About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Thursday, July 24, 2008

One More Round on Non-Traditional College Students: Teaching Matters

Sparked by the article in the June Atlantic Monthly, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” my last three entries on this blog have dealt with teaching non-traditional college students and, more specifically, with teaching literature and remedial writing. Readers responded with close to 35 comments, many of them long, all of them thoughtful. Collectively, they contained assignments and techniques, anecdotes drawn from personal and professional experience, educational philosophies and thoughts about the social order. In sum, they contained a great deal of the wisdom of the classroom.

I want to dwell on that on-the-ground wisdom, for we don’t get much of it in policy deliberations about remediation in college or about education in general. And, as I wrote in a previous entry, we tend to get a pretty dreary and dispiriting rendering of non-traditional students and remediation in the media. Witness the Atlantic Monthly article.

So let’s go to the readers’ comments.

They display a commitment to teaching (some from people new to the game, others in it for more than thirty years) and an affinity for writing, books, literacy. Together, the writers of these comments offer a wealth of suggestions on authors to use and how to use them, on assignments and the sequencing of assignments, on ways to play back and forth between speech and written text and among and across books and stories from very different times and places. Reading these suggestions – some of which are embedded in descriptions of teaching – you get a feel for the intellectual sizzle of these teachers’ classrooms.

Related to the above is a refreshing discussion of culture, teaching, and learning that emerges in the collective comments. The writers sometimes disagree with each other, but in the aggregate you read people thinking hard about how to understand and honor the complex cultural backgrounds of their students while not reductively defining them by those backgrounds alone.

So, too, there is a rich discussion of social class and education. There is mention of economics and who gets what kind of education, both before and during college, the funding, the resources available. And there is a good deal of discussion about the toll some students’ class backgrounds have taken on their current levels of skill. But this poor academic preparation is not a cognitive prison house, and the writers offer powerful testimony to the achievements of underprepared students, given the right conditions. (This general issue of social class and achievement is an especially important one to me, and I plan to devote a future entry to it.)

It was interesting how many writers speculate about the likely education of the author of the Atlantic article. Professor X’s discontent might well originate in his own graduate study in English, study that typically includes little serious training in teaching, particularly teaching literature to a wide sweep of humanity. Such narrow graduate education will affect the kinds of intellectual relationships a teacher is able to foster.

And I was struck by – and savored – the feel for teaching you get reading these thirty-plus comments. The detail ranges from the specific technique and strategy (reading a paragraph from “Araby” in multiple voices), to long-haul reflection on the purpose of education, to the pleasures of the work itself. “I love to pull my teaching cart out into the dark, smelling the trees and flowers that are now only shadows,” writes a community college instructor, “knowing that I and my students are tired from doing something worthwhile.”

Some of the students in the courses taught by these teachers will struggle and not do well – though I’d bet those students will be treated with dignity and with an eye toward their future development. And some students will do just fine, and from the comments we get a sense of their resilience and ability. We also get a sense of teaching as a subtle and humane art.

All of this takes us back inside the basement of the Ivory Tower and enables us to rethink what might go on in that basement and, for that fact, how the basement might be closer – might be made closer – to the rest of the tower itself.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Teaching Remedial Writing

The discussion of underprepared college students over the last few posts leads me to one more entry. This is on teaching remedial writing. I suggested last month that there were a lot of other ways Professor X in that Atlantic Monthly article could have achieved his educational goals. Here is one approach – and I’ll begin it with a student profile different in kind from the ones Professor X presents.

Kevin had a story similar to a lot of young men from my old neighborhood in South-Central L.A. He was a good student in poor schools, schools with old textbooks, scarce resources for enrichment, high teacher turnover. And like more than a few young men from such neighborhoods, he was seduced by street life, got into trouble, and spent most of his 16th year in a juvenile camp.

Upon release, he went back to school, worked hard, graduated, did miserably on the SAT, and went to college through a special admissions program.

I had helped develop the writing component for that program, and I taught in it. Kevin’s first piece of college writing – the placement exam – was peppered with grammatical errors, and the writing was disorganized and vague. This is the kind of writing we see in media accounts of remedial students, and it is the kind of writing that academics and politicians alike cite as an example of how higher education is being compromised. And such writing is troubling. If Kevin’s writing remained like this, he would probably not make it through college.

The traditional remedial writing course would begin with simple writing assignments and include a fair amount of workbook exercises, mostly focused on grammar and usage. The readings used for such a course would also be fairly basic, both in style and content. Though they might not be articulated, there are powerful – and limiting – assumptions about language, learning, and cognition that drive such a curriculum: that students like Kevin need to go back to linguistic square one, building skill slowly through the elements of grammar; that simpler reading and writing assignments won’t overly tax Kevin’s limited ability and will allow a concentration on correcting linguistic error; that complex, demanding work and big ideas – college work – should be put on hold until Kevin displays mastery of the basics.

No wonder remediation gets such a bad rap.

The program we developed for students like Kevin held to a different set of assumptions, assumptions we had developed from reading current research on language and cognition and from our own experience in the classroom. We certainly acknowledged the trouble Kevin was in and wanted to help him improve his writing on all levels, grammar to organization to style. But we didn’t believe we needed to carve up language into small workbook bits and slowly, slowly build his skill. And in Kevin’s case, we were right. By the end of the twenty-week program, Kevin was writing competent papers explicating poems by Gary Soto and Jim Daniels, comparing the approaches to reading presented in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, and analyzing the decision making in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Let me explain a bit more about the remedial writing curriculum we fashioned, and then use it to make a broader point about the possibilities of remediation.

My co-workers and I began by surveying a range of lower-division courses to get a sense of the typical kinds of reading and writing assignments faced by students like Kevin in that critical first year. We then found readings from a variety of disciplines that were similar to those in our survey and created writing assignments that helped students develop the skills to write about them. Then we sequenced the assignments from less to more difficult and also so that they were cumulative: what a student learned to do in the first week fed into an assignment on the fifth. So, for example, several early assignments Kevin faced required him to read a passage on the history of Eugenics and write a definition of it and to read a passage with diagrams about income distribution in the U.S. and summarize it. This practice in defining and summarizing would later come into play when Kevin had to systematically compare the descriptions of becoming literate in the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography.

To assist students with assignments like these, we organized instruction so that there was lots of discussion of the readings and a good deal of in-class writing where students could try out ideas and get feedback on their work as it developed.

And because many of our students, like Kevin, did display in their writing all the grammatical, stylistic, and organizational problems that give rise to remedial writing courses in the first place, we did spend a good deal of time on error – in class, in conference, on comments on their papers – but in the context of their academic writing. This is a huge point and one that is tied to our core assumptions about cognition and language: that writing filled with grammatical error does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material, and that error can be addressed effectively as one is engaging such material.

Certainly not all students did as well as Kevin, but many did. Those who want to purge college of remedial courses would say that Kevin doesn’t belong. He proved them wrong. And those holding to a traditional remedial model would be fearful that the tasks we assigned would be too difficult, would discourage Kevin. He proved them wrong as well.

Since we mounted those programs, some studies have emerged that confirm the approach we took. Successful remedial programs set high standards; are focused on inquiry and problem solving in a substantial curriculum; utilize a pedagogy that is supportive and interactive; draw on a variety of techniques and approaches; and are in-line with student goals and provide credit for coursework.

Educational researchers Michael Cole, Peg Griffin, Kris Gutierrez, and others have a nice way of talking about successful remediation. They refer to re-mediation – that is, changing the environment and the means through which students are taught the material they had not mastered before. A complaint often leveled at remediation by legislators is that they are “paying twice” for instruction in material that should have been learned earlier. Fair enough, but when remediation, re-mediation, is done well, the material in a sense is encountered anew, in a new context, with new curriculum and new pedagogy. For some students this makes all the difference in the world.