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, March 19, 2009

Portraits of Thinking: A College Freshman Writer

Here is a third story about cognition in action, an excerpt from a tutoring session with a college freshman. For those of you who missed the previous entries where I discuss the purpose of these portraits of thinking, I’ll repeat two introductory paragraphs now. If you did read the earlier entries, you can skip right to the story of Suzette, which is drawn from Lives on the Boundary.

As I’ve been arguing during the year of this blog’s existence—and for some time before—we tend to think too narrowly about intelligence, and that narrow thinking has affected the way we judge each other, organize work, and define ability and achievement in school. We miss so much.

I hope that the portraits I offer over the next few months illustrate the majesty and surprise of intelligence, its varied manifestations, its subtlety and nuance. The play of mind around us. I hope that collectively the portraits help us think in a richer way about teaching, learning, achievement, and the purpose of education—a richer way than that found in our current national policy and political discourse about school.


Suzette was enrolled in a basic English class, and for her first assignment had written a personality profile of a classmate. Her teacher had placed brackets around two sentence fragments—one of the big offenses in remedial English—noted some other problems, and recommended that she come to the Tutorial Center. I began by asking to see the worrisome section of the personality profile: 
She was the leader who organized the class meetings and planned the class graduation program, and class events. Bringing them together as one which takes a lot of work. Also, worked at her sister’s catering service.

“Okay,” I said, “let’s talk about fragments. Once your teacher put brackets around these two sentences, could you see that something was wrong?” “I see that something’s wrong now,” said Suzette, tapping her pencil against the table, “but I didn’t see anything wrong when I was writing them.”

“That’s alright,” I continued, “tell me more about what you see when the brackets make you focus on those two sentences.”

“Well, see this sentence here?” (She pointed to “She was the leader who organized…,” the sentence that comes before the two fragments.) “I didn’t want to start talking about the same thing in another sentence…putting…you know, keep repeating myself.”

“Repeating yourself? That’s interesting. Say some more. Tell me more about that.”

“What, this?” she said, pointing back to that first sentence. “I didn’t want to keep putting ‘She was, she was, she was.’”

“You were trying to avoid that kind of repetition?”


“Why? How did it sound to you?”

“Well, it’s just not the way people write essays in college. You just don’t like to see your paper with ‘She…she…she…’ You know, ‘I…I…I…’ It doesn’t sound very intelligent.”

“That makes sense.”

I started talking to Suzette about some syntactic maneuvers that would enable her to avoid repetition. Going back over rules about sentences needing subjects and verbs would probably not do much good, for my questions revealed that Suzette’s fragments were rooted in other causes. She didn’t want to keep repeating the subject she. We worked together for about fifteen minutes, with me suggesting some general patterns and Suzette trying them out. And these were the sentences she produced:

Ronnie, having skills of organizing, brought her class together as one. She organized the class meetings, and planned the class graduation and the class events.

She brought the class together with her great organizing skills and leadership, for she prepared the class meetings and planned the class graduation program and the class events.

What was interesting about Suzette’s fragments was that they originated from a desire to reach beyond what she considered simple, beyond the high school way. She had an idea about how college writing should sound, and she was trying to approximate her assumptions. Mina Shaughnessy, an inspired teacher, used to point out that we won’t understand the logic of error unless we understand the institutional expectations that students face and the way they interpret and internalize them.

Many people respond to sentence fragments of the kind Suzette was making as though the writer had some little hole in that part of her brain where sentences are generated. They repeat a rule: “A sentence has to have a subject and a verb and express a complete thought.” But Suzette didn’t have a damaged sentence generator. What Suzette didn’t have was command of some of the stylistic maneuvers that would enable her to produce the sophisticated sentences she was reaching for. The more skilled we tutors got at listening and waiting, the better we got at catching the clue that would reveal what Shaughnessy was fond of calling the intelligence of the student’s mistake.


  1. Suzette's story is an excellent example of Vygotsky's zone of proximal development. Suzette was ready to make the leap; all she needed was a bit of direction. I appreciated that the mentor did not just supply Suzette with the answer, but helped her understand exactly what she wanted to do and why – and then how to do it. I think Suzette was left with not just a better sentence, but a useful strategy she will be able to apply in the future.

  2. I was banished to a remedial English class in the UC system once upon a time. It was because I didn't pass that damn subject A test. Maybe my working memory wasn't really working that day or something. People told me they liked my writing, so I didn't really get it, but that punctured my confidence a bit.

    A few years later, the Daily Bruin thought enough of my writing and brought me on board as an intern. And since I've graduated, people have thought enough of my writing to bring me on board as a grantwriter.

    Go effin' figure.

  3. This is such an interesting subject! Now that I'm slightly over 60, I'm finding that my "good education" left out way too much in terms of experience -- which I now understand is why I found it so unstimulating and the result (me) so unsatisfying. I believe that had Suzette's prior educational experiences developed her creativity, she would have been more flexible and able to come up with more graceful attempts ... and Felipe in your prior post, had his education not been so removed from everyday life, would have been more fluid with his calculations. If you have not already, will you explore the issue of creativity in education in future posts? Is this something of interest to you?

  4. This is a great example of where advice from a handbook isn't helpful and will just get in the way.

    The aspect of this encounter that should be a form of "best practices" for writing consultants is that students make errors for specific reasons. There's logic behind the grammatical gaffes, and discovering a rationale is crucial to fostering a writer's intellectual growth. The writer might not have thought about her thinking if handbook advice was offered.

    Tim Taylor

  5. As a college teacher (of cognitive psychology, in fact) I really appreciate this post. To me it is a good picture of the cognition of the student, but also what is necessary for a teacher of writing to move the student to the next step. It is remarkable to me how little I was prepared to teach writing (and I got more than most graduate students). Despite the fact that our college system is supposedly "the best in the world" and our primary and secondary schools supposedly woefully behind, teachers in colleges receive very little training in teaching (the Ph.D. is a research apprenticeship), and are often not prepared to teach. One can manage to become a passable lecturer in your field with experience, but I think to teach writing, one needs some instruction about the various cognitive models behind the various kinds of "bad writing" about which my colleagues often complain.

  6. Dear Dr. Rose, you are so correct that "we tend to think too narrowly about intelligence, and that narrow thinking has affected the way we judge each other, organize work, and define ability and achievement in school." The consequences for such narrow thinking affect all, but have the utmost material and physic consequences for students labeled as remedial and for those students currently taking remedial courses and how we go about instructing them.

    Luckily for Suzette her English lab tutor was not remedial in her or his tutoring/pedagogical skills. In fact, and argument can be made—as ellzabethj makes it—that this could indeed reveal an example of the ZPD in action. However, we have to be careful to not think too narrowly about the use and application of the ZPD.

    I hope we try to use the ZPD as both a theory and method of analysis and not just as a ubiquitous buzz word that has come to mean nothing as it it means everything to everyone--as the ZPD is used connote effective teaching and learning moments without paying due analytical attention to the both the pedagogical and learning practices we try to explain.

    It is important to note that the tutor in this case had the knowledge of strategic question posing—no doubt about that. What a beautiful portrait of learning and instruction Dr. Rose presents here.

    I’d like to focus on the fact that it appears the tutor had knowledge of how to organize a potential learning opportunity because of her/his knowledge of syntactic maneuvers that endless amounts of formal English instruction in and of itself does not and cannot provide a student who approaches the material devoid of material consequence. It is precisely because of the tutor’s ability to ascertain the learners’ present development level with regard to the use and mechanics or syntax and other grammar variables that she or was able to organize learning in a way that enable Suzette to reach beyond her present level of understanding and use of syntax and reach toward a new horizon.

    Thank you for the great example!

  7. I wanted to sign the above porque when I posted it ititially I forgot to "sign" it.

    Many people know yet I'm know by few. You will me as:

    El Big Happy from East Los c/s

  8. Dr. Rose--

    I had just consulted with a student in my college freshman composition course about fragment sentences prior to reading your post about Suzette. Yes, waiting and looking for cognitive clues is essential when working with students regarding grammar gaffs. My student, like Suzette, understood that for a sentence to be complete it needs a subject and a verb. She explained, though, that she wants to be "creative in her writing" and asked then, "Do grammar rules need to apply?" This student has avoided using the Writing Center and has not wanted to come to office hours because she said that past tutors and teachers have forced her to write in an unnatural way. Now that I understand my student's approach to writing and her cognitive process, I can work on helping her find her academic voice and honor her commitment to creative writing.

    Thank you for posting Suzette's story!

  9. 4/2/09

    Thank you for this post!

    I can absolutely relate to this story because I work at the Writing Center at Sonoma State University. I have learned a great deal this past year from working with remedial readers and writers. One young lady, in particular, reminds me of your story. She constantly used enormous, run-on sentences. During our first few sessions, I attempted to show why her sentences were run-ons and how to identify them. She understood the concepts. However, she continued to write these wordy sentences. Finally, I pulled one of the run-on sentences out of her paper and asked her why she wrote the sentence in that particular way. She explained that she was trying to sound more academic and more like the books and essays that she was reading for class. I had one of those “ah-ha” epiphany moments; I realized that she wanted to write more complex, “academic” sentences, but because she didn’t have the tools and prior knowledge to do that, she could only use run-on sentences. From there, the tutee and I were able to work on developing her “academic” voice. We discussed utilizing dependent clauses, participial phrases, and how to “properly” construct compound and compound-complex sentences. It was a very rewarding process for both of us! Like your story about Suzette, by being patient and determined, I too was able to see the “intelligence of the student’s mistake.” It is important to be mindful of this, especially in a tutoring center or classroom, because as Constance Weaver explains in her grammar books, new and more sophisticated errors are signs of progress!


  10. I really like the idea that if a tutor is patient enough and skilled enough, they will be able to effectively transform a students decent writing into something much more. I also really appreciate the remark made by Mr. Rose about students who write fragmented sentences. The assumption that is all-to-easily made is that these students have a "little hole in that part of [their] brain where sentences are generated;" that there is something wrong with them. The reality is that there is nothing wrong with these students, but rather, that there is something wrong with the pressures that are placed upon them to sound academic, and to write a "college" style paper (like Suzette wanted to do). I really appreciated this blog posting, and how Mr. Rose dispelled yet another negative assumption.

  11. There is so much more to errors than that which appears on the surface when grading one paper in a stack of twenty, or even one hundred. It is very easy to make assumptions based on errors that may, or may not, be accurate. In this case, the professor made the assumption that failure to use both subject and predicate meant a failure to understand that concept as a whole, when, in reality, the student had quite a strong grasp of language and style. It is important to seek out the root of errors, which is certainly time consuming with even a small class, but increases the accessibility of correctness for students. Meaning, when teachers are aware of why students may be making one type of error - be it in grammar, style, or spelling - they can more easily and effectively help students stop the repetition of this error in the future. In addition, I think it is helpful to be open to "errors;" I have seen so many teachers mark down because of fragments, but there are many good examples of fragment use and students should be taught about these as well. I'm an advocate of "tools over rules;" don't give students rules to follow, give them the tools to follow AND break those rules.

    Michelle (496)

  12. I teach basic writing at a college in Illinois. I thank you for the post because it will provide additional anecdotal ammunition against the kill-and-drill mentality that still prevails at my institution. It also will be helpful when discussing the pedagogical approach of tutors in our writing center,

    I am so discouraged by the nature of texts for dev ed courses and the mindset of most people I have met at NADE conferences. These students, at least my students, are not "developmental" students...they are the same students in Comp I...if they can jump through the hoops to get there.

    In my "lowest-level" dev class on Friday we were discussed short fiction by Vonnegut and Bradbury. In the discussion my students brought up how they saw the question of free will being raised in "Harrison Bergeron" and I brought up the possible influence of Jung. We had a lively quasi-philosophical discussion while colleagues were probably saying "turn to page 135 and let's review comma splices".

  13. Thank you so much for this blog! I am stunned, stunned, stunned by the mindset of college classes these days! I just returned to college two months ago (after the death of my husband, and then my mother)at age 60 in order to force myself to return to life and to return to writing. I'm taking an expository writing class (where I'm currently doing a writing research project about writer's block, my personal dilemma. That's how I discovered Dr. Rose) and an American Lit. Survey class. These classes are so interesting. The professors are young, bright,knowledgeable. We read great stuff from great minds and are asked to write response papers about them, do research of our own and report on that. I do...and what comes back to me is...comments on punctuation! Sentence fragments! Flaws in citation! Yes, I know the importance of a finished paper. I appreciate the importance of standards of punctuation and standards of grammar in order to allow (ensure) understanding, but what about content? I'm sorry, but thinking and responding, listening and speaking, reading and writing came before punctuation. People read and wrote and understood one another very well (read early English works) before standardized punctuation! I've had a few, a very, very few (2) comments on my "excellent" content. It is all about punctuation! I am stunned, and disheartened and embarrassed and...stunned, and BLOCKED. My former college experience (admittedly over 20 years ago) was not like this! When did the punctuation police take over universities? My "grades" are dismal (2 out of 5 points for a paper I would be proud to publish, and I have been published, I actually wrote a newspaper column for a highly respected US newspaper in my former life), and I care about grades. At 60, I still care about grades, and form and punctuation. I can do these things. I don't have a "hole in my brain" and I am trying very hard to "jump through the hoops". I just didn't realize that is what I had signed up for. I have a certain amount of intelligence which I'm beginning to doubt, an entering college grade point average of 3.97 (a 4.0 except for that C for a golf class that I didn't complete 30 years ago!)that I can see dwindling away, and a newfound obsession with commas. I can't think about Franklin, Hawthorne, James, Wharton, Rose, Lee or Krachen...what about commas? Run-on sentences? MLA changes? I don't have time to formulate content, I can't compose, I'm writing! I'm writing and citing and punctuating! Had I known in January what I know now (that to become a writer, all you have to be able to do is correctly spell, punctuate and grammatically structure any combination of all possible English words into a double spaced, 12 point type, two page document) I would have returned to "grammar" school! Just label me "drilled and killed".

  14. "I started talking to Suzette about some syntactic maneuvers that would enable her to avoid repetition."

    After years of college, at times I still feel like a novice writer since I don't have a' syntactic maneuver' repertoire that I see in lots of the reading I do for class. There should be an entire course for undergraduates specifically on writing methods such as this!

    First of all, it is great to see that there are tutors out there who understand whats beneath the errors. I've got to read Shaughnessy, someday about the intelligence of the student's mistake, as she put it. Constance Weaver wrote about mistakes in some of her grammar books that I am now reading for class. I've learned that errors are so multi-layered. There are real reasons for making errors behind the error itself, as is demonstrated here. Mistakes in writing are signs of a brain at work ( which interestingly doesn't mean that once something is mastered, the brain won't make the same mistake again).

    But enough about error. I am really encouraged by this little interaction between the tutor and the student; often, writing is difficult because we as students need to learn those ' syntactic maneuvers' or other stylistic methods in order to become more articulate and effective writers.

  15. A few years ago I was tutoring a friend who was in a remedial college English course, and we ran into the same problem that you described with Suzette.
    In this class, my friend had to turn in a rough draft of an essay that was corrected and returned to her for revisions. Sentence variation was one of her biggest problems. She was never taught that sentence variation was desirable in writing a college essay. Once she understood the issue, she was able to make her revisions.
    Like Suzette, the content of the paper was there, but my friend didn't know the "stylistic maneuvers" to create an effective paper. It isn't a matter of a lack of intelligence, it's a matter of knowing the methods or strategies to become an effective writer. This academic short-coming is due to the fact that somewhere in both these students' English education, their teachers never taught them these strategies.
    As a future teacher, I hope to provide my students with the proper "stylistic maneuvers" to become successful writers.

  16. This story corresponds with comments repeated in multiple books on grammar written by Weaver. The idea that more advanced students make more advanced mistakes keeps coming up the readings. Weaver also keeps coming back to the focus first on the content of a student's writing, then at a later time turning a student's focus to imporving upon thier use of grammar. Learning grammar in context, according to Weaver, is the way a student learns, or internalizes, grammatical concepts. It is the taking of risks, the making of mistakes that allows for what Vygotsky calls the ZPD; a zone for a novice to internalize what they are actively learning from an expert.

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. After taking the English Placement Test (EPT) at Sonoma State, I was placed into the lowest remedial English class (Eng30). My teacher realized (halfway through the class) that I didn't belong in the class, so she recommended me to advance to English 101 for the following semester. I am now about to graduate with a degree in English.

    It was frustrating at first to be in the remedial class, but I think it was a good wake-up call for me to be intentional about my learning as a developing writer. The experience not only 'lit a fire under my butt' to become a better writer, but also revealed my weakness in being a slow writer.

    To bring in the topic of multiple intelligences: I believe I could have entered into an English 101 class without taking a remedial course. The (EPT) did not accurately test my intelligence as a writer because my performance was severely hindered by my slow writing pace. I don't think anything can be changed (as this may be a unique case), but I am able to see how testing towards certain intelligences has played a part my schooling experience.

  19. It is very frustrating to grade papers, especially those of students whose potential and excellence are visible in class. To know that a student has great communicating skills, and is actively listening and responding leads teachers to expect a certain quality of work from them. However, as Suzette's problem shows us, it is unfair to expect a certain level of writing. Additionally, I would find it frustrating to be the student trying to explain the problem with the writing. It is hard enough to admit that there is a mistake, but to also try and identify the source of that mistake would be difficult to verbalize and solve. So many of our writing and reading processes are internalized and eventually become systematic. In order to find and solve problems with our writing, we need to be able to identify our processes. It is a difficult task for those of us who are set in our ways.

  20. Being a tutor can be difficult. It is so easy to just correct the students or remind them of a rule. Often times it goes beyond this though. I have gone to tutors before and when they ask me questions like the ones that were asked of Suzette it can be uncomfortable. It is sometimes difficult to explain why I made a mistake or what I did wrong. This can make tutoring far more difficult because you may have to make someone feel uncomfortable. Once we can take our students beyond the uncomfortable feeling, we can begin to understand why mistakes were made. This is important to do because it helps them so much more than just telling them a rule and hoping they will figure it out. Suzette was able to explain why she wrote a fragment and so the tutor could help her by giving her solutions to writing varied sentences.

  21. Speaking from personal experience tutoring individual is a very difficult process. As tutors we expect a certain level of comprehension form the individual that we are trying to help and even though their writing might not make sense to us, we need to remember that everyone has a different form or style of writing. I can remember going to tutoring in high school and thinking that the person helping me was judging me and not wanting their help, but just like Suzette, I was able to gain a lot from tutoring and it helped me become a better writer. I believe that correcting the errors that students make in their writing is a very important part of learning but being able to articulate the problem and find the source of it would benefit the writer more. Just like Suzette was able to acknowledge her problem and fix it, anyone can do this as long as they recognize their own writing problems.

  22. Having taught writing in elementary school and middle school for many years, I will say that I am in strong agreement with what jophus had said on another post on the Mike Rose blog. "Writing filled with grammatical errors does not preclude engagement with sophisticated intellectual material".

    Poor thinking is much worse than poor grammar. Furthermore, a word processor can’t fix poor thinking. My experience is that focusing too much on kid’s grammar, and not on what they are saying makes them feel like you don’t think they have anything important to say.

    I teach a lot of grammar, but most of it is within the context of important, thought provoking student writing.

    Pattern Based Writing: Quick and Easy Essay for Kids

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