Mindset, Model and Practice: Learning from Community College Struggling Writers What They Need
Date: May 21, 2018
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Mindset, Model, Practice:

Learning from Community College Student Writers What They need

I have always felt that the most engaging work I do in the classroom is when I am teaching students to write well. Good teachers of writing know that writing is hard. Even great writers opine about the challenges of re-drafting, the psychic energy and anxiety of finding the right words. We would do well to imagine how the act of written expression feels for students with limited fluency.

In the earlier part of my career, dedicated mostly to more affluent, motivated and verbally enriched students, I attended scores of workshops, conferences, and seminars on reading and writing. It was a heady time. Theories of Deconstruction and Semiotics, as well as more pedagogy about revision and brainstorming in student-centered classrooms, thickened the atmosphere.

But experience combined with age boil the great stew of learning down to its essence. All those inspiring ingredients, which nourished my younger teaching self, have left me with three basic words that arise like a mantra: Mindset, Model, and Practice.

Mindset, Model and Practice: after all that knowledge, is it really that simple?

Twice a week, I teach a second level required writing course to a classroom of Community College students. They enter the course with trepidation. These students, a mix of two-year and four year degree matriculants, present me with a striking range of skill, from writers who could manage selective four year college papers to those whose can barely string phrases together to make a coherent sentence. For me, this work is a litmus test of sorts. All the abstract theories pale before the necessity of individualizing attention, but what always informs the practice returns to those three simple words.

If you are wondering why I have bothered to publish such an obvious finding, then you right to suspect that nothing is simple in practice. The corollary point is that these elements as a basis of writing instruction are (often) not practiced intentionally or in any balanced way.

Mindset. By now, the theory is well known. But in writing instruction, this means convincing students that anyone, barring those with specific kinds of disabilities requiring specialized expertise, can learn to write competently at least. How many of us have heard students tell us they can’t write? If we are to get trepidatious and unskilled writers, most of whom have gotten clobbered in primary or secondary school or, worse, passed along, to believe in the value of perseverance, they have to see their writing improve and find a specific key that turns the lock. The access to the room may be very different for each student: hearing one’s writing aloud, peer partnerships, content that is personally meaningful…The door may open in the last three weeks of a course while it opens for some right away. But a student’s belief that she can exercise this tool of visible thinking has to be cultivated without false praise, without provoking embarrassment, and by providing proof that everyone has something important to say.

Model. As in any other apprenticeship, writers have to see and hear captivating examples of what they are asked to do. We’ve gotten better at this backward design principle, but here’s the catch: giving students professional models of some gleaming, city-on-a-hill exemplar can be intimidating for weaker writers (though galvanizing for strong ones). But working intentionally with demonstrations of student models can break ground. We can do this with writing anonymously gleaned from former classes, but use of current assignment writing with permission from the writer and even incentive can change the game. We are too squeamish about this strategy, too hung up on the potential of fostering a competitive tone or inadvertent self-consciousness even when we’ve solicited permission for a demo. I find most of my students benefit most when they are working collectively with a sample written by a peer that falls short despite some innate solidity—the B/B- paper. They are kind and focused. They are discovering the difference between good and great and by extension, poor and good. They are working the rigging of a clear set of benchmarks (without which this activity will become a vague and subjective exercise, stuck in the doldrums). Then that student, our guinea pig, gets to rewrite with a collective commentary.

Practice. Painfully obvious, but in most schools, neglected. In response to a Lynne Nottage’s play SWEAT, I had my students do a timed, 25 minute write every other class, ungraded. The prompts need to be clear and the responses invite a wide range of argument. Out of 26 students, almost all got stronger in their use of evidence and clarity of language just from having to practice this skill, akin to practicing piano, or a tennis stroke. This is what some schools call “low stakes” writing, which means that the writing counts less as a grade and is done alongside larger, unfolding projects of higher worth, with the result that one feeds into the other. The tradition of the one or two draft paper due every three weeks—expecting the garden to flourish without weeding and watering in the intervening days— should have ended long ago. But my survey of students coming out of public and charter schools shows that this is far from the case. Shorter writing is often tagged solely to “right answer” questions on a sample testing passage or it isn’t done at all. In other words, all writing is “high stakes” because mere practice is too inefficient and work-intensive for overburdened teachers. In addition to which our schools have many teachers who do not write well themselves, and in fact do not like to write.

And there is another factor here worth mulling over. Many of us leaned to write by reading, particularly if we grew up in language-enriched families. The cadences of great writers sat in our inner ear, a wellspring for us as writers, the way the sounds of hip hop feed a current interest in spoken word poetry. Except for more elite students, fewer students read longer and difficult works, particularly true in my classes where, when asked what the last book read besides a textbook, anime, or news feed was, only four students could remember a title. If reading is also a form of modeling, how do we make sure in every writing course to keep the organic connection between literature and writing, even when the course is not literature-centered?

Part of practice is the tuning up, repairing of language.  The surgical value of reviewing the grammar has been greeted with relief by some of my students.  Change the word to syntax if you will, but the opportunity for students to deconstruct and dissect sentences, to manipulate syntax collectively from anonymously excerpted sentences from their own papers is not only more critical than ever but…. fun. Counterintuitive?  The problem solving dimension of this task, like an engineering problem, can be compelling precisely because students buy into its pragmatism: those are my sentences, my patterns of muddled syntax, and I can get ahold of this! The more evolved take control at first, and the rest dive in. Spend twenty minutes on one rambling, modifier and punctuation challenged sentence and the mindset begins to shift. If a generation does not hear cadences because they do not read as much, and because they were also educated by a generation brought up on Whole Language reading (a double whammy), then make the music of language visible. Practice comes in different forms—doing, revising, breaking down and reconstructing.

So yes—the mantra itself is simple, at least to this seasoned teacher of writing., and perhaps simplistic to others. You travel far enough, and circle back, wiser, to first principles. In the end, it becomes the planning, timing, and cultivation of trust—the usual challenges of all good teaching— that make this harder than it seems. The pedagogical strategies, however, are hiding in plain sight.

Peter Herzberg

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