Inviting Developmental Students into the Literacy Club


(Below, I have posted an assignment I completed for a course on writing instruction. The assignment asked me to explain my teaching philosophy and design and explain a writing course based on this philosophy. I ended up teaching the below class, “Critical Literacy,” for six semesters. I found that it led to some powerful learning experiences for my students. After those six semesters, I created a spin-off course for the 101 level with the theme “Education, Conflict, and Social Change.”)


A word after a word

after a word is power.

—Margaret Atwood, “Spelling”


Learning occurs only when we perceive ourselves to be members of the club.

—Frank Smith, Joining the Literacy Club


I remember two assignments, both from my seventh grade writing class, which taught me the incredible power of the written word. This was the year that I was required to write a complaint letter. I didn’t really have anyone to complain to, so I made up a story about how my father, who is allergic to sulfates, had an allergic reaction after eating some dried fruit from Harry and David’s. I then wrote an angry letter about how their packaging had not warned the consumer that the product contained sulfates. In my rush to get the assignment in, I failed to consider that the instructor had also required us to include an addressed and stamped envelope with our letter. Nor did I think about the assignment again until one afternoon, about two weeks later when I received a call for “Ms. Meresman.” The Harry and David’s representative who called was probably just as shocked to find that the author of the letter was a thirteen year old, as I was to get his call. He profusely apologized and I realized then that he was concerned that I may sue the company! This was the day I learned that language, and indeed formal, well formatted, grammatically correct language meant power.

In this same year, my class embarked on a thematic unit to study homelessness. Each student of the fifteen student class chose a different aspect of homelessness to study. After collecting and analyzing the relevant data on our subtopic, we worked as a class to devise a plan with concrete solutions to some of the problems we uncovered. After compiling each student’s sub-topic “chapter,” along with our joint action plan, we created a class book of over 100 pages, which was distributed to a number of policymakers, including our local state senator. We then met with some of these policymakers to present our proposal. Though I doubt any of our ideas became California state policy, I remember the sense of being heard by the experts in the field. This was the day that I learned that my ideas mattered.

It is these two fundamental lessons—that words and ideas have power—that I aim to teach my developmental writing students. My aim, then, is to design a class where my “basic” writing students will find power both through their written words and through the ideas those words express. By using thematic instruction, integrating my developmental reading and writing courses, organizing instruction around inquiry, and creating authentic  writing assignments, I hope to invite my students into the “literacy club” in the way that I was welcomed in at the age of thirteen.

Having taught both developmental writing and developmental reading as back-to-back courses with little overlap, I do not feel that the true power of the course pairing has been explored. Both the writing and reading courses lacked authentic connection to how writing and reading are used both in everyday life and in college level classes. Each course had its own text book replete with exercises and drills where even I had trouble justifying the one “correct” answer, perhaps partially due to the mind dulling effects of prolonged boredom. As Frank Smith points out in “Research Updates: Demonstrations, Engagements, and Sensitivity—A Revised Approach to Language Learning,” teachers are always demonstrating something; “enthusiasm demonstrates enthusiasm,” and clearly boredom demonstrates boredom (109).

I agree with Smith’s assessment in Joining the Literacy Club that these skills-based text books “get everything backwards” because they assume that “if you analyze in detail everything an expert can do and teach these things one at a time to a beginner, then the beginner will become an expert” (14). Not only do I find this approach to be counter productive, but it can also be dangerous by withholding higher order tasks (those top-tier Bloom’s verbs) from students who supposedly have not mastered lower order tasks. Rather, evaluating, analysis and synthesis should be taught alongside more basic skills like inference and determining the main idea, as certainly basic readers are ready to analyze and evaluate many texts at their independent reading level, though they may struggle to grasp the basic ideas in more difficult texts.

My hope is that by combining my developmental reading and writing course, replacing the reading text book with a variety of primary texts, and organizing the combined course around the theme of Critical Literacy, I will be able to develop my students’ critical thinking and reading skills, while discussing the transformative power of education and critical literacy. Because student retention is often low in basic skills classes, these classes are ideal settings in which to honestly discuss the benefits (and drawbacks) of higher education. Smith points out that it is often useful to directly discuss education in school. He urges instructors to “talk about the conflicts with students” (61). Such discussion allows them to enter the discourse (thus welcoming them into the “club”) while encouraging them both to be reflective about their own educational choices and perhaps even to use their experiences to brainstorm real solutions.

I also agree with Smith that the role of the educator is to “construct environments in which critical thinking [and authentic writing] can take place” (62). (This notion that the role of the educator is to carefully construct and foster “engagement in enterprises” anticipates Ken Bain’s findings in What the Best College Teachers Do.)  Thus, I plan to devise authentic writing assignments that allow my students’ writing to do something in the world, with the ultimate goal that my students will leave my class seeing reading and writing as powerful tools that allow them to effect change both in their own lives and in greater society. In the following paragraphs, I will describe the course I plan to teach, which will then allow me to further explain the philosophical underpinnings for the choices I have made.

The course is developed as an inquiry based course in that I have organized it around a number of guiding questions, but I will also count on my students to provide questions to further direct our study of literacy. The course will open with a discussion of literacy itself: what does it mean to be literate in the 21st century? Are there different forms of literacy? What might “critical literacy” be and how is it different than “functional literacy”? Do different communities have different forms of literacy? These questions will allow us to discuss the role of technology and visual literacy as well as analyzing the idea of cultural literacy. A discussion of cultural literacy can then segue into a discussion of different discourse communities, the idea of code-switching, and ultimately the importance of knowing how to address a particular audience. This line of inquiry will introduce our first whole-class writing assignment as we struggle to write a working definition of literacy, which will surely change throughout the semester.

Students will also be working on their own definition assignments as they work individually to define a word used in their discourse community that I, the instructor may not know. These definitions will then be put into a binder, beginning a class dictionary that we will add to throughout the term (and hopefully through subsequent semesters). By having students create a class dictionary, I hope to demonstrate to them the “slippery” nature of much of the vocabulary—especially slang—we use every day. The hope is that more than one student will come up with different definitions of common slang words, allowing us to discuss how the meaning of words changes based on the context, speaker and listener, as well as over time. This will then demonstrate the importance of knowing your audience as a writer and being able to translate between different forms of discourse.

Thematically, the course moves from these general discussions of literacy to discussing the transformative power of literacy education: does education transform you? How so? What can be lost when we become part of a new discourse community? Is it reasonable to see education as a threat? When might it be a threat? Our primary reading texts for this portion will be The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, written by himself, which will begin a discussion of genre and the purpose of different genres. Next, we will read A Lesson Before Dying by Earnist Gains. These two texts—an autobiographical non-fiction, and a novel(written in the first person)—will allow us to consider the purpose of the novel as a genre. What is Gains trying to express? Does he want the reading to think or feel something in particular? Does he ultimately want his readers to do something? In effect, can fiction make an argument through an extended illustration? Meanwhile in their own writing, students will spend this part of the semester writing their own literacy narratives.

In the second half of the semester, we will begin to discuss the role of literacy in society by first reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. We will also read excerpts from Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The guiding questions for this portion of the class will center around the political implications of literacy and education: is education ever dangerous? How could it be? Should books ever be banned? Can education lead to real societal change? If so, why does it tend to seem to maintain the status quo? I have a wonderful Oprah episode where she contrasts a school in Chicago to a school in the suburbs to illustrate educational inequity, and this will act as the introduction to compare/contrast essay writing in which they will compare or contrast their educational experience to that of someone in a different generation or from a different culture than themselves.

We will continue our discussion of education and society by reading Inherit the Wind. With this text, we will specifically ask: who has the power to set the curriculum, and what are the implications of having such a power? This unit will be supplemented with a number of critical articles about literacy and society as well as different text book chapters written for different audiences at different times (about controversial issues—perhaps the holocaust, slavery, etc.). The reading objective accompanying these readings will be to detect bias and become aware of how seemingly objective scientific language can mask inherent assumptions on the part of the author, or that the author wants to “slip by” the reader. By studying these text book chapters, we will analyze the generic choices the authors made in terms of how they address their audience and their subject-matter along with the effect for the reader. This will lead to our final writing unit on argumentation and persuasion. In keeping with our study of the Scope’s Trial, students will be asked to argue that a topic of their choice either definitively should or definitely should not be taught in school and why.

Separate from these thematic assignments, students will also create one piece of writing that has to do something in the world. That is, they have to come up with a problem in their life and attempt to solve the problem through writing. Examples could range from contesting a parking ticket through a formal letter, formally requesting that a landlord make necessary repairs, writing to a potential employer to apply for a job or writing to a friend or family member about a serious concern. Students must create the project, carry it out and then reflect upon its success, noting possible modification for the future to improve success. This piece of “active” writing will be included in their end-of-semester portfolio along with other revised writing, an example of their most effective pre-writing activity and a reflective letter.

As is hopefully evident from the above, I am working to create authentic, meaningful and interesting writing assignments that will hopefully bridge the gap between the non-situated exercises so commonly found in school and real-world writing. By creating interesting and engaging assignments, I hope to take the emphasis off grading,  as students will ideally be intrinsically motivated to revise assignments in which they feel invested and which have purpose outside the confines of the classroom. As stated in my syllabus, I plan to give students a rubric along with extensive comments on first drafts of the three take-home essays. Each of these will then be revised and resubmitted for a grade. The student will pick one of these three essays to include (possibly with further revision), along with other documents in their portfolio. Students will not generally be required to revise their in-class essays (unless they receive a check-minus), but may revise these outside of class if they choose to. They will, however, be asked to resubmit the in-class essays with mechanical errors fixed. At midterm, I give each of my students a red pen (I only mark in pencil), and tell them that it is now their turn to become their own editors (though they are welcome to get peer help, and will be given time in class to get peer help). I then point out their errors, but rely on them to fix as many as they can on their own.

In this way, most grammar instruction will be error based, though I will give “mini-workshops” on common errors as well as pointing out examples of where changes in grammar and punctuation hinder or alter meaning. (I do also offer some direct instruction in grammar at the beginning of the semester to allow students to familiarize themselves with the vocabulary they will need in order to discuss grammar with their peers.) Students will also take group quizzes where they work in small groups to fix problems taken from their own writing. The emphasis will be placed more on the dialogue and the ability to discuss grammatical choices more so than the final product. Also, I will encourage students to continue to think about grammar and how it affects meaning in texts both inside and outside of class. I will encourage them to bring in examples either of effective or problematic sentences they find. In this way, I hope to root our discussion of grammar in the real world and keep it tied to meaning and communication. I also hope to encourage my students to leave my class naturally engaging in metacognitive discussions about the formal (including generic) elements of language.

Although I am only asking students to effect change through writing in their own lives at this point, I see the assignments and content of this course as paving the way for future civic engagement (see Herzberg, “Service Learning and Public Discourse”). I have also tentatively included an optional service learning assignment in this syllabus. Although I do not plan to offer service learning to my students the first semester of teaching this course (in order to maintain my own sanity), the theme and content of the course lends itself very easily to a service learning project and I hope to offer this as an option in subsequent semesters.