Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Gratitude: A Personal Post

We've just come back from having spent Christmas at the Yale-New Haven Hospital's Cardiac Care unit. My father unexpectedly wound up needing a pacemaker, so my husband, my siblings and I spent the 24th through the 27th grafted to the furniture and fixtures of the CCU.

Here's my thank- you note to the world:

Thank you to my husband, who, although hating driving at night, brewed a pot of coffee and drove us to Connecticut by 2 a.m., and who stayed with me while we waited;
Thank you to my brother and sister, who are able to remain logical in emergencies;
Thank you to my in-laws, who put us up in nearby Branford, who let us come and go as we needed, and who offered a great deal of emotional support;
Thank you to my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, who gave us the gift of time during the holidays;
Thank you to the staff at the hospital, especially the nurses Theresa and Joan, who treated Dad with dignity and humor;
Thank you to my baby niece, whose very existence lights up my father's immune system and whose delighted smile got us through the weekend;
Thank you to my special nieces,K and S, who stayed at home to make sure that Santa knew where to park the sleigh;

And thank you to God and therapy for giving me the maturity to see what a wonderful person my father is and to value the time we have with him.

The best way that I can think of to act on this gratitude is to donate to Mercy Corps,to help in some small way with the relief work. I urge all CCE readers who haven't donated time, money, or blood to the effort to do so.

I won't be posting here for a week or so. Have a wonderful New Year, CCE-er's, okay?



Thursday, December 23, 2004

A guerilla grammar mini-lesson

Okay, since Rosa asked, here is a mini-lesson I use in my classes. So far, it has worked with developmental writers and traditional freshman composition students. Please bear in mind that this is a plan only. I frequently have to adjust in mid-stream depending on how students react to the ideas they are working with.

So, the mini-lesson on complete sentences - alias independent clauses.

1- Have students identify at least two sentences from their work which they are especially proud of, or feel express their idea clearly. This needs to happen at least one class period before the mini-lesson. It builds a sense of the positive, often sorely needed by these students, and gives me a chance to prepare materials made of their work for the mini-lesson.

2- Next class, put students in small groups - really small - 3 to 4 works best, and give each group five different sentences. This gives them a specific number of sentences to look at and keeps them from becoming overwhelmed by looking at all the sentences their classmates provided.

I always include the writer's name with each sentence. This helps to reinforce their sense of ownership, it gives them a "real" audience for the next time they write, and it lets them show off their best work to each other.

While in their groups, they need to answer two questions. What makes these sentences good? What do these sentences have in common?

While they are working, I am circulating around the room, listening, asking, but never answering the questions. This is an important time for students to reinforce their own knowledge of language. For some, this is the first time they have been allowed and encouraged to show they they do know quite a bit about ideas that work well in written form.

I keep this activity to no more than 15 minutes. Part of the magic is that they aren't focused on discussing the structure of the sentences long enough to realize this is a [gasp] grammarish moment. I collect their work to read and return later.

3- Next class, have class discussion about their responses to the questions from the prior class. Again, this needs to be short - 15 minutes ish. Some groups want to go into parts of speech, some want to identify what the words do, some want to talk clauses. I know these are all different labels for similar ideas, but depending on the make-up of the class, I may or may not make that connection. Some classes are happy to say "oh.....that's a sentence when it has......." Other classes leap right to " a sentence is an independent clause......."

My goal is to help them see the patterns that are available to them. By taking this little bit by little bit, we can build on their prior knowledge and allow them time to incorporate ideas that are new.

My take on mini-lessons is that they are a part of numerous writing activities. They don't ever take a whole class period. I use them to help students notice patterns and options in the structure of the language they use. Oh.....and I'm never satisified with mini-lessons because they are the practical compromise that reflect trying to work with 28 students in a limited amount of time.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Happy Holidays!

I want to wish a happy holiday to all who read this blog, all who have contributed to it and all who have been part of the effort to get the blog rolling. CCE, like Progressive Teachers or Crooked Timber, is a collective blog rather than an individual or a personal one. We're here to discuss pedagogy or practicality, literature and composition. And technology. And conferences. And writing Across and Beyond the curriculum. . . .


Thanks, clc, jocalo and Styles. Welcome, Sharon!



BW Portfolios: What I'll do Differently Next Time

Now that my students and I have made it through the first semester of portfolios-in- Basic Writing, I can relax and look back on what I'm going to change. This is stream-of-conscious thinking, so be forewarned:

1. Develop the notebook portion of the course. The notebook is the working tool of the course, while the portfolio is the place for putting the special documents for me to grade. Why do I do this? Well, it saves me from developing bursitis at midterm and finals, and that is no joke.

Specifically, the notebook has been a folder (with grommets), divided into several sections: class notes, affirmations, journal, writer's toolbox and "etc."--on the cover, students create collages that depict who they are, so the notebooks are very much personalized.

The portfolio is a college-printed folder (in need of revision, but that's a whole other blog post)in which the students place their midterm essays and their final essays. Even with rough drafts, the heft is not as weighty as the notebook.

2. I teach writing in a computer lab. Why are my students even printing out papers? Why don't they hand me a disk at midterm and finals? Oh, let's not go there, at least, not yet. Most of my students can word process, email and IM. Most can surf the web (for automobiles, clothes and music). Still, some of them prefer to hand write their papers and others prefer to print out drafts and revise by hand.

3. But I said that I wasn't going to go there just yet.

4. Grammar. This semester I taught sentences and how to punctuate them, as well as concepts like person and voice and so forth. By the semester's end, many, but not all, of the class were talking about writing as grammar correction, and seemed to be flogging themselves for their lack of skill. All I wanted was for them to know the terminology and be able to use it--and I am not, not, not talking about teaching a comprehensive course in grammar, honest.

Generally, the students who were too keen on correction were also the students who were leaning on canned, formulaic writing. Of course.

If I ruled the world: no mechanics or grammar for a semester, then introduce it once the writers are confident enough in their voices so that they stop viewing writing and grammar instruction as correcting a flawed self.

5. Notebooks as graded documents. I've used them as a form of writing to be graded for several semesters, and while I am happy with the results, I am also aware that every semester I promise that I'll collect them and grade them at intervals. Fat chance. I collect them before midterm and find that after midterm, too much is going on that needs to be graded, and the notebooks become a memory.

I'm changing notebook-keeping to a two-week assignment which will be graded. Here's why I even require them: BW students are not always the most organized students to begin with, and notebook -keeping is one way to get them in the groove, so to speak, of being in college. The assigned notebook has certain constraints: copy down the class plans for the day (because the agenda may change from the monthly plans.); take notes on what goes on in class and include any inclass writing activity. I'm flexible in that I encourage students to use tape recorders or the computer if either system works better for them.

There's more to say about the prepilot-pilot, and I will, in future posts. I'm deriving a great deal from reading clc'sand Style's experiences and would value hearing from others who have or are using portfolios in any course.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

One Helpful Portfolio Cover

Hearing faint echoes of complaint in clc's posts about portfolios, I'm writing on evaluation at quarter or term's end — particularly so since in noting "meta-cognitive" work on writing, clc seems to be seconding something I've long assigned. For my final, two-part writing assignment encourages a few wider, deeper thoughts, thoughts meant to induce reflection on larger concepts. Students often find my assignment helpful. Yours might, too.

Part one is a regular, out-of-class essay assigned with a common title form. It aims to promote understanding of writing as an "art." To that end, I ask students to add two other, self-chosen concepts framing suggestive ideas like "Punctuation, Rhythm, and the Art of Writing," "Concepts, Connections, and the Art of Writing," or — as in Jason Johnson's fine title — "False Rules, Conventional English Teaching, and the Art of Writing." Here is Jason's lead:

For me high school English was a bore and the writing was always a very arduous process; never did the teachers let us students write what we wanted, how we wanted to write it. Rather than teaching us how to use our language effectively, my English teachers were always too busy setting up rules and guidelines to follow for our papers. Book reports and story summaries were about the extent of it, work that could be easily checked to its source to make sure the information was correct, leaving little attention on the writing itself. A quick check is performed for contractions, sentence fragments and other errors that should "never" be in a paper; once the papers were not-so-thoroughly checked, a grade was slapped on. Little did I know that college English would take my definition of writing and change it from a chore-like task into a truly liberal art.

Though Jason's a star, he's representative, surely able to reflect on what he's himself stressed. And so with my other students; they all have some good things to say. So I try to shape them in my assignment's next, second part — a final, reflective bluebook essay on a paragraph from their essays. Here's my common rubric, part of a larger exam:

Writing style is a matter partly of principle and partly of personality. It's the precise conjunction of the two that most often marks a good style. Pick a stylistic principle you think marks your own writing, illustrating it with a paragraph from "_________, __________, and the Art of Writing," explaining how your own personality and that principle intersect, and trying then to reflect on what their conjunction means. In reading your essays, I'll be looking for signs that you can shape ideas, offer illustrations, and develop implications. Strive for clarity, coherence, concision, and completeness. Develop several, fully-formed, coherently-focused paragraphs, trying to analyze and evaluate your own good style.

Naturally, though not all students can rise to my assignment's full challenge, most in fact do, providing a useful check on final grades. That's the main purpose of portfolios, provided, as I think, students reflect on their own learning. I hope you might agree. My work tries, in any case, to frame at least one helpful portfolio cover.

Friday, December 17, 2004

I'd Like a Little Ketchup for My Crow, Please

Because, after all my bitching and moaning in the previous post, our portfolio exchanges were actually rather satisfying. I attribute this to the participants; the majority of the full-time faculty weren't there, and truth be told, those of us with full-time status are the contentious ones. The part-time faculty come to talk about teaching in a productive, non-politicized way and without the baggage and agendas that the full-timers carry. It's amazing how the tenor can change when part-timers outnumber full-timers in a meeting. They are a great bunch of people, and I appreciate their commitment to a job that asks way too much of them and gives back way too little.

Because I'm going to be serving as the writing program coordinator next semester, I floated out a few ideas at one of the exchanges (we had separate meetings for basic and freshman comp), including having our in-class essay be a meta-cognitive piece on the student's portfolio and writing process rather than the sort of classic academic essay it currently is. That idea seemed interesting to a few people. I would do away with the in-class piece entirely given my druthers, but many of the other teachers feel some demonstration of on-the-spot writing is necessary, so a meta-text related to the portfolio is something I could live with.

Now, I just have to finish reading and grading my own portfolios. And then there's that Christmas shopping thing. . .

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The Silly (Portfolio) Season

Yes, they're what's on everyone's mind, it seems. Certainly on mine. Between the huge pile on my living room floor and the arguments they caused yesterday at my department meeting, I can't get away from them. But yet, I still love them.

I hold to the belief that they are the best way to evaluate student writing even if, in my department's desire for something they can call "outcomes assessment" (and yes, I said "they" and not "we," since in this area, I feel very much apart), portfolios have become a different animal from what I always thought they should be. My department's portfolio does not require students to submit rough drafts and includes a mandatory in-class essay in response to a text which is written over two class periods. Every portfolio is read by another instructor, who assigns it an adisory grade of pass or not pass for basic composition and high pass, pass, low pass or not pass for composition. The instructor of record then decides upon the student's final grade.

Thus, portfolios are primarily a method for evaluation, not development and growth, which is how I always understood them. There is a page length requirement, an MLA documentation requirement, and the in-class essay requirement. The student does get to choose most of the pages which make up the bulk of the portfolio, but within those pages, he/she is supposed to be sure to demonstrate certain things: knowledge and control of thesis, essay structure, development and support, grammatical proficiency, integration of texts, etc.

When we sit down to read and evaluate each other's portfolios, certain problems always arise. Because we cannot agree amongst ourselves about such things, we argue about whether a strong voice trumps grammatical errors, whether a weak in-class essay is balanced out by strong revised essays, whether missing MLA documentation really matters in an otherwise brilliant and obviously unplagiarized portfolio. These could be fruitful discussions, but they haven't been. Instead, people have often just dug in their heels. The upside is that in the end the outside reader's evaluation is only advisory, but some department members have even questioned whether that should be changed and the other reader's assessment should be binding (at which point I fantasize about being Lucy Lui in Kill Bill Vol. 1 and jumping on the table with a very sharp sword).

It's an imperfect process, and one which for me, frankly, violates many of my beliefs about portfolios in particular and the effective teaching of writing in general. I understand how portfolios became the humane answer to institutionally or state-required assessment (See Elbow and Belanoff in Kathleen Blake Yancey's Situating Portfolios, for example), but there is a very real danger in destroying everything wonderful about them in the process. I wonder, in fact, if our attempts to kill the assessment bird and the teaching bird with this one stone have been wise, and if portfolios would be better used as the teaching tool they were created to be and assessment were left to other methods.

Monday, December 13, 2004

The Portfolio Rubric --a Draft

This is what I've come up with for my BW students. I wanted to include some very un-portfolio issues like following instructions while addressing the writing component. I've been guided by the idea of what I want BW students to leave BW with, like stronger writing skills, of course, but also a better sense of being a college student, which is reflected in their writing. I'm going to use the Strong/Adequate/Poor levels that our freshman comp portfolio rubric uses.

Here's the draft--would love feedback.

I. Format:

A. Student has followed instructions for formatting the portfolio, using a white MC folder, tab dividers and word processed papers.
B. Portfolio contains an introductory paragraph, an in-class essay, an out- of -class multi-paragraph essay, and a revised piece of writing of the student's choice.

II. Content:

The portfolio demonstrates the writer's ability to develop and organize a piece of writing in either a timed or untimed environment, using a thesis or main idea and supporting the idea with well-developed paragraphs. All essays are organized with a clear beginning, middle and end.

III. Audience:

The essays reflect the writer’s ability to understand and respond to an assignment.and to respond appropriately to the given audience


All of the essays demonstrate that the student has developed a writing process.
The untimed pieces show the student's willingness to rework a draft of writing until it is solid.

V. Grammar and Usage: The writing shows that the student has control over sentence boundaries, verb usage, spelling and punctuation.

Based on the contents of this portfolio, the student is writing at an__________ level.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

A College's Own Blog

Our Center for Teaching and Learning has created a blog for MC instructors. It's worth a look.

CAN a Person Exist on an Adjunct's Salary?

Last week, Mike asked if I thought that he could find work and survive as an adjunct at our school, and taken in by a greedy desire to urge him to apply for a full-time position here, I glided past his question and launched into the glories of fulltime work.

My bad. Mea culpa. Sorry.

I'd like to ask any adjuncts who read this blog to respond. Is there anyone, anywhere, able to survive on an adjunct's paycheck, at least long enough to finish a dissertation?

My guess has been there isn't, unless the adjunct is married to a working spouse, has a trust fund or a rainy day fund tucked away, and health insurance. Otherwise, the adjunct becomes a "Beltway Gypsy," who teaches at several institutions to make ends meet and has no time for anything except grading papers and refueling the car.

Adjuncts, what's it like?

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Anybody gone multi-modal?

Hi all,

After attending a presentation by Cindy Selfe at NCTE in Indianpolis, I've been toying with adding multiple modes to my comp. classes.

I made a first, and pretty weak, attempt to encourage my students to share information they had learned while working on a researched argumenative paper. They could use whatever format they wanted, including singing, dancing, and a variety of wiz-bang computer assisted modes. Half my class (very rural, mix of techinical expertise) developed powerpoint presentations, and several incorporated web connections in their ppt. presentations. Now, I did no direct instruction with these modes, and I'm pretty impressed with what they already knew in other formats for writing. They were sophisticated in their use of images, parrallel format for lists, all sorts of specific language /media use that I didn't help them with one bit.

Clearly, I'm not tapping into knowledge at least half my students bring with them to class. I'm encouraged by their enthusiasm, and I'm also keenly aware that the other half of the class may or may not have some of these same skills.

Anybody playing with similar ideas?

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Job Openings

At Montgomery College in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Why is There No Friday Cat Blogging on This Site?

Well, since the focus here is on teaching English at the cc, it's hard to justify a photo of one's personal pet. "Show me a cat who attends school, and I'll put it on this here blog," I always have said, knowing that the chances of that were slim. But then I remembered this story, and all bets were off.

The Portfolio Project at the Semester's End

Here's what I've been learning this semester as the prepilot-pilot of Basic Writing Portfolio-ing. I need to develop a rubric that speaks to the needs of my first-level students and which is written in the language of first-level college students--neither patronizing nor over their heads. I need to stop giving them so many paper assignments due near the very end of the semester--can't have them turning drafts in and needing them back immediately for their portfolios. We have two full class sessions allocated to their portfolios, and I wish that I'd scheduled a week.
I don't know if I can claim that their writing has improved due to portfolios or to simply making it through the first semester and growing up a bit, which I've seen happen before in many other non-portfolio classes.

Since their portfolio will contain one in-class essay (and we've only done one, so there's no choice there), one essay based on writing about a book (that gives them two essays to choose from), and a journal entry that they choose to develop, the students will have some say in the matter. One of my biggest fears about using portfolios is that they will become so institutionalized that they will practically become rote documents, with very little student choice in them. Thus, they become larger versions of formulaic essays.

However, underlying all of this fussing is the hard-earned knowledge that I am a perfectionist, and that I wanted the semester to go so smoothly that it would become a legend. That kind of insecurity only goes so far in the classroom and in life, and I am reminded of two other gems of self-knowledge: I tend to carry on much more than is necessary, so things really aren't that bad; and that chaos inevitably leads to wisdom, even if chaos has to drag me by the ankles to wisdom's front porch.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Taking a Break

During these last few weeks of the semester, it's a good thing to take a break from the crush of people and papers that surround us. Join me here.