Righting Writing: Stories from Developmental Writing

19 Jul

Karin Evans, Dr. Evans to her students, is a professor of English and long-time friend. She wrote today’s post, about teaching writing at the college level to students who don’t pass the placement exam for the college’s freshman-level English class. She’s doing such difficult and important work. Need persuading? Try to teach someone to write. Enjoy!

I teach writing at a two-year college with open enrollment, where many students are placed in “developmental” classes to help them catch up to college level in reading, writing, and and/or math. When I tell people what I teach, they often ask me why students who have graduated high school need to take these extra classes. Here are four stories about why.

Matt, who writes like he talks. Matt sits in the back, in the corner, a skinny young guy in a baseball cap. Matt is having a hard time reconciling his own style with how I want him to write his essay. Matt writes extremely casual prose. He writes “alot,” a lot. He never bothers to capitalize the pronoun I. In his concluding paragraph, he uses the phrase “i mean yeah” to create emphasis in the middle of an important run-on sentence. The niceties of Standard English are completely absent from his work. However, he clearly understands the assignment, and the ideas in his draft are completely relevant – it’s a diamond in the rough.

At the end of the semester, Matt does not pass the exit exam. I am not surprised. I meet with him and we discuss some options, decide that he will take a one-credit class to keep working on his writing style before he tries the placement exam again. I pray that he will meet a creative and flexible instructor for that one-credit class, and that he will have courses in other subjects with manageable writing assignments. Matt’s understanding of what college will ask of him is growing – I hope he can catch on fast enough, that his good attitude and intelligence will be enough to carry him through.

Jonie, who doesn’t have 100% to give. Jonie is pretty, nicely dressed, and quiet. She is often absent, and often does not submit homework. When she attends, she does well in class – but she does not progress as well as she should be able to. She is elusive; she does not seek help or respond to my comments on her work. After failing the exit exam, she comes to her scheduled conference.

Sitting in my private office, Jonie confides that she was in a serious car accident the previous year and experiences back pain and neurological problems, including uncontrollable facial and body tics. She has frequent medical appointments. These conditions cause her a great deal of stress, and some days she is simply unable to make herself come to school. Compounding these more unusual problems, she does not have good study habits, struggles to manage her school assignments and deadlines. Jonie tells me candidly that she does not feel she has earned her way into English 1101; she believes she would benefit from repeating the developmental class. I am both impressed and relieved that she has drawn this conclusion for herself. But will she persist, and enroll in the class again? Then will she find the support and motivation she needs to do better the second time?

Jeremy, a little older and wiser. Jeremy has been a forklift driver, a security guard, a warehouse shift supervisor. Now about 30, he is a husband and a father. His wife has more education – I have a hunch that she latched onto him because she could see how smart he is, how engaged and determined. Jeremy is opinionated and verbose in class discussion. Somehow I am able to help him channel and structure all his ideas and energy in his writing. In one semester, his writing transforms from halting and underdeveloped paragraphs to fairly articulate and detailed essays.

Jeremy passes the exit exam, as he deserves. The following semester, he stops by to let me know how his English 1101 class is going and to show me a picture of his new daughter. Last week, he emailed me to ask about the required textbook for my online English 1102 class – he’s enrolled.

Austen, who is really ready to learn. Like many developmental students, Austen attempts the placement test more than once before giving in and enrolling in the course. She writes in an early assignment that she has never done well in English and figures that she’ll be better off if she takes the class. Austen is a teacher’s dream come true – she follows instructions, works really hard on her assignments, takes feedback well, and sets an excellent example for other students.

Nervous about the placement test, Austen asks me what will happen if she fails. I say we’ll drive off that bridge when we come to it – but I know I am already committed to walking her through an appeal process if it comes to that. Sometimes really good students freeze under pressure. I tell her that as long as she remembers to take her confidence with her, she’ll do fine – and she does.

You might be asking, did Austen really need that extra class? Maybe, maybe not – but according to her own self-report, she was glad to have the chance to build her confidence before taking English 1101. I’m not worried about whether she will pass English 1101 now, and I hope she’s not either.

Why do we offer developmental education for students like these in the college setting – why don’t the high schools finish the job? High school is for children, who are subject to their parents and the state. Developmental education belongs in the college setting because the students are adults, and college is where we educate adults. Adults choose and prioritize their own goals, and they figure out how to reach them, or they figure out how to change them. Frequently, people who did not sense any real purpose for their high school education, or whose experience was compromised by abuse, poverty, mental illness, or any number of frightening factors, find themselves ready, in some ways, to approach college. They may be socially and emotionally mature enough, and they may be perfectly intelligent, but their academic skills may be lacking.

There is no format in the high school setting where adult students can be served. However, colleges – especially community colleges – are well suited to meet the transitional needs of adult students. Our developmental classes are tied into the college curriculum; most faculty also teach college-level courses. Our classrooms are college classrooms. For many students, we offer an essential bridge to the path that leads to a significant goal – a nursing degree, a program in video game development, a certificate in construction management, transferring to a four-year university to study computer science. When we invest in these students, we invest in ourselves. We educate citizens and professionals who will make a difference in the lives of many. In the long run, these are the best investments we can make.

6 Responses to “Righting Writing: Stories from Developmental Writing”

  1. Mary Rayis July 19, 2012 at 11:49 am #

    What a positive, affirming teacher! Our society could use many more of you. Teaching writing is very difficult. My hat is off to you for helping adults move in the direction of their dreams.

  2. philosophermouseofthehedge July 19, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    Community colleges are filling a critical need. Many high school do not let students write once a week – with immediate feedback and suggestions to improve. Gotta get those test scores…and some teachers don’t really want to strain their eyes doing all that reading – as a result, the struggling students – or those who haven’t kicked into school just don’t get enough practice. Reading is important – but writing is a life skill also. Nice post

  3. The Writer's Codex August 10, 2012 at 9:23 pm #

    I really enjoyed this post, thanks for putting it out there and I can see, from your friend’s descriptions of these various students, why what she does is so important.

    • jmlindy422 August 10, 2012 at 10:16 pm #

      She’s a great teacher and a great friend. We’re helping each other with book projects. She wants me to write about my life in bipolar land. I’m not sure I want to do a memoir-ish book.

      • The Writer's Codex August 10, 2012 at 11:14 pm #

        I don’t know much about bi-polar, other than it must be kind of hard…not that life is ever easy. But my brother may be undiagnosed so the disorder has always intrigued me. I’m sure you could find a way to write about it and not make it memoir-ish. You probably have a lot of material to work with, though I know it would probably also hit close to home. Either way, keep writing I think you’ve got some good stuff in you no matter what you write.

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