Thursday, April 26, 2007

Narrative as Healer?

The article I chose is called, "Toward a Writing and Healing Approach in the Basic Writing Classroom: One Professor's Perosnal Odyssey" by Molly Hurley Moran.

This article describes the process a teacher used in her basic writing course. She began with narrative writing as the base of every assignment, moving her students towards more academic writing. So this is a case study for whether to use personal writing in the basic writing class, and one method of doing so.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Just for kicks, I looked up the definitions of "literacy" and "literate." Amongst the definitions was one that said: "having knowledge or skill in a specified field." I think this is the definition we are all getting at when we talk about students having various literacies. And I think it's an excellent point. I don't know how often I've read a student’s paper only to be educated about something I was completely unfamiliar with. For example, don't hang me for saying this... I was sheltered as a child, one of my students wrote his research paper about The Doors. It was really fascinating, all the mystery surrounding Jim Morrison's life. I remember it vividly because the student was so rapped up in this group, that his paper turned out really well. Not only was it good for him because my excitement boosted his esteem and made him the expert, but it was also really good for me because I learned something new that I might never have had contact with otherwise. It's exciting when you think of writing as a collaboration of knowledge among a group of "writers." I think it's important to see our students as people who are intelligent in specific areas. I would consider myself intelligent, but ask me to multiply a simple problem like 9 X 6 and you'll see me look really stupid! Yes, REALLY stupid! We all have something to bring to the table and we must look for those things in our students. I think making connections with what students are knowledgeable about, especially in the beginning will give them the confidence and assurance they need to tackle new "mountains." (I really like Chaz's analogy.) Instead of thinking about all we can teach our students, let’s start thinking about what they can teach us. Then maybe more collaborative, relaxed effort will take place and so much more will be accomplished! I feel like smoking a peace pipe now.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Twin Peaks

Amy’s blog made me do some thinkin’. As I scratch my head I'm pondering whether we should only focus on the main thing - Academic writing - or allow our students to experience other genres of writing as well. This question is especially interesting when considering the experience our high school students receive in writing. For the last few years, writing for the MAP test has been a strong focus. This means that students learn how to write a five-paragraph essay in one paragraph: topic sentence, 3-4 body sentences, conclusion sentence. What I noticed, and was amused yet saddened by, was that my students so had this form drilled into them that they couldn’t hardly produce anything else! They were stuck! They assumed that, because this was so important that posters were made and journals were written in this format, there was no other way to write anything. When asking them to expand their minds, they looked at me like a deer caught in headlights!

So moving to the collegiate level… should we shock our students by allowing them to write in memoir style that seems a little more relaxed and personal and then spring academic writing on them? When put this way, it seems like a bad idea. However, I don’t think it is. I think it’s important for students to see that there is not ONE type of writing, that academic writing is not the end all be all. I think it’s important to let students see what the wonderful world of writing has to offer. Perhaps if they discover that a particular form of writing isn’t so bad, maybe even enjoyable, that the other forms will then not seem so scary. Let’s head towards the mountains! Perhaps we’ll never make it there, but maybe we’ll find something better along the way.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Chickens and Eggs

In the essay “Redefining the Legacy of Mina Shaughnessy” by Min-Zhan Lu, the following discussion was given:

The image of someone using words to coax meaning ‘to the surface’ suggests that meaning exists separately from and ‘at some subterranean level of language.’ Meaning is thus seen as a kind of essence which the writer carries in his or her mind prior to writing, although the writer might not always be fully conscious of it. Writing merely serves to make this essence communicable to oneself and others. (107)

I have never really had to occasion to think about this too much, but found it thought-provoking. The argument kind of reminds me of the debate about which came first: the chicken or the egg. Lu argues that perhaps Shaughnessy’s thought that meaning is already inside and is given a voice through writing is only one-sided. Lu suggests that a particular meaning can take on new forms and shift into new meanings while the student tries to fit that one meaning into a variety of discourses. This is interesting as well. What it sounds like Lu is saying is that, even though a student has a particular meaning in mind, that meaning will change within different sets of discourse. I’m pondering on this even as I type. Does that mean that meaning adapts to the form it’s written in? That the meaning we so clearly have in our head doesn’t always come out the same way?

I definitely agree that meaning is not always inside first waiting to be “coaxed” to the surface through writing. As I type this very blog, I am creating my meaning, my thoughts. They were not perfectly clear when I began, but I knew that I wanted to discuss that quote because it was interesting to me. There have been times when I had a clear vision of what I wanted to write, a thesis, let’s say. It was only a matter of sitting down at my computer and letting the meaning that was already inside flow out of me. Those papers are usually my best! However, I also have papers where the actual act of writing helps me create meaning. For these papers I often have to go back and change many things. It is the writing that allows me to form my thoughts and draw conclusions that weren’t previously inside of me. It’s like those illusion pictures, which I can never see! You look at the picture normally and see one thing, but when you focus your attention on one point, the picture changes and becomes something completely different. That’s how these papers are when the meaning is inside me to begin with. So… I think I’ve answered my own question! Both can occur. Perhaps in the beginning there were both chickens and eggs!

Friday, March 16, 2007

To Negotiate or Not?

Bruce Horner ends his chapter "Re-Thinking the 'Sociality' of Error" by saying, "But we can encourage our students to make such attempts by teaching all aspects of writing, including editing, as negotiations in which they can play a role and in which they have a stake (165). I've always like the idea of negotiation in the classroom because, after all, it is the student's education. Shouldn't they have some say in it? On the other hand, I'm the teacher, the "expert," to use that term VERY lightly, and hopefully know what's best for my students. Wow, that sounds pretentious! However, I have a good example to back me up! Just yesterday in my Level 1 Speaking and Listening class at the English Language Institute, one of my students, who often tries to “negotiate” with me, argued about the way I wanted them to take notes. Now, this is level 1, which means they’re at the very beginning of the program at ELI. Having taught other levels, I know what’s in front of my students if they stay in this program and therefore am trying to prepare them for future levels by giving them foundational tools. This student didn’t like that I wanted them to take notes WHILE they were listening to a monologue. He said that he lost focus while writing and so couldn’t hear what came next. This is a perfectly legitimate argument and makes perfect sense. However, when he gets to level four and the lectures they listen to are fifteen minutes long, it will be impossible for this student to wait until the end and then write down everything he’s heard. Knowing this, I tried to explain to him, but he didn’t want to listen. Now, taking this even further, if this student eventually goes to MSU and is sitting in a lecture hall with 100 students listening to a professor speak for an hour and fifteen minutes, how in the world does he plan to take notes then? So you see, my intention is to prepare him for what’s ahead. Maybe right now listening to a simple two minute monologue is easy to remember, but later that won’t be the case. My point… yes, sometimes negotiation is good, but sometimes teacher knows best.

Friday, March 9, 2007


In Chapter five of Representing the "Other," Bruce Horner seems intent on discussing all the labels basic writing students have been given since the beginning of time. I have a hard time reading labels. I don't understand why there have to be labels. Can't we just teach the students we're given without putting them into a category? Who cares about whether it's the "Frontier Field" or the "Border Country?" It's a classroom of people, human beings, who are struggling with writing and need some help. It seems simple to me, but everyone must make their mark on the world and so must come up with a new title for every group that ever existed. The fact is, people are continously trying to come up the "right" label or the "politically correct" label, when in reality, any label is harmful because in some way or another it's a stereotype. (How many more times can I possibly say the word "label" in this blog!) I just wish people would focus more on the PEOPLE instead of what's write or wrong or this or that. How about we write books that explain how to help these particular students, like Mina Shaughnessy has done? I would much rather read helpful, practical advice, examples, ideas, teaching methods... than someones philosophical idea about the label needed. I realize this class is called "Theory of Basic Writing" and therefore THEORY must be discussed, and in ways is important. It is especially important to see what kinds of labels (there it is again!) are being placed on students, because more than likely they will know about that label and resent it, live up to it, etc. Well, I don't think I can say anymore about this topic. My point has been made and I'm now very tired of the word label!

Friday, March 2, 2007

Expectations - 03.02.07

After reading the very first sentence of the first reading assignment for this week, I had to immediately stop while my mind started rolling. In the chapter “Expectations,” Shaughnessy says, “The expectations of learners and teachers powerfully influence what happens in school” (275). Wow! What a simple, yet incredibly powerful and true statement. I have struggled with this issue continuously while teaching at the high school and college level. In every class, whether with native or non-native speakers, this is an issue. Not only is it an issue for teachers, but for students as well. After all, how can we get frustrated with our students when they seem to be so far below our expectations when that is the level that was set for them during the previous year(s)?

So what do we do? I think theory is great… when it can be applied in a practical manner. Therefore my questions all revolve around what the answer, solution, or method to the “problem” is. In a way, it’s almost like we have to start from scratch each year. I know some teachers who actually teach their expectations during the first week of classes. From the simplest things like saying “thank you” when the teacher returns a paper to the more complex expectations of the level of achievement the student will reach. Do we continue to push our students to greater heights? How far beyond the limits of the previous teachers’ expectations can we go? How do we challenge our students without scaring them or causing them to feel like failures? How do we change the mindset of our students so that they WANT to do better and grow in their academic abilities? ANY ANSWERS OR OPINIONS OUT THERE!? I think these are serious issues that must be explored and tested before we can become great teachers. As a fairly new teacher, I don’t know how to raise the bar yet, but I know I want to try.

Shaughnessy goes on to talk about the fact that writers are always learning to write (276). Just as in any task or profession there is always room for growth. Perhaps if this is the focus with our students, the task will not seem so daunting to them. I’ve heard of teachers who never give a final grade for a paper, but keep it in a folder for the whole year where the student can pull it out at various times and keep improving it. They are graded progress instead of final product. I like the idea of this. After all, isn’t this the way the rest of the world operates to some degree? When we begin a job, we know that we are at the bottom of the pay scale and that we have to work a little harder and LONGER to keep getting raises. At some point, we reach the salary cap for that position and either happily remain there, or we begin to work towards the next rung in the ladder where we will again be at the bottom of the pay scale in that new position. Perhaps the focus is wrong and we need to shift.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

New Ways of Thinking

I realize that we talked about the following topic in class a little, but I wanted to further divulge the subject as I think it's an important one and one I'd like to think through it more thoroughly. So... In The Discovery of Competence by Kutz, Groden and Zamel, chapter three expresses, "...the classes that will bring students into this community must necessarily focus, in a conscious way, on the students' development of new ways of thinking as well as their acquisition of new uses of language” (37). The chapter then gives examples of theories, such as Piaget’s, to discuss the development of the students’ minds in these basic writing classes, though I’m not sure we need a scientific/psychological explanation to understand the patterns of these students.

Piaget makes the comparison of the mind of a basic writer to that of a child learning his/her first language. I think this may be a little harsh, though helpful in some ways. However, as we discussed in class, we cannot technically compare the mind of a child to that of an adult and feel good about ourselves. So what’s really happening? My theory, and it seems obvious and non-genius to me, is that these basic writing students have not had opportunities to successfully practice higher-order thinking skills, and therefore do not know how to accomplish these skills in writing or otherwise. So the solution? Teach them to think in these new ways! Because the adult is in fact an adult, it should be an easy task… if the teacher can show the student these new skills in a way that is understandable and meaningful. Sometimes telling a student to write a persuasive paper where they take a position on a topic boggles his/her mind for some reason. But if examples are given from the students of fights they’ve had recently with their friend, neighbor, mom, boyfriend… and those examples are used to explain the perimeters of a persuasive paper, all of a sudden it makes sense. Just like with any person, context makes all the difference. So it’s not that these students don’t have these skills in them somewhere, it’s that perhaps we don’t have the correct methods to bring them out. Maybe I’m simplifying too much. I tend to do that. But I know for sure that too many things that could be simple are often made much more difficult than necessary. Let’s not complicate the matter, but just get the job done.

Friday, February 2, 2007


After reading the "Introduction" to Errors and Expectations, I felt overwhelmed, out of control, and under-prepared to face the students described in this chapter. Everything in my being cries out to help them and teach them a tool...communication in the written form… that will allow them to be successful on many levels in the future. I already feel tired just thinking about the importance of this task. I feel the same pressure with my ESL students. The question I always ask myself is, “How can I make this lesson, this chapter, this unit, this semester the most effective for my students?” Sometimes I dream of good ideas during sleep, and sometimes I have nightmares of not doing my best. The plight of a teacher runs deep to the core, and yet the rewards can be so great that the hours of worry and preparation all seem worth it in the end.

“Much about the ‘remedial’ situation encourages this obsession with error” (Shaughnessy 9). These problems seem to run across the board, even amongst Advanced Placement students. The requirements for obsession:
Reality of academia… urgency of the students to meet their teachers’ criteria… the awareness of the teacher and administrator that remedial programs are likely to be evaluated (and budgeted) according to the speed with which they produce correct writers, correctness being a high measurable feature of acceptable writing (Shaughnessy 8-9).

When these are the focuses of education, then education is no longer the focus. One textbook can not save the world, nor can one type of teaching. Just as Adrienne Rich pointed out in “Teaching Language in Open Admissions” printed in the book Landmark Essays, every class, and likewise every student, has a different feel, a different mood, and different goals. One text or theory or idea that works for one class, may fail miserably in another class (Halasek 10-11). In my opinion of a short amount of time in the teaching profession, it seems that the outside forces of budgets, state requirements, standardized testing… has completely ruined and terrorized the individualized teaching that our students desperately need. What’s the solution? Each person has his/her job in the education circle and most of those jobs don’t collaborate with each other leaving huge gaps in the system and students who don’t know which way is up. Yes, I complain loudly, but it’s not because I think I have a better way of doing anything, but because I’m frustrated for those who are being left behind. My heart is for the student.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Defining Basic Writing

What is basic writing? More importantly, who is it for? The underprivileged? The unmotivated? The unintelligent? As I've never actually taken a basic writing class, my perspective comes from teaching high school English for a very brief moment in history. Many times writing was "fluff." Do the assignment and you get an A. Rewrite? Why? What does "sp" mean? Who cares what I have to say? I don’t get this assignment…
But there must be a much more important role for the college level basic writing class. After all, how will they survive in college without being able to write a decent paper and express their thoughts clearly? This may be one of the most important classes they’ll ever take.

After my experience with teenagers from lower economic backgrounds whose parents did poorly in high school or didn’t even graduate but “are making it just fine,” I can definitely see why the need for basic writing classes in college exists. It is a frustrating situation however, because if the problems could be addressed from the very beginning… in kindergarten, then perhaps when students reached college they would be prepared to go immediately into regular classes. But while we can attempt to change curriculum and teaching styles, we cannot change the experience and background of our students, even at the kindergarten level. And therein lies our main problem, if it is a “problem” that we need to find to make ourselves (teachers) feel better about having “unintelligent” “unmotivated” students who seem to care less about what we have to say.

After reading chapter one of Errors and Expectations, I was encouraged that the journey through this class this semester would be an enlightening one for teaching at the college level. I have no doubt that once students are in college and feel a little more responsibility and a little more adult-like I will be able to motivate and encourage them to understand the importance of writing… at least most of them! What I seem to be perpetually stuck on, however, is why they come to college in that condition in the first place. But I guess that’s not the point of this class, so I’ll have to put my grievances aside and focus on the here and now, the college attendees,

And so how would I define basic writing? A journey, not an easy one, that students will take during a semester to find themselves and their voice and make it heard in the written form, which will improve their lives immeasurably and often unbeknownst to those who succeed.