it seems grounded enough for them. But I often feel like when we talk about a topic, any topic, as an example to work together to develop an outline, or maybe an introductory paragraph strategy, they think we are “off topic” because we aren’t talking about writing.

Yet, as far back as Plato, the dialectic is the means to discovering truths or maybe even “the truth” about a topic. Right? What are we supposed to do? Write about writing? Sometimes I am tempted to give that assignment (writing about writing) to the student who doesn’t see the point of discussing the topic or “content” of an essay to at least some extent. Instead, what seems to work most of the time is to shift gears and ask the student what is his or her topic for the next assignment and have a group discussion on that topic.  And just like a bad date, we love to talk about ourselves. Before they know it, as a group we have helped the student consider points he or she hadn’t even thought of previously, and the student is taking notes that will help develop their essay later.

But do they even see how they are learning and developing as writers by talking about (insert topic here)?

Learning from Rants

For years I have struggled with what to do about teaching grammar in the classroom. At the college level, while it seems like I should be helping students to develop more advanced writing strategies, I am often highlighting common errors and usually feeling like I am wasting all of our time. Yet if I don’t do something they don’t think I am doing my job. In the end, I just want to tell students to read and write more and they will pick up proper grammar, but like Kenneth Lindblom and Patricia A. Dunn claim in their article “Analyzing Grammar Rants: An Alternative to Traditional Grammar Instruction,” this is not true. Unless students read more of the “standard” forms of writing, they will keep making the same mistakes. If they are indeed stuck in a specific socioeconomic class that limits their exposure to other and possibly more standard forms of language, maybe a grammar rant will have them truly proof reading their own writing for the first time.

Some of our best learning moments in life are the ones some off-the-wall teacher had us do. Whatever it was; it sticks with us. For me, it was my sixth grade teacher having us draw pictures of words. He had us pick adjectives and write them in ways to convey the meaning visually. Some students picked easy words like fat and wrote these three letters in a balloon or block style with very short and wide letters. Others took on the challenge and tried to write slimy, scary, or strong. Just how would you write, I mean, draw the word “strong” to convey its meaning visually?

Honestly, I don’t recall what word I drew, but does it matter? I think what matters most is that I learned the difference between an adjective and a noun more clearly than before. I do recall telling someone they couldn’t draw “house” for the assignment because they would be drawing an object in the letters, a thing, a noun. Our teacher was trying to get us to understand that adjectives describe what things are like.

I am definitely going to add a grammar rant exercise to my next course. I am wondering how I can get them to examine their own language from a socioeconomic class or geographic region perspective as well as a language unlike their own. Maybe there is a compare and/or contract writing assignment in there somewhere.

Developing Academic Literacy

I have had several courses with topic discussions regarding diversity in the classroom. We often talk about what biases and diversity the students bring into the classroom, and we have even talked about the literacy differences because of these and other factors. The one thing we are not always talking about is literacy outside of the classroom beyond the digital literacy discussions. In “Why Is Everyone Talking about Adolescent Literacy?” Catherine Snow and Elizabeth Moje discuss why and how these different literacies affect student performance and how writing across the curriculum approaches will help students be more successful.

Since students are reading and writing digitally, the texts are disjointed and nonlinear. “On paper” in schools, the texts are linear and abide by rules of progression. Aside from headings, there is no real opportunity to pick and choose how students read the text  They are essentially expected to read it from start to finish. And we know when they read online, they jump around from page to page, essentially hyperlinking their reading experience in their chosen sequence. So if students are mostly experiencing a digital literacy outside of the classroom, Snow and Moje claim that we need to make sure we teach students about academic literacy.

I couldn’t agree more.

I have actually been in graduate level courses as a student with classmates who could not decipher a peer-reviewed journal article. Admittedly, I was one of those students too my first time through grad school, but at the time I just thought I was the only one. I had no idea that there might be others like me in the classroom who were struggling with reading the material as an academically prepared student. Have you ever been in a particular literacy community where you lacked discipline literacy, for example? How did you resolve this issue?

A 1901 Perspective on English in Secondary Schools

In the article “English in Secondary Schools; A Review” Allan Abbott discusses the study of English in secondary schools. If you didn’t know the article was published in 1901, you might not realize it aside from the dated and sexist language. Over a hundred years later, professionals in the field are still trying to figure out how to prepare students for college and the real world in the English classroom.

I was struck by what seemed like a reference to a writing-across-the-curriculum stance in the following passage:

After the elementary steps, proficiency in composition and  taste  for literature  can  be  obtained only  by several years of  constant writing and reading,  which  can  be  done  with  but few  recitation periods.  A boy cannot write with ease and force until he has reasonable accuracy, nor can he criticize without a fairly wide knowledge of books.  The  intermediate  high-school  years are crowded with  other subjects that  need  time,  and  that  also,  if properly taught, afford English  training. In short, the middle high-school years demand for other subjects time that English can well spare .

Abbott is essentially claiming that it should be the English teacher’s job to teach the basic skills early on and then allow for less time spent in English and Literature classrooms during the middle years because the other subjects can incorporate writing into the lesson plans. I agree that it is important to encourage writing, and good writing, in other subjects, but does this really work?

It was also amazing to read, again in an article published in 1901, that “interest, the psychologists tell us, depends on ability to connect the new object with something interesting already in the mind, and to hold the interest of pupils, we must discover what resident or natural interests they have, and make our work branch out in a sort of network from them”(395). I wasn’t surprised to read that “very little work has been done in this direction”(395).

Questions Lead to Change

In “The Power of Questions and the Possibilities of Inquiry in English Education,” Jennifer Buehler challenges us to consider whether or not we ask enough questions. I think it’s safe to say that many of us don’t always ask as many questions as we should in order to keep our lessons fresh, effective, and interesting for our target audience.

I agree with her assertion that “the most important thing we can do in the field of English education is to support teachers in establishing a questioning stance that will evolve throughout their careers. The complexity of the work we do demands it. Because every teaching context is different and because every student presents a unique literacy story, there can be no single set of answers that captures what English should be in every location”(282). Even the same material taught within the same brick and mortar to two different groups of students will have completely different outcomes for both the students and the teacher.

I have gone into a term with two sections of the same level remedial writing course, wrote up one syllabus, changed the dates a bit, and turned that one syllabus into two syllabi. After  two weeks I decided I had to make some adjustments. The students in one class responded better with sentence worksheets and the other class responded better to paragraph assignments. Of course I incorporated a bit of the other type of writing practice in each class, but I realized early on that what I thought was good for them, wasn’t. Questioning my plan led me to change.

Have you ever had a syllabus you had to essentially scrap, or maybe a part of it, because you realized your plan just wasn’t going to work with your students?

Welcome to my blog, ENGL 530 Classmates

As some of you already know, I was forced into creating and writing a blog for one of my classes last winter. Honestly, I kicked and screamed on one hand but knew it was good for me. After all, it is a great way to have a better understanding of at least how some people are reading nowadays.

I will resume this blog for this class and provide links to the articles through the class wiki. Basically, I will continue to add to the page where you found the link to get here to this blog in a table of contents format. The links will go directly to the articles and not just to the blog, so you won’t have to hunt around, hopefully.

I have to drive home, install a storm door and get some dinner. I’ll be back in a couple hours with my first couple of posts…