Thursday, May 26, 2011

New Jersey Writing Alliance Conference

I attended the New Jersey Writing Alliance's Conference this Tuesday entitled "Writing for the 21st Century: Expectations, Experience and Exigencies" ( As I walked through the halls at the College Center building of the Middlesex County College Edison Campus, I thought heavily about the word exigency. The needs of our students at the college level are compounded by lives filled with mutlimodal media, the stress for job-specific academic careers and difficult financial times. The budgetary issues facing New Jersey school districts and public universities have made instruction an even larger challenge. The board members of the NJWA desired to address these issues and many more as they related to the transition from high school to college writing.

My desire to see what high school teachers felt about college writing sent me to many sessions involving the transition between the two and how to deliver effective remedial instruction. My first session was a themed panel involving two presentations. This theme was called "Helping Students Transition to College and the Real World." Dr. Kathy Mueller presented a documentary she developed about students' transition from her class to college writing. Her anecdotal work presented a gap between high school writing and what students are asked to do in college. She highlighted several areas involving argumentation and the need for textual support when students make claims. Dr. Mueller has worked closely with my colleagues, Mr. Michael Goeller and Ms. Regina Masiello. They have conducted professional development seminars in her district, Bayville Public School District, involving the work we do at the Writing Program and the Writing Program Institute. Her presentation called for more focus on close reading, peer revision, and strategies to answer complex writing assignments. Dr. Linda Littman and Ms. Jane DeTullio focused on in-classroom activities and discussion-based practices as an example of a way to bridge the gap. Many teachers responded later to this panel as desiring that writing instruction be presented as uninterrupted rather than a gap with two ends needing to be bridged. A call for a community of instructors in writing was received loud and clear. The teachers seemed to desire a community with regular conversations about how we all address the need for more complex thinking and writing.

The next session I attended discussed the Second Language Learner (L2) and what he or she can teach us about how to help him or her. Dr. Darcy Gioia, a director in the Writing Program, and Ms. Agnieszka Goeller, a fellow Writing Program instructor, used personal anecdotes and theoretical concepts based on their experience to help the audience understand the L2 learner. They expanded upon trends they noticed in the learning patterns of the L2 learner. They postulated on how an instructor might be able to ask questions that approach the core of the pattern of language issues plaguing the L2 learner. Individualized instruction is something every teacher can understand pedagogically. We all develop individualized instructional plans for our students, and the L2 learner is no exception. Dr. Gioia echoed an equal focus on argument in her instruction that Dr. Mueller mentioned in the first panel. Dr. Gioia sees her remedial instruction as in direct support of the standards upheld by the Writing Program. When she spoke of patterns of error in her panel, one teacher in the audience emphatically nodded in agreement. This expression reminded me that fundamentally all teachers of writing feel a commonality. We all want to improve our students' abilities and understand the need for claims of their own to exist in their writing. The remedial instruction performed at the Writing Program is one way to envision the writing process as a continuum across a student's entire academic career instead of within one semester or course.

The final session I attended was a round table discussion about the topics of the conference's subtitle. High school and college instructors investigated the new needs of students brought about by non-fiction focused standardized testing, including the HSPA and SAT. Many instructors identified a need for critical thinking and exposition as a necessity in their college classrooms. Although there was a brief hint of animosity between the two seemingly opposing entities within teaching, a sigh of relief came when one administrator expressed her vision of a continuum on which all writing instruction was placed. Instead of questions like what is the difference between the high school and college writing classroom? Ones arose asking, how do teachers achieve the same standards in different modes of instruction? What do the college instructors do in the classroom that the high school teachers can learn from? What can high school instructors teach their students about the college arena? How can college instructors adopt the instruction currently given in high school? And finally, what should we do with the "5-paragraph essay?"

Although the "5-paragraph essay" is seen as a problematic issue for critical thinking and writing because of its formulaic presentation, many college-level professionals said that it in fact presented a moment in a student's learning process that was a necessity to build critical thinking, a requirement at the collegiate level. Arising out of this structure presented the idea that a student's writing is a process throughout his or her academic career. Although many of us at the collegiate level recognize writing as a revision process, we might fail to see it as a developmental one. A developmental continuum that includes structural moments like the "5-paragraph essay," literary interjections like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and connectivity between authors as we teach in Expository Writing can address the problem modern teachers face in the classroom. We desire our students to be involved in a larger academic discourse and in doing so must change our vision for writing based on the very questions brought up at the conference.

The WPI attempts to administer these very values to high school teachers in an attempt to collaborate with school districts. I believe that my attendance at the conference identified for me a serious problem of vision for writing instruction and recognition that many professionals across New Jersey are aptly ready to take these issues to task. Missions like the WPI are the very theoretical basis we need to help continue this conversation towards a learning initiative. The idea that student learning is an uninterrupted path can help to underscore the collaborative nature of this conversation.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Writing and the Common Core State Standards

Professor Dorothy Strickland of Rutgers University last week made a PowerPoint presentation to the New Jersey Board of Education on The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS), which might mark the beginning of a wider discussion how these standards will change the curriculum.  We think it's important that those in education looking to improve college readiness get involved in the process, especially before major corporations begin selling their solutions.   Ultimately, the spirit of the Common Core can only be honored if we find a way of communicating its standards to teachers so that they can put them into practice themselves rather than purchasing some "one size fits all" solution.

As a slide in Professor Strickland's presentation cautions, it's important to "Establish a long-term program of information, communication, and active collaboration with all stakeholders" before buying into the "mass delivery of standardized instruction."  After all: "Knowledge and understanding of the Standards and the new Assessment Programs will be critical for good consumerism."

The Rutgers Writing Program is definitely a stakeholder in seeing that students are honestly made ready for college success.  We hope that the Common Core does not go the way of No Child Left Behind and become just another test-focused program.  As you move from recommending pedagogy to developing assessments, though, there is always the danger that standards will get boiled down into bubbles that #2 pencils can fill and a large corporation can sell.   And then the teachers become simply the means of delivering content.

Some of the news coverage of the Common Core suggests that we should be cautious about it being hijacked by the education-industrial complex.  Though the CCSS initiative began about two years ago and its standards, released last year, have been adopted by 44 states, it seems it only began to make the news when corporations began showing interest, as when the Gates Foundation announced that it will partner with Pearson Publishing to develop Common Core materials for classroom use, or when other potential content providers sent out press releases about their plans (such as: "LitLife to Assist Schools with Common Core Compliance").

Newspapers have been late to cover the CCSS, but a few have done a good job of reporting its calls for change.  Some of the better recent stories include "A Trial Run for School Standards That Encourage Deeper Though" (The New York Times), "Education Standards to Be Unveiled" (Charleston Daily Mail), and "Will Common Core Standards Make Students College-Ready?" (Huffington Post).  Last week's story in the Charleston Daily Mail emphasized the need for more complex non-fiction readings and more expository writing in the English and language arts curriculum: 

Assistant State Superintendent Robert Hull says changes to [English and language arts] will primarily involve the use of more 21st century literature and nonfiction, rather than just fiction. Educators also want a better focus on the writing process.

The amount of informational texts (nonfiction) compared to literary (fiction) found in classrooms is not known, but Edwina Howard-Jack, English/language arts coordinator for the state office of instruction, says the new standards place much more emphasis on informational texts.

Even in kindergarten, the new English/language arts standards call for half of the texts to be informational and the other half literary. By senior year, that would become 70 percent informational and 30 percent literary.

Another change will be reflected in increasing the difficulty in the required texts. Howard-Jack says there is generally a two-grade difference in the level of difficulty of most required texts currently offered.

'In working with teachers within the West Virginia framework, the teachers are just thrilled with these new standards and objectives. This is the direction we need to go and will make a difference in public and higher education,' Howard-Jack said.

Tightening the standards to become more focused on factual texts is also reflected in changes to writing expectations. Less emphasis will be placed on narrative and more on argumentative and explanatory writing.

The Rutgers Writing Program has long advocated the use of non-fiction prose about complex ideas and the need to emphasize the reading and writing of expository (rather than narrative) prose in high school.  The only way to engage students with this literature and the ideas it contains is to get them writing on their own, applying those ideas in novel ways, and making connections across multiple complex texts.  It's not something you can boil down to filling in bubbles with a number two pencil.  And it requires knowledgeable and engaged teachers to administer.  We hope everyone keeps that in mind.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Comments on "Death to High School English" in Salon

To confront the typically unspoken truth about why students throughout this country have so little practice writing formal essays, read Kim Brooks's "Death to High School English" in  Though she approaches the problem, rather divisively, from the perspective of a college professor complaining about the lack of writing instruction her students received in high school, Brooks ultimately highlights the common issues that we all confront as teachers of writing and the common burden we share, whether we teach in secondary schools or colleges.  Most importantly, Brooks visits a high school and confronts what is to my mind the core "logistical issue" of why students don't write more, which boils down to:
...the almost insurmountable challenge of teacher-to-student ratios, miserable ratios that are only going to get more miserable in light of the devastating teacher layoffs taking place around the country. At this particular school, every English teacher teaches five sections of English, and each section has approximately 25 students -- a dream load compared to what teachers at, say, a Chicago public face. But that still means a three-page formal essay assignment would translate into 375 pages of student prose to be read, critiqued and evaluated. The very thought makes a cold, dark dread creep across my soul. It makes my own burden, two sections of composition, 15 students to a class, seem laughably light. And yet, to my more successful, tenured friends, even my numbers seem grueling. One of them says flatly, "I'd teach four sections of lit before I'd do one of comp. Four sections with my hands tied behind my back. It's just too much work."
As Brooks points out, the labor issue does not go away in college either: most of us who teach college English would prefer not to assign a lot of writing either, or to grade it with the care of a composition instructor.  Many literature professors get to teach with "their hands tied behind their backs" for most of the term, with the final papers in their classes used only for grading purposes.  

The labor of grading is the 500-pound gorilla in the room in any discussion of how we improve student writing.

In my own visits to high schools, I have frequently heard about this "logistical issue" that prevents teachers from assigning many formal essays in their classes: to do so would mean an unbearable burden and an additional month of uncompensated labor.  Who would willingly subject themselves to that if they did not have to?  -- especially when most of their colleagues don't do it and there will be no rewards for doing so.  In fact, assigning essays and grading them accurately will mean unhappy students and parents, talks with administrators, and little support from colleagues -- not to mention all of that work of commenting and grading.  

If we are honestly to confront how we get students to do more writing, we have to begin by confronting this problem and to do so at a structural level.  And I admire all of the great schools I've visited where administrators are the ones leading the way toward change, because it is they who are best positioned to deal with this "logistical issue" head on. 

Unfortunately, given the funding realities that public schools face, I don't have any easy answers for how they should do that.  Not yet anyway.  But I think it helps to raise the question and to do so honestly.  It will make us begin looking for an answer.