By Nicky Hutchins
As a parent, college student, peer tutor, and future college professor, I want to address and solve an important learning issue. Within the late twentieth century, there has been an increase on the emphasis placed on elementary, middle, and high school educators and administrators to spend more time preparing their students for the yearly standardized exams and less time forming and building their students’ reading and language arts skills. This paradigm shift in the early years of a college student’s learning techniques and development has made me increasingly concerned that today’s youth can make it all the way to college and still struggle to read and write at the level needed to successfully apply critical thoughts to complex texts. I would like to address this problem by focusing on enhancing students’ methods of thinking, learning, and writing with the use of literature.
In addition to attending classes a few days a week, many college students are also managing other full-time roles and responsibilities. In order to succeed in college and in their professional fields, and even to enhance social images for personal and professional networking, all students need to be able to express their thoughts and feelings in a critical manner. They should also be able to write effectively to communicate their thoughts most clearly to their intended readers. According to the updated NCTE position on education issues, “Often, in school, students write only to prove that they did something they were asked to do, in order to get credit for it. Or, students are taught a single type of writing and are led to believe this type will suffice in all situations” (1). Texting, audio devices that can read to us, and YouTube and internet learning have changed the formal methods that children and adults use to read and write. School trips to the neighborhood library to hear the librarian read the newest children’s book of adventures aloud or to help grade school students obtain their first library cards are no longer a common occurrence. Now that the focus in elementary school is to prepare students for end-of-the-year core exams, storytelling time in kindergarten is reduced or obsolete.
When I was an elementary student, penmanship and developing my cursive handwriting and weekly reading comprehension quizzes were all part of my grammar school education, as well as curriculum requirements. Also, as part of our writing practices, teachers across the nation would exchange letters written by their students with other teachers in other states, creating a culturally and popular educational tool called pen pals. The ability to read closely and to write clearly about what you have read has practical values in addition to educational values. These skills can help a student succeed in their other courses and beyond. As Rebecca Moore Howard, Amy Rupiper, and Kurt Schick state in their article "Collaborative Pedagogy" (2000), “Scholars recommend the pedagogy of collaborative learning and writing not only because of its epistemological felicities but also because it offers students practice in common forms of workplace writing […]. For scientists too, collaborative writing is a familiar method […]. Even preachers engage in collaborative writing” (57).
As a way to restructure upper-level students’ reading and writing skills and in response to a 1997 resolution from the Board of Trustees, CUNY created the CUNY Proficiency Exam (CPE). It required all students who were either completing their associate degree programs or beginning their junior level college programs to take and successfully pass an exam that tested their writing and reading skills for proof that they were above college-entry level. CPE peer workshops and freshman and level two English literature classes helped students prepare for the exam and provided learning opportunities for students to build up their close reading and writing skills toward graduate-degree levels. In 2010, amid complaints that the costs of administering the CPE were more than it was worth, CUNY discontinued the exam. Though many students might have sighed with relief that this "ritual of passage," as we called it in my community of peer tutors, was no longer part of their academic program, its absence did not help get students up to par with their reading comprehension and writing skills.
Neither digital technology nor the discontinuation of the CPE exams and tutor sessions are entirely to blame for the lack of close readings skills that many college students exhibit. Even if we take into account the factor that many students also work full-time jobs, are full-time parents, and may not have full support at home for their higher educational goals, the problem could possibly lie in the lack of close engagement between professors and classmates in writing and reading classes. Because many incoming college students are required to take timed reading, writing, and math placement exams, the habit of doing hasty reading becomes an automatic procedure that they also use in their required course assignments. Assigning students reading material and asking them to write about what they read, as some freshman or remedial English class professors tend to do, is not an effective teaching method. As educators, we should change the practice of using basic assignments to simply pass students. Instead, we need to create lessons and assignments that will be more student-centered and engaging so that the writing and close reading skills they learn and develop in our classes and that emphasize their critical and creative thinking will become embedded and characteristic as they move forth in higher education and in professional development.
During my studies as an undergraduate, I was required to read, annotate, and participate in thoughtful discussions in three separate courses using three collections of readings: Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers, Philosophy: An Introduction Through Literature, and Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. Each book contained a diverse selection of literary works that integrated both classic and contemporary literature with discussions of current events and social interests that engaged students. As students, we were required to read and thoughtfully respond to the assigned readings via discussion board posts or write two page essays prior to the following week’s class. We would then submit our responses to our classmates and professors for review and in the next class, discuss our writings. By having to annotate reading passages, we were encouraged – even forced – to closely read the assigned material, especially since we knew that our responses were going to be reviewed and shared among our peers and not just submitted to the professor for grading. My experiences as an undergraduate student in the various English literature classes I took, and as a CPE peer tutor receiving feedback from my fellow students, were often more effective than the feedback from just the professor.
As college students, we tend to use the habits we acquired in elementary school in our writing. However, from experience I believe that once we reach the college level, we should be learning to write for our scholarly and professional peers. Many of the scholarly articles that we are required to read and use for our research papers are written by professionals in their fields primarily for their peers in similar fields to review and discuss. Therefore, based on what worked for me in college, my main instructional method for college students would be assigning short readings from an anthology of literature, requiring weekly reading responses to assigned questions to be completed at home, and mandating participation in classroom discussions. These combined activities would help students understand that their learning process is not just teacher-based but also student-centered, and that it is vital for their academic and professional success. My goal as an instructor would be to start training my students to write less to impress me as a professor and more to communicate ideas effectively to their peers in and out of the classroom settings.
For the remainder of this chapter, I would like to propose some specific and practical ways that faculty can use literature and peer reviews to help students develop their critical reading and writing skills. To begin this process, as I suggested above, I would have students read two to three assigned readings each week and write a one to two page response or reaction to what they have read. I believe that weekly assignments like this would assist with one of my goals, which is to get my students to adjust their writing behaviors from trying to impress their professors toward writing creatively and critically for their scholarly peers. I would also have each student email a fellow classmate their written response for a peer critique and annotated review. Each student would then receive their paper back from their peer with comments and then they would use the critiques for revision prior to the in-class discussions on the readings.
Since this might be the first time that many of my students are doing these types of peer writing exercises, I believe it would be best to have them first exchange papers with a couple of their classmates via email rather than using other types of collaborative writing forums, such as blogging and discussion posts on virtual blackboards which can be viewed by many. I want to create a safe place for my students to build their confidence. I also want to provide them with opportunities to learn how to accept and give peer-level critiques and annotations, and at the same time, assist with their developments out of their comfort zones of writing only to complete an assignment for grading by their teachers. According to Thomas Newkirk in "Direction and Misdirection in Peer Response" (1984), “When students are urged to consider their classmates as the audience for which they are writing for, then instead of writing to impress their teacher in order to earn a grade, the students’ writing styles and content will be more effective and appropriate for their audience of peers” (301).
The goal of peer review exercise is that students learn from each other how to critique, find overlooked grammatical errors, and build trusting relationships with their peers, while preparing and revising short papers during the beginning and middle of the semester. By the time the final and longer papers are due, the class as a whole will be better prepared and their thoughtful and critical reading and writing skills will be more developed than they were at the beginning of the semester. One of the many goals of using literary analysis and peer reviews of written assignments as open discussions in class together is to provide students with safe and comfortable opportunities to voluntarily read aloud their revised and corrected papers and to listen openly to feedback from fellow classmates. Another goal of this type of learning setting is to allow all students’ voices to be heard on various topics and subjects of personal and professional interests. A final important goal of this type of student-centered learning exercise is to encourage the quieter students who tend to shy away from in-class discussions to engage with their classmates more openly.
Literature can spark students’ curiosity to do further research on a particular topic. Making reading and writing assignments more engaging for college students will make learning feel less like they are being required to develop a skill that should have been developed before they graduated from high school. It will also build their willingness and enthusiasm to complete their assignments effectively and in a timely manner. In their anthology for readers and writers, In Making Literature Matter, editors John Schilb and John Clifford state that “examining literature is best seen as a process during which you gradually construct, test, revise, and refine your sense of a text. We think literature is most worth reading when it does challenge your current understanding of the world, pressing you to expand your knowledge and review your beliefs” (13). I believe that by assigning and using literature as a tool for writing exercises, it not only forces and encourages the student to read more closely to understand the points the author wants the audience to get, but it also provides many opportunities and discussion topics for the student to exchange insights with their classmates and teacher.
Traditionally, issues such as family relations, justice, love, and current events were the basis of the topics that students would read and write about for class. According to Schilb and Clifford, over the last couple of centuries, literary studies has turned to several new concerns, such as:
- Traits that significantly shape human identity, including gender, race, ethnic background, social class, sexual orientation, cultural background, nationality, and historical context
- Representations of groups, including stereotypes of others,
- Divisions, conflicts and multiple forces within the self
- Politics and ideology, including the various forms that power and authority can take; acts of domination, oppression, , exclusion, and appropriation, and acts of subversion, resistance and parody.
- Economic and technological developments, as well as their effects.
- Values---ethical, aesthetic, religious, professional and institutional.
- Desire and pleasure
- The body
- The unconscious
- Relations between ‘high’ culture and ‘low’ (that is, mass or popular) culture
- Relations between what’s supposedly normal and what’s supposedly abnormal
- Distinctions between what’s universal and what’s historically or culturally specific
- Boundaries, including the processes through which these are created, preserved, and challenged (39).
My first in-class lesson will be a combination of a few of the above listed literary topics with an introductory writing assignment that would allow the students to open up and meet the people they would be learning with for the next few months. Since this is an exercise I have done as a student in a few of my classes, I am sure this would be familiar to many readers However, I will also add a bit of a twist in the type of questions I will have my students answer and share. After distributing a set of index cards, I will give students three minutes to list as many descriptive terms as applicable as they answer the following questions: “Who am I now?” and “Who will I become in the next three years?” Depending on the size of the class, I will have them break up into groups of three or four and introduce themselves to their group members for three to five minutes. Afterward, each student will introduce their fellow group members to the class. I will also fill out a card and share my answers with the class. From my perspective as a student, when the professor shared a bit of themselves, it made the class setting and tone feel less structured and more open-minded for learning, and made the professor seem more personable and engaging; therefore, as professor, I would like to establish this type of atmosphere for my students in the beginning of the semester.
This writing exercise will also prepare the students for the first set of assigned readings, which are based on at least six of the new literary concerns listed above. The first two readings, which come from Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, are James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” and Edward Hoagland’s “The Threshold and the Jolt of Pain.” In his essay, Baldwin shares his account of growing up as a young black man in Harlem, and the effect it had on his writing career along with the impact of his relationship with his father. Hoagland’s essay also is an account of his relationship with his father, and the impact it had on his desire to be a writer. However, Hoagland’s childhood , challenges as a young white man obviously differ greatly from Baldwin’s.
This writing assignment will have two parts. First, students must compose a one to two page essay in which they compare and contrast the two authors’ points of view with respect to their relationships with their family and their race and class standings within their society, as well as the impact this has on their identities. Students will use the following set of questions as a guideline:
- What is the main point, message, or theme of this essay?
- Summarize at least three key points, specific details, or examples used in the essays that convey the author’s general message to the reader.
- What is your response to the main point? (Be specific in referencing passages, sentences or words as support.)
- Why do you think these two readings support the discussion we had in class today about our identities? How?
- What new information have you gained from this reading?
Since this will be the first set of assigned readings, in order to prepare for their future peer review critique assignments, students will first submit their essays to me, via email, by the deadline I set. They also must bring in their essays typed and prepared for a ten to fifteen minute peer review session by their classmates in the following week’s class. Students will also have opportunities to read their corrected essays out loud and discuss their reactions and thoughts about the readings with their classmates in the time remaining for this session. This type of assignments as well as the in-class discussion sessions will encourage and engage the students to start learning how to do a closer reading of literature in order to pick out the key concepts needed for writing a thoughtful and reflective essay.
These two autobiographical essays written by male authors will reiterate the theme of our first few class meetings: how the essays we will be reading, in the words of Maurianne Adams in Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, “places social identity in the broader context of identity development more generally and describes the ways in which one's identity develops through the interaction between a person’s internal sense of who one is (based upon one’s social groupings) and the views of oneself and one's group that are reflected back by others in the broader society” (7). All of the assigned readings will cover such a broad spectrum of social, historical, personal, and philosophical issues that each student should be able to find something to connect to and that will perhaps lead to their desire of wanting to do more research.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines literature as “familiarity with letters or books; knowledge acquired from reading or studying books, especially the principal classical texts associated with humane learning; and is also now a branch of study.” The image of a typical college student has changed since the OED was first published. However, what is still current is that by the time a student has entered college, they will have acquired and experienced at least a few life lessons. Digital technology and various forms of media offer people of all ages and from all over the world easy accessibility to information on various subjects. Today’s college student can vary from a young adult who is entering straight out of four years of high school to an adult who is in their mid to late sixties and may have a wider background of educational, job, and life experiences. By the time an incoming college student has begun their higher education career, they have likely already been exposed to a wide variety of topics.
Literature comes in many forms and genres, such as poetry, fiction, autobiography, and essays, just to name a few. It also covers an abundance of interests, points of views, topics, genres, and insights, from philosophical to political to religious to social. Having my students write, critique, annotate, and discuss assigned readings among their peers will provide them with opportunities to reflect on what they have read and teach them how to develop and critically apply their learning to issues that matter and that affect them personally and professionally.
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