My Resistance to Transfer Theory

Ok, of all of our topics, I had the hardest time writing this blog post. I’m trying to figure out why that is. Perhaps it is because transfer is such an important topic (the elephant in the room, really), but is also boring to me. We wish it just happened—we want to believe it does just happen naturally. To face that it does not is so disappointing.

As I was reading Yancy, Robertson, and Taczak’s Writing Across Contexts, I could definitely see why the Teaching for Transfer (TFT) class was more effective at helping students transfer their writing knowledge to new experiences, but maybe I just felt disappointed that this was the case. In chapter 1, I was rooting for the expressivist composition class or the cultural studies class to win (5), even though I guess based on the set-up of the book, I knew they wouldn’t. Is it moments like these that I must confront the fact that I’m really more of a humanities instructor than a composition instructor? (Indeed, my degree is in humanities, not even English.) I’m worried that’s perhaps the case. I do not deny the importance of transfer from one context to another, but I think this is where I have to be honest about what I think is most important to transfer. Am I most interested in students transferring writing skills; or critical thinking skills, cultural awareness, sensitivity to power structures, etc.? In terms of where my interests lie, I know the answer is the latter. But should I then be admitting I shouldn’t really be teaching composition?

In “Rocky Roads to Transfer,” Salomon and Perkins talk about the low road of culture transfer: “women’s expectations for lesser social roles, absorbed from years of gender-specific socialization, are often automatically transferred even to new situations” (121). It is this automatic transfer of assumptions about the world that I want my students to confront in my class, and then, using high-road transfer, I want them to get in the habit of continually confronting assumptions. (As I write this I know it: I sound like a philosophy professor.)

I think part of my concern about the TFT class is this: while the course is focusing so much energy on reflection, is there enough time to introduce and analyze interesting content, engaging students’ curiosity and getting them hooked enough into a topic that they really have something they want to say about it?

My concerns about the boringness of focusing on just the process, while divorcing it from the content, is something I grappled with a lot while teaching reading in the traditional skills-based way. As I was reading Salomon and Perkins, I was thinking about the difference between language immersion (or “whole language” at the lower level) pedagogies versus skills-based (“phonics” at the lower levels) pedagogies. The language immersion/whole language approach seems to be utilizing a low road approach: expose students to many varied texts over a long period of time, and enmesh the students in a literacy community (see Frank Smith’s Joining the Literacy Club), and they will develop literacy skills that allow them to navigate a wide array of texts. The skills-based/phonics approach seems to be looking for a high-road shortcut, but I’m not sure it works. It seems to me that what reading or writing textbooks that break down texts into generalizable units (like “main ideas” and “details”; or modes like “process essay”) are attempting this high-road transfer, but fail because the “instructor or text serves up ‘ready-made’ abstractions [which] typically offers but a single path” (127). These textbooks and lesson plans were designed with the best of intentions: save some time and remediate students by revealing the generalizable structures of texts right out of the gate, but the problem is that students need to confront varied texts and then distill the patterns (with scaffolding and teacher support) and then discern the generalizable patterns for themselves. Then be mindful of these, and then try to apply them in new settings: “active learning wherein people achieve abstractions by themselves, although not necessarily producing better learning outcomes, facilitates farther transfer than so-called passive reception” (Soloman and Perkins 126). Read: students who learn this way will not necessarily do better on tomorow’s standardized exam, but they will be able to transfer their skills. (What? We don’t test far-reaching transfer? So there’s no motivation to teach for far-reaching transfer? Hmm… fascinating…

The stupidity of our standard testing culture aside, all is not lost. I do think there is a middle ground. As I write the above, there’s a lot in what I wrote that I think is probably very similar to the TFT model of having students create their own theory of writing… so maybe I’m not so against it after all. I was still rooting for the expressivist and cultural studies class… but I realize now why I LOVE teaching integrated reading and writing: it provides the space and time to do both. It allows us to use a double class period to explore a theme along with dissecting writing and reading—letting students get exposure to a variety of texts, and then use these texts to build their own reading and writing theories. This allows for the best of both worlds.

I guess my question becomes, in situations where we are not able to have the double period to explore both thematic content (and the critical thinking that it takes to interrogate that content) along with helping students develop theories of writing, where is the compromise?

A second, somewhat unrelated question is this: if we teach students to focus on writing itself, divorced from authentic communication acts, are we encouraging the kind of inauthenticity we rail against when students focus on structure (I *will* have three points so I can write a five paragraph essay!) rather than on authentically conveying ideas? That is, is there actually a danger in focusing too much on the medium (writing) rather than the message?


Epistemic Games and the Composition Classroom

I loved this week of getting to select from the readings, and what a great list of choices! I’m hoping to get to go back and read more than what I have so far. My first and biggest take-away from reading these articles was how important it is for educators to continue to engage in articles like this throughout their career, and to be continually in conversation with other educators about education research. That large take-away aside, I’ll focus my post on the Shaffer and Gee article and a discussion of gamification.

The Shaffer and Gee article really resonated with me. I think the authors do a great job summarizing concerns educators may have about both liberal and conservative education movements. They describe liberal movements as too student directed, and failing to reveal the “rules of the game” (9); thus, liberal education movements might advantage students who learn the rules of the “game” of success by virtue of their family’s socio-economic status (I’m thinking right now of a Montesori-based school a friend of mine teaches for; this assessment resonates exactly with her assessment). On the other hand, conservative education movements are too “standards” and testing driven, and don’t allow for creative problem solving; thus, they don’t ultimately lead to transfer of knowledge or innovation (9). I found both the problem, as they describe it, and the answer they propose – epistemic games – to be extremely compelling and my biggest question is, why it hasn’t caught on more?

I remember the days of Oregon Trail, a computer game we used to play at school—originally released in 1971—that taught us about the migration of settlers to the West Coast. If that dates all the way back to 1971, why aren’t there many more games like that now? (I’m interested to hear if others have played Oregon Train and what other similar games people have played in school.)

The principles of these games are so sound: having students engage with solving realistic problems and act as experts in a particular field, thus entering the community of those experts. This idea of the importance of entering the “community” of experts reminded me a lot of Frank Smith’s Joining the Literacy Club (1987) where he argues for the importance of literacy education highlighting students’ entry into a community of readers and writers. The idea of having students engage in challenging problems, what some teachers call “wicked” problems, reminds me a lot of what Ken Bain discusses in What the Best College Teachers Do (2004). (This is just two of the many authors whose work in ed theory explain why epistemic games have such excellent potential.)

Ok, so what might this look like in the composition classroom, and what do these games have to learn from composition pedagogy?

Last year, I had the opportunity to audit a course taught by a friend using Reacting to the Past games, which are intricately-designed multi-week role playing games where students are assigned roles that allow them to recreate historical events, though perhaps with new outcomes, depending on how the game goes. (If you’re interested in learning more, see the link above or this Inside Higher Ed article.) These games, I think, provide an excellent bridge between Shaffer and Gee’s idea of epistemic games and the composition classroom. The games invite students to read a variety of print text primary sources and then respond as their character, both through persuasive speeches and through writing.

Though I saw great potential for the games, my experience with them was that they fell short to some extent because I think that there was not enough composition (and general communication) pedagogy interwoven into the class: what better setting could there be to discuss audience and purpose? I also thought that the impact of the game would have been greatly increased by adding a reflective essay where students synthesized their experience and wrote about what it was like to speak and write as a historical figure. Without this reflection piece, I think it was difficult for students to synthesize their learning and figure out how they might transfer it to new contexts. Thus, I think the framework and structure created by Reacting to the Past could be greatly strengthened by the addition of techniques drawn from rhetoric, reflection, and transfer pedagogies. I think a course designed around Reacting to the Past games linked to a composition/research course could provide the perfect balance of composition studies and problem-solving application. I look forward to exploring this possibility with my colleague – perhaps one day we will teach these as linked classes!

“Stepping Stone” versus “Stepping Stool”: When does a language variation help or hinder meaning, and who gets to decide?

“We call for a new paradigm: a translingual approach. This approach sees difference in language not as a barrier to overcome or as a problem to manage, but as a resource for producing meaning in writing, speaking, reading, and listening,” write Horner, Lu, and Royster in “Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach” (303).

Overall, the translingual approach resonates with me on a philosophical level, and in fact, I realize that it may be the natural secondary pedagogy represented in my teaching materials project—the class dictionary project. In the above quote, I love Horner, Lu and Royster’s focus on the production of meaning, as well as the fact that they put equal emphasis on the writer/speaker as they do on the reader/listener.

That said, there was something also about the readings for this week that I found a bit unsettling and I’m working on further defining for myself what that is. Perhaps it is just the concern that the translingual approach, though I find it theoretically exciting and empowering, seems to become next to impossible to apply in the classroom, especially with regards to the issue of assessment. In theory, I love the idea that “the possibility of writer error is reserved as an interpretation of last resort” (Horner, Lu, and Royster 304), but what does this really look like in practice? For *expert* writers who are making particular linguistic choices, I love this idea. (In fact, I would love to see academic articles written in a larger variety of registers and Englishes.) But as teachers, can we really assume that a student has made a choice rather than an error? Without the idea of a standard, how can we know the difference in order to identify appropriate teachable moments?

The few examples used by Horner, Lu and Royster felt quite unsatisfying. Should we consider “stepping stool” and “spills out” to be as effective at communicating (with a general audience) as “stepping stone” and “spells out” (310)? Considering the first example, the change from “stepping stool” to “stepping stone” makes a lot of sense to me. In this change, the meaning is intact. And indeed referring to a stepping stool feels more modern and relevant in today’s urban context than a stepping stone (after all, how many of my students have stepped on a “stepping stone” or even seen one? How many readers have?). Yet, I can’t say the same for the difference between “spills out” and “spells out,” which I think for most readers would have very different meanings. Of course I am making an assumption right here that is based on my linguistic community; I’m aware of this assumption, but I think that gets us into the heart of the argument – don’t I as a teacher and as a more experienced writer have more of a sense of how things will “land” with a reader than my students, who are novice writers? Certainly we want to teach them to think carefully about their particular audiences for each writing/speech act, but don’t we have a responsibility to also help prepare them to write for a general audience? And aren’t we more equipped than them to know the expectations of that general audience?

Certainly many expressions are “dead” in the sense that they have virtually no connection to what they originally denoted. For these, perhaps modification – especially if they are modifications to something that makes more sense (like “stepping stone” to “stepping stool”) are to be celebrated as language innovations. Yet many changes I think are more likely to lead to confusion, and assuming our students are not in need of instruction may deny them from a valuable learning opportunity. For example, I want to consider another expression that I often see written/spoken in two different ways. I have heard many people say “flushed out” when I would use “fleshed out.” This language variation strikes me as quite similar to the second example above. If we are using the expected meanings of the words, to “flush” something out would seem to mean the reverse of to “flesh” something out – the first appearing to mean “to get rid of,” and the second appearing to mean “to expand upon and further develop.” The expression “fleshed out” makes sense to me because I remember taking a drawing class where we would first complete a figure sketch and then “flesh it out” by making it into a more fully developed drawing: literally add flesh to the sketch/skeleton. Because I knew where the term came from, the expression was not mysterious and made perfect sense. At what point, then, is it my job as a teacher to teach my students where expressions came from and how they came to mean what they mean to many reader/listeners today rather than assume that a modification in an expression, which may result in confusion on the part of the listener, is not an error?

Perhaps in a perfect world, an instructor would get to have an extended conversation with each student about each linguistic choice made to determine if it was intentional or an error and to help them work through how it might be interpreted by an audience, but this is not always feasible. If students know their audience very well—certainly if it’s an audience they know better than me—I would definitely want to defer to their choice. But I think in most cases, our job as instructors is to know an audience’s expectations more than our students. (Is not the point of most communications classes to help students communicate effectively with a broader audience than their immediate linguistic community?) Overall, I think that Horner, Lu, and Royster are on to something really good; a deeper discussion of more writer/speaker examples may have helped “flesh out” what this would look like in the day-to-day decision-making process of offering students feedback and assessing student writing.



Draft of Teaching Materials and Rationale

The following is the first draft of my teaching materials. At this point, I am just starting to define the final assignment, though within the assignment, I begin to outline intermediary assignments my students will complete.

What you will make

You and your class will be creating a dictionary of American language in 2016. We will create this dictionary collectively, with each student contributing two entries into the dictionary. Then, each group will be assigned a specific job in order to compile the finished product and get it ready for printing. These group jobs will include curating (selecting the final words that will go into the dictionary) or quality control, organization, editing, formatting, writing the introduction, and designing the cover. Our dictionary will be printed, and each student will get a copy of the dictionary.

What you will learn

This project is an opportunity to:

  • Identify and emulate the specific “moves” that exist in dictionary entries, as a genre
  • Explain the meanings of words and use examples to illustrate how a specific word is used in different contexts
  • Interview someone from a different linguistic community than your own
  • Work with your class to identify criteria for rhetorical and stylistic choices and use these criteria to arrive at decisions collectively
  • Work with a team to complete a portion of a large project, and together create a finished, publishable product

You will also get an opportunity to observe how language is used in a variety of contexts, and by a variety of different speakers. In doing so, you will develop an understanding of the complexity of American English in 2016. We will use this project as a way to further explore larger class themes such as the connection between language and diversity, and language and identity.

One of the choices for the final essay for this class will invite you to draw upon your learning in this assignment by asking: what is Standard English, and is it important for the United States to have a “standard” version of English? Why or why not?

Steps along the way to creating our class dictionary:

The final dictionary will result from the culmination of an ongoing study of language over the first half of the semester. This study of language will include the following intermediary assignments.

Language Comparison Study

First, you will be studying how language is used in a variety of contexts to start to develop a sense of how speakers change their language based on a number of different factors. We will explore this through the language comparison assignment, for which you will keep a language journal and observe and record how language is used in at least two different contexts. This will culminate in our first brief essay of the semester where you compare and contrast these two uses of language. This will help us to start to understand and identify different registers of language and to link language use to elements like audience, purpose, context, and speaker.

Class Activity: Dictionary as Genre

As a class, we will perform a genre analysis of different dictionaries, looking for elements that all dictionaries tend to include, and those that only some dictionaries include. As a class, we will determine which features we want to be sure to include in all of our dictionary entries.

First Dictionary Entry: A Word from Your Linguistic Community

Next, you will select a word that you use regularly that is not part of Standard English. You will complete your first dictionary entry by defining this word in Standard English and providing several examples of how the word is used in its appropriate context. You will make sure that your dictionary entry includes all of the elements that we, as a class, decided we would include in our dictionary entries.

Second Dictionary Entry: A Word from a Different Linguistic Community

Once you have completed one entry based on a word you know well, you are now ready for the next challenge! You must find and define a word from a linguistic community other than your own. In order to do this, you will engage in a mini ethnographic study. You will identify the speaker you would like to work with and ask to interview them. You may either fist select the speaker and then work with the speaker to select the right word to use for your entry, or you may first select the word you want to explore and then find a speaker who regularly uses that word. As a class, we will generate a list of interview questions to ask your speaker. After your interview, you will complete your dictionary entry, including information about the linguistic community that most frequently uses this word.

Creating the dictionary

Once we have all of our entries (two contributions per person), you will then be broken up into groups based on your interests. Your group will have a specific job as we design the dictionary and get it ready to go to printing. The jobs include the following:

                Curating/Quality Control Experts:

As a class, we will decide: do all of the entries make it into the dictionary, or will we use a set of selection criteria to decide which ones make it into the dictionary? We will either design the selection criteria or the quality expectations as a class. Your group’s job will then be to either decide which entries meet the selection criteria or, if we are going to include all of them, make sure each entry meets the specifications we decided upon as a class. You will write letters to each student in your class letting them know about any revisions that need to be made before their entry or entries can be selected.

                Organization/Arrangement Experts:

Once the final list of entries has been determined, your group will figure out what order is best for our dictionary. How should the words be organized to tell the most interesting story about American Language in 2016. Dictionaries tend to be alphabetical, but anthologies tend to be grouped around themes. Your group will present two options for how we could organize the dictionary. With each option, you will provide a rationale and the pros and cons of that option. The class will then vote, or if your group advocates for one option, we might be persuaded to select the option you think is best.

Formatting Experts:

Your group will take everyone’s individual documents and will compile them into one document. You will determine the appropriate fonts, headings, and margins. You will share your draft with the class and get feedback from the other students, who may make requests that you change certain elements of the format.

Editing Experts:

Your group’s job is to make sure that a final comb-through is done of each entry and that all entries adhere to the grammar and punctuation guidelines of Standard English (except inside direct quotes). You are welcome to utilize outside resources to ensure that your editing job is professionally completed. This can include professor office hours, use of the Writing Lab or use of other resources.

Introduction Writers:

Your job is to write a 2-4 page introduction for our dictionary, explaining the project we undertook, and the outcome. In your introduction, you will explain the organization of the dictionary and why we decided to organize it as we did. You will also offer an overview and brief discussion about the variety of linguistic communities represented in the book.

Cover Designers:

Your job is to design the cover that best represents our dictionary. You will present two different possible cover designs to the class. Each cover design will be accompanied by a brief written explanation that discusses all of the artistic choices made in the cover and why they were made. The class will then vote on the cover they prefer, or ask you to make modifications and present us with a third option. If you would like the cover printed in color, you will need to offer a rationale that justifies the price difference between printing in color and printing in black and white.

Back Cover Designers:

You will study the back covers of other books and decide what you would like to include on the back of our dictionary. This may include: a summary of the dictionary and an explanation of the intended audience for the dictionary. It may also include quotes from others who have read the dictionary. You will decide! You will present your back cover and explain the choices you made to the class. You will then revise your back cover based on the feedback of the class.

Reflective Essay

Once we have completed our dictionary and it has been published, you will write an essay reflecting on your experience. Your essay may address your thoughts, frustrations, and challenges along the way; your experience working with your teammates; your assessment of the final product; and a discussion of what you learned from completing this project.

Brief Rationale

I am designing this assignment for Integrated Communications 100, a developmental level reading and writing course taught at Harold Washington College. One of the themes of the course asks students to explore the relationship between language and identity.

Through the above assignment, I am drawing on critical pedagogy by asking students to use their expertise to contribute to a collective project. I am also drawing on genre studies by including a genre analysis assignment. Last, I’m drawing a bit on ethnography studies by asking them to include an interview and dictionary entry based on a word from a linguistic community other than their own.

Genre as “Family Resemblance”

When I taught Introduction to Literature last year, exploring the concept of “genre” became a very big theme of the class. I think at first it was because I wanted to ensure that my syllabus included a broad variety of genres since it was an introduction to all literature, or literature in general (as opposed to fiction or essay). From that first focus on genre in constructing a syllabus that included sufficient variety of texts though, I started to become fascinated with what it meant for a text to be “of a certain genre.” I realized that the more I tried to define a genre, the slipperier the concept became. Through the course of the semester, my class and I did a lot of puzzling through the differences and similarities of genres and even modalities. We explored “boundary cases,” asking where literature ends and visual art begins (or if we should even use such boundaries) by looking at blackout poetry, and mind maps. Through all this, I was grasping on my own and with my students for a clearer understanding of genre. So, it was heartening when, for this week, we read about genre and I found that many of my questions (how do we define genres? Why don’t they seem static? What really is the difference between a genre and a subgenre?) were not just lack of knowledge on my part, but rather, pointed to a real slipperiness in the concept of genre that engages theorists today.

I think that this very slipperiness can also be seen as a kind of versatility in the concept of genre, and in fact the concept of genre thus loses some of its usefulness if we try to create static classification systems. Our minds, being apt at recognizing patterns, understand (grok?) genre differences in a fundamental way even when attempts to strictly define these genres are problematic. I would argue that texts of the same genre are thus recognized by our brain because of what Wittgenstein calls “family resemblance.” Our brain is in fact so good at detecting family resemblance and creating fluid but still useful sets of texts that we can also understand intuitively when a text is engaging in genre-bending or genre-breaking, even before we have identifiable reasons for knowing this.

What I’m less sure about is what this means for teaching writing. I completely agree with Devitt that “if each writing problem were to require a completely new assessment of how to respond, writing would be slowed considerably” (576). Thus, we want to help students recognize and utilize how new communication situations resemble past communication situations they have already encountered. I think my fundamental question then becomes this: how can we teach students to see and utilize this family resemblance between certain texts or communication situations without essentializing genres and thus divorcing form and function?



Glacial Change and the Structure of Academia

The readings for this week came at a really interesting and fortuitous time, not only because I’ve been thinking about many related issues in WRD 507 (Global Englishes), but also because I’ve been having very related conversations with administrators and colleagues recently. (I actually stopped my reading of the New London Group article [1996] to photo a few paragraphs and send them to an administrator to say “See? This is what I’ve been talking about.”) But the largest thing that struck me in completing this week’s reading was how *little* has changed in how (my college at least) teaches composition, despite the work of the New London Group twenty years ago. It’s unbelievable to me that that article was written the year I graduated from high school; from where I stand, it feels like it could have been written this year….and yet as I read it, I vaguely felt like I had read it before, possibly ten years ago. Yet has it impacted how I teach? No! And why is this?


The glacial change in literacy instruction is underscored by Selfe (2007), who quotes not only the New London Group’s 1996 article in her introduction, but also her own earlier work as well as other scholars, who were all echoing the need for the discipline to progress (2001-2004). And yet, I read this in 2016 and in my limited sphere, I see little that has changed even another nine years after the publication of Mutlimodal Composition (Selfe, 2007).


This causes me to reflect on my own choices – or resistance to making new ones – and how the structure of academia may account for this lack of progress. As I write this, I think of one very basic, seemingly inconsequential example of my resistance to change. The last several versions of Microsoft Word no longer default to Times New Roman, yet I stubbornly make my students switch their papers back to Times New Roman, cursing Microsoft for switching to this “ugly” new font and debating resetting my own computer’s default back to Times. But why might Microsoft have made the switch? Senior Program Manager at Microsoft, Joe Friend, answered in 2013 article in Forbes as follows: There were two reasons for the switch. First, “to support digital consumption the new fonts were created to improve screen readability.” Second, “at the time, Office was looking to modernize the look and feel of documents [which] hadn’t changed substantially since the early 90s…” Yup. I wanted my students’ papers to look the same way mine did when I was in college.


Again, this is just one small example of my own personal stubbornness to accept the changing times (no pun intended). But (1) why is it that academics are often so resistant to change? And (2) to what extent might this resistance to change have brought academia to a breaking point? I don’t have time to fully answer these questions here, nor do I have fully formed answers, but here are some preliminary thoughts.


In regard to (1), I think the institution of tenure is a factor. The very stability of departmental faculty and the fact that often the very faculty members with the most power have not had to be on the job market in so long means that they are either unaware or unsympathetic to the changes in how people communicate in the current economy. (For example, at my college, our department’s assessment coordinator, who remains firmly committed to a hand-written five paragraph essay exit exam, has been teaching at our college since before I was born.) Next, I think the idea of academics feeling like gatekeepers of the language and needing to ‘uphold standards,’ which often translates as upholding “formalized, monolingual, monocultural, and rule governed forms of language” (New London Group, p. 1) is a factor, as is a fear – or at least deep ambivalence – about the “market forces” and “corporate culture” (p. 6) that academics see as encroaching on the educational arena at all levels. (For a fascinating discussion of this, see, “Marketization of Education: An Ethical Dilemma,” which expresses the fear that colleges have become highly commercialized arenas that “serve to prepare the student to become a participant in the consumer culture and no longer strive to encourage student’s reflection and critical thinking” [Natale & Doran, 2011, p. 188].) I think many faculty who share the fears expressed by Natale and Doran may also argue that extended written (monomodal) texts are the purest way for students to develop their critical thinking skills (e.g., without distraction of other modalities) – pure thought. I have heard philosophy professors (even young ones!) say as much.


In short, I think the response of many academics has been to try to hold back the tides of change, whether through sheer stubbornness, a fear of themselves being deemed outdated, or a genuine sense of duty to protecting higher education from the (potentially) corrupting influences of market forces or the (potentially) less rigorous (than the sustained long monomodal essay) forms of thought expression.


Regardless of the reason, I do think that we – those of us who have been slow to heed the prescient message of the New London Group (or comparable messages in other fields, such as mathematics education)  – have allowed higher education to get to a breaking point whereby a disconnect between how today’s students need to be educated for today’s economy (and indeed an economy that may from here forward always demand a kind of unprecedented flexibility on the part of the worker) and how we are still educating them is now creating a state of incredible (and very contentious) change.

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.