Teaching remedial writing

Jack Miller sees a “wide” but not a “rich” diversity in his remedial writing students at a Minnesota community college.  Though they come from different backgrounds,  most “have little understanding of grammar . . . and see it as a set of arbitrary ‘rules’ concocted by sadistic pedants harboring grudges against the young.”

Punctuation is an equally baffling and dangerous area.  There exists little understanding of it as a set of signals that facilitate the reader’s comprehension.  “The author talk’s about the problem’s found in the goverment, he also asks the goverment to do what they say?” 

His students don’t know how to research a topic, quote a source or credit that source. They are uncertain about what constitutes plagiarism.  

. . .  finally there is the oft-noted paucity of a body of shared knowledge, thereby inhibiting what assumptions a writer can make about a reader.  More than ever before, students live in an intellectual world of their own, a personal world where every individual’s baseline is likely to be different from that of most others and coincides with few. 

That’s “coupled with extremely spotty historical knowledge.”  

About 20 percent don’t know how to behave in a classroom, he writes.

They don’t know when or how to take notes.  They perennially miss due dates, drift in late, drift out during the break not to return.  They sabotage themselves and then seem to expect forgiveness and accommodation from their professors.  Someone showing up one day after having been missing for five or six weeks, only vaguely recognized by the professor, will assume that a way can and will be found to bring him up to speed and on track with the rest of the class.  Is all this the result of repeatedly being forgiven in the past?  I think so. 

While some older students are anxious, most students are overconfident, despite their placement in a remedial class. They blame their problems on causes outside their control, encouraged by the college’s support system.

About one third of students who take English are required to take the remedial course, Miller writes. 

Via Carpe Diem.

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  1. Margo/Mom says:

    I know that I’m an odd duck–but I would love to teach that class. I have, in fact, done a stint with a similar population, in GED preparation. In that case, I had no control over the curriculum (which was a series of workbooks) and the class set-up was based on rolling enrollment and individual work.

    I have observed–in printed signage, etc–a grasping for rules of grammer, a means of using punctuation in ways that meets the writers need. I have even glimpsed a counter set of rule–seemingly developed by the excluded. In this alternate world, quotation marks are used for emphasis. “NO” Parking! Apostrophes for possession (or otherwise) are totally befuddling and placed arbitrarily.

    Writing–and communication in general–are highly enjoyable activities. Some poor folks have been left out. Building the knowledge and skills to get a point across, or to be understood is such an incredibly satisfying persuit–if one can get enough of the experience to actually feel the satisfaction.

    Regarding the discipline to attend class–well, I have encountered that everywhere–including a private art college that I attended once that was not easy to get into, nor inexpensive. As a “non-traditional” (meaning “old”) student, I counted as an advantage that I already had that one licked.

    BTW–In my graduate program, there are still basic writing courses available–as well as students who seem to have need of them.

  2. A lot of the problems found in K-12 schools are trickling into the collegiate level. Teachers and administrators, strapped to push test scores and pass rates, allow students to make up all kinds of work in the eleventh hour of a marking period. I’m guilty of it myself. An idea that pervades many classrooms is that if a student shows understanding at any point in a given marking then they should be awarded points for it. That unfortunately leads to college students and adults who do not understand what a due date is.

    The flip side is that if I did not allow make-up work in my classroom, at least sixty percent of my students would fail and I would be canned for a low pass rate/students’ unwillingness to complete things on time (which brings down the school’s progress report score, potentially leading to the school closing- another way to lose a job). Standardized exams- the pillar of assessing schools’ progress- do not account for laziness, they only test whether a student knows it or not. The incentive for teachers then is in making sure they know the information on the test, regardless of when the students learn it.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Quoth Nick James:

    “The flip side is that if I did not allow make-up work in my classroom, at least sixty percent of my students would fail and I would be canned for a low pass rate/students’ unwillingness to complete things on time.”

    So your excuse for harming your students by refusing to enforce standards that you recognize are valuable is that you are just following orders?

    KNOWING that you’re guilty of something doesn’t make it doing it any better. It makes it worse.

    Bear down a little. Have students turn in an assignment at the beginning of class on Day 3, and refuse to accept papers from people who show up 10 minutes late. Make a big display of it.

    You might be surprised how quickly your students adapt. They’ll hate you, and your evaluations will suffer a little on average, and your standard deviations will skyrocket, but you’ll be doing your job. And…. some of them will really love you for it.

    And if you get canned… there are always other jobs.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    You might want to be a bit less certain wrt yr last sentence.

  5. I like the job I have now, tyvm. Changing jobs is stressful, usually-unpaid hassle – and that’s when it’s a GOOD change.

  6. Why are these people in college? Is community college now just another year of high school? I know that over half of in-coming freshmen in the Cal State system need remedial math and English, but I didn’t realize that other states had this problem as well.

  7. Michael-
    You are right in some regard. I have dropped the ball on that aspect of instruction. The solution is not quite as easy as you make it out to be, either, working in a system where these issues are deeply rooted in the student psyche- spanning back eight, nine and ten years by the time they get to me. If I were to act that way with everything I view as wrong or misguided in education, I’d have to leave the field altogether. If possible I’d rather not do that. Low teacher retention is also a gigantic problem in this field, and my leaving certainly won’t help that one out.

    Good point. I’m an nontenured second-year teacher working in a city with a hiring freeze. Jobs don’t grow on trees, in spite of Bloomberg’s million tree initiative.

  8. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    This just reinforces what Diane Ravitch and others having been writing about for years…too many students go to college. Bring back comprehensive vocational ed. in high school and allow students who are simply not academically-inclined to learn a trade. There is nothing inherently more noble about being a doctor, lawyer or sociologist (LOL) than being a plumber, electrician or mechanic.

  9. tim-10-ber says:

    Regardless of where the students are in the horrible system when they come to a teacher’s classroom the failure of government schools for the students need to be stopped at that point. The kids have been a horrible disservice by the adults and some adult with a backbone needs to stand up and do the right thing for the kids. I am sorry other teachers with no back bone continue to pass the kids but please stop giving grades for effort, if you give make up work grade it correctly and do not pass kids because you worry about your job safety.

    I do not believe the failing government schools will ever improve until the teachers take the bull by the horns and stop the nonsense. Are their any teachers willing for once to do what is right for the kids? Jeez…the future of the country does not look good at all due to the horrible failure of spineless teachers and government schools. Teachers you must do better for our children and for yourself if you ever want to be viewed as a professional.

    I continue to know I did the right thing by pulling my kids from government schools the more I read teacher comments like those of Nick’s. Teachers need to be held accountable…especially when they continue to pull stunts like this.

    If the kid needs remediation in kindergarten please hold them back then or as soon as the need is identified. Give them the resources and time they need to master grade level and beyond and then promote them. Give them the resources they need to stay on grade level…please!

  10. Oh, Extended Time, How I do Love Thee!

    BTW, that’s an IEP accomodation with the force of federal law behind it. About 25% of my kids come with it. Doesn’t matter how strict I am about deadlines, bunches of my kids don’t have to pay attention to them and it has nothing to do with me. Want to not turn in work? Get an ADHD diagnoses.

    But yes, it is all our fault that Jimmy and Jamel stayed up all night with their buds and slept in and didn’t go to class. Because we all know THAT’S a new problem.

    Remember all you NCLB supporters — you have what you want. Tell us we can’t leave them behind, fail them, or not graduate them, and this is what you get — students who expect to be accomodated because we have to do it — by rule of federal law.

    If that work comes in a month late, but it means that Jimmy and Jamel know how to perform the task for the Standardized Test, then it is my job to get them to be able to perform for that Test. You all are very clear that my job is not the character education of your children (and really… an hour a day for 180 days… what are the chances?), but their education. Failing a student without allowing him to make up the work is character ed, not academic ed.

  11. Hmmm, My grandparents recently passed away. Going through some of their personnal items, My sister and I found letters they had exchanged during WWII. They came from a farming community in Northern Minnesota. My grandmother graduated from the local high school; my grandfather left school at 16 to help on the family farm. Their letters, with so little education, were wonderfully well written, grammatically correct, beautiful handwritten.

    While I agree that more trade and vocational school should be an option, and even encouraged, for more students, there is no reasonable excuse for the number of college bound students that are unable to form complete sentences.

  12. Margo/Mom says:

    I wasn’t going to comment again, as so much of this grade for knowledge vs grade for behavior stuff is not new–I recall debating it in ed classes when I was in school back in the seventies. As a parent, I am not opposed to a report on my kids’ behavior (including their capacity for turning things in on time), but I really want the grade to tell me more about what they have actually learned about the content. It’s a bit silly to think that we should reteach biology if the kid learned the content but cannot manage to turn homework in. And if the testing required by NCLB has helped us to focus more heavily on the content, then I echo Martha Stewart in saying, “that’s a good thing.” Now–I recognize that the two things are inter-related–but when it comes down to it a grade, and passing to the next level, should be determined by content knowledge.

    LS–I am with you as regarding the “extra time for assignments” that seems to be the only accommodation that anyone can think of to put on an IEP. They stopped putting it on my son’s IEP, because I started asking where the extra time was going to come from–longer school days? Summer classes? (the assumption that home would provide an additional classroom opportunity?). In the end, it’s short hand for–we ain’t gonna do anything.

    But that leads into something that leaped out in tim’s comments about intervention–if a kid needs intervention in Kindergarten, hold them back. Why do we see grade repitition as intervention? I know a math specialist who refers to this as “if it didn’t work the first time–do it again,” or in the case of summer school, “if it didn’t work the first time, do it again, but faster.” If a kid needs intervention in kindergarten, we should be providing it–in the form of intensified teaching and/or services.

    BTW–I liked Michael’s approach, making a big deal the first time that papers are due, etc. It is possible (necessary, even) to teach classroom expectations in the same ways that we teach content–thoughtfully, evaluating successes and failures of the class as a whole and providing needed intervention. Personally I think that any teacher who saves up six weeks of unfinished papers and then sends them home for completion should be shot.

  13. “a grasping for rules of grammer” … “an incredibly satisfying persuit” …

    Sorry, but I don’t think you should be teaching that class.

  14. In a writing class, if students don’t turn in assignments, how is the teacher supposed to know if they’ve learned the content? And, doing OK on a final exam doesn’t tell me as much about whether the student “knows” the content as doing OK plus showing mastery on (well-chosen) homework assignments.

  15. Developing good character takes a lifetime.

    Developing good hyphen-usage takes a period or two.

    Schools can succeed at the latter; I’m not sure we should tackle the former.

  16. I would argue that being able to complete work on time – fulfilling your responsibilities in life – is part of good character.

    I teach college and I’ve seen an influx of students who seem not to understand the concept of due dates on things. It frustrates me because what I “hear,” right or wrong, when someone wants to hand something in late is, “My time is far more important than yours. You can just schedule the time to grade MY paper even though you already scheduled the time for, and graded everyone else’s a week ago.”

    There’s also the issue of papers being turned in late after the graded papers have been handed back. I argue that the students handing in late could gain unfair advantage, after having had a look at what their colleagues wrote.


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