The Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC) has just finished a series of leadership certification events and focus group meetings signaling the end of the first year of teaching the new edition of the course and the end of the second year of the i3 grant. The first year of the grant was spent revising the curriculum and the professional learning program, the second year was spent teaching the revised course throughout the state, and the third year will be spent analyzing the data gathered by WestEd. Will there be a fourth year of the grant? Will we apply for a validation grant to follow up on what we learned in the development phase? Much depends on what we find in the analysis of the current data.
These events allowed for reflection on the past year and a lot of interaction between module writers and teachers. In this post I would like to address some of the issues that came up in these sessions.
The new modules contain more activities, more articles, and more writing assignments than the first edition. Although the course now requires teaching 8-10 modules instead of 12, teachers still had trouble fitting everything in. Our plan was that teachers would use formative assessments, included in the teacher versions of the modules at appropriate places, to make decisions about what students needed and what they did not. In practice, we found that some teachers were teaching from the student versions without consulting the teacher versions, so they did not use the assessments. Instead, they tended to select the more familiar types of activities rather than being guided by assessments. We could provide more guidance on what activities are the most important for teaching the module. We are also considering eliminating the student versions of the modules entirely in our printed materials to encourage teachers to rely more on the teacher versions. The student versions would continue to be available in the online community.
Students Often Don’t Read
Even with all of the scaffolding that the modules provide in the “Reading Rhetorically” sections, some teachers had trouble getting students to read the material, especially the novels. I think this is mainly a result of the changes wrought by technology on literacy practices. We read on screens and videos are always only a click away. There is evidence that even those of us who used to read print voraciously have less patience with long complex texts now that we are accustomed to reading in bits and pieces on iPads and other devices. (For more on this phenomenon, see “Our Cluttered Minds” in the New York Times.)
Students, of course, have developed high and low tech coping strategies. In “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction,” high school student Vishal spends hours and hours shooting and editing a music video, but does not read assigned novels. A teacher has her students take turns reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried aloud in class because she knows they did not read it at home. Spark notes, movie versions, and reading aloud in class are standard strategies for not reading the book. ERWC modules are specifically designed so that these sorts of alternatives to reading will not suffice, but it is very difficult to change what are now engrained habits.
ERWC teaches traditional literacy habits in the context of a new technological literacy. We found evidence that students and teachers routinely translated our traditional literacy practices into their own new literacy habits. What I am calling “new literacy practices” here involves translating or supplementing literature with videos, images, outlines, PowerPoints, alternative texts, hyperlinks, group reading practices, audio texts, and other practices that often rely on web-based audiovisual technology. These practices are designed to enhance or facilitate an experience of the work, especially for students who struggle to read a full-length text.
SparkNotes, on the other hand, are designed for one purpose: to get through the assignment without having to read the book or think about the issues. SparkNotes is a distilled product of other people’s reading and thinking, while ERWC is designed to help student use the text to think and to write. (SparkNotes now has video versions, so students do not even have to read the SparkNotes!)
The fact is, however, that there is usually much more in a serious novel than videos, PowerPoints, and other alternatives can convey. Something is always lost or left out. So how do we get student practitioners of the new literacy to engage with print novels? How do we combine the best of both literacy practices? I think we are still working on it.
Aristotle versus Toulmin
Another issue that keeps coming up is the distinction made in early Common Core materials between argument and persuasion, a distinction that is sometimes made to look like a battle between Stephen Toulmin and Aristotle. I have posted on this distinction a couple of times already, and I plan to devote another post to Toulmin’s system compared to Aristotle’s. However, for now I would like to quote a textbook that Toulmin published in 1979 with two other authors, An Introduction to Reasoning. They say,
Reasoning involves dealing with claims with an eye to their contexts, to competing claims, and to the people who hold them. It calls for the critical evaluation of these ideas by shared standards; a readiness to modify claims in response to criticism; and a continuing critical scrutiny both of the claims provisionally accepted and of any new ones that may be put forward subsequently. A “reasoned” judgment is thus a judgment in defense of which adequate and appropriate reasons can be produced. (9)
Note that in this definition of reasoning we are not dealing with abstract, ideal, or universal truths because we are to consider context, which means that the reasoning is situated in a particular time and place. We are not dealing with facts, but with “reasons.” When evaluating claims, we are to consider the “people who hold them,” which brings in ethos and pathos. The claims are evaluated according to “shared standards,” which means that there is a social dimension to the criteria. In other words, both Aristotle and Toulmin are dealing with practical, real world, reasoning.
When we first designed ERWC, the rhetorical terms and concepts were based on Aristotle. At the time, few teachers taught rhetoric at all, and we didn’t want to overwhelm the teachers or the students with new concepts, even though one of the reviewers at UC suggested that we include Kenneth Burke, which I would have loved to do. In the second edition, concepts from Stephen Toulmin appear, but we do not invoke his whole system. In retrospect, it may have been time to include more.
The last big issue in our conversations was about grammar. The first semester modules now include integrated grammar activities, based on using grammatical concepts rhetorically in the context of the readings and other activities in the module. Traditional grammar instruction is usually found to be ineffective in improving writing, but grammatical terms and concepts are very useful for discussing style and in revising prose. In ERWC, grammar instruction is simply part of working with the words, sentences, and ideas of the module. It is not abstract or detached. It is integrated with the whole process. Still, many teachers skipped it, blaming lack of time. Other teachers admitted that they did not feel they had the expertise to successfully implement the lessons because this sort of grammatical instruction had never been a part of their backgrounds. We need to provide more guidance on this.
Overall Positive Responses
The frank and detailed discussions we had with teachers were very interesting and useful. We have a lot to think about. I should also note, in case this post makes it sound like ERWC is rife with problems and issues, that we received many, many positive comments and many thanks for the quality of the materials. It is a joy to work in the ERWC community.