ERWC Leadership Certification 2015: Opening Speech

The following speech was given at both Leadership Certification events, on June 16 in Sacramento and on June 19 in Los Angeles. I wanted to create an upbeat opening for the event, celebrate the positive findings of the i3 study, thank many people for their hard work, emphasize the concept of “transfer,” and introduce the new slogan, “text to text,” which I hoped would help teachers trace the arc of a module and get to the destination without getting bogged down in prereading and reading.

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Welcome to the 12th year of ERWC! It’s been a long, interesting trip and the past year has been especially exciting. We are in the third year of our i3 study and soon there will be an exhaustive report. Tony will talk about this more, but I have heard that we have robust, statistically significant evidence that ERWC increases college readiness. We suspected this all along, but it is nice to have our suspicions confirmed by a rigorous, quasi-experimental study.

ERWC has a history of being ahead of the curve. We also have staying power. We were doing Common Core before Common Core even existed. I have a feeling that ERWC will still exist in some form after Common Core has morphed into something else. A hot topic in the field of composition and rhetoric right now is “transfer.” Researchers are asking questions such as

Do the knowledge and skills learned in a writing course transfer to other courses and workplaces?

Is it possible to “teach for transfer”?

As you know from Nelson Graff’s most excellent article on the ERWC website, “Transfer and Engagement: From Theory to Enhanced Practice”

Four aspects of teaching make it more likely that students will transfer their learning:

  • Students have a command of the knowledge that is to be transferred.
  • Students have a theoretical understanding of the principles to be transferred.
  • The classroom culture cultivates a spirit of transfer.
  • Students get plenty of practice.

As you know, ERWC does all of that.

A study described in a recent book, Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak found that in many cases, students did not transfer knowledge and skills from their Freshman Composition course to other courses and tasks. Whether they did or not depended a lot on how the course was taught. Students in the “Teaching for Transfer” course were much more likely to use the skills taught later than students in an expressive writing course or a cultural studies course. Students in these latter types of courses were much more likely to fall back on what they learned in high school, especially if they got good grades in English in high school and considered themselves to be good writers.

That’s right. What you teach in high school is likely to persist for a long time. This can cause problems sometimes if students overgeneralize their knowledge and write five-paragraph essays when they are supposed to write lab reports, or feel that using first person or passive voice is a sin and a crime. But the skills and concepts you impart may still be serving the students you teach for their whole lives.

I recently taught a 300-level writing course for English majors called “Advanced Expository Writing.” I taught them many modes of rhetorical and stylistic analysis including stasis theory, tropes and figures, cumulative and period sentences, principles of organization such as BLUF (“Bottom Line Up Front”) and many other strategies. I reinforced these by going over what was in their “rhetorical toolkits” every other week. Still, when I asked them to freewrite about their “theory of writing” in the ninth week of the course, almost everything they included was something they learned in high school. High school English teachers have a powerful influence!

What ERWC can do is make that influence broader and more appropriately applicable to a wider range of discourses and situations. For concepts to transfer, the students need metalanguage to conjure up the concept. They need terms for what they are doing, and they need to remember them. Ethos, logos, and pathos are a good example. Easy to remember, powerful concepts, applicable to any rhetorical situation.

This is why we teach rhetoric. We spend a great deal of time teaching the essay, a genre that is pretty much a school genre. If we teach business letters, they have got another genre, but one that might be handled differently in different contexts. We can teach other genres, one by one. But if we teach rhetoric, we are teaching concepts that apply to any communicative context. The elements of the rhetorical situation–audience, purpose, available means of persuasion, the three appeals, kairos–are by definition metacognitive and portable. They transfer.

And of course in ERWC we use the same strategies over and over, so students know that they will use it again, and after many repetitions, they are likely to bring those strategies with them to college.

So we are really very much ahead of the game on transfer. We’ve got the concepts, we’ve got the terms, we’ve got the repetition, we’ve got the practice. Also, we are doing this with both reading and writing, which even sophisticated folks like Kathleen Blake Yancy don’t do.

So transfer is one of the themes of our conference today. Another related theme is our new slogan, “Text to Text.” ERWC modules are designed to follow an “arc” from an existing, often professional text (or texts), through a series of reading and writing activities to the production of a new student text. This is what we mean by “Text to Text.” The power of the module to induce transfer is activated by the journey from an old text to a new one. In order to demonstrate this text to text concept we have created a series of micro-modules that make it easier to see the “arc” of a module. You will undoubtedly encounter some of these later in the day.

Our session today is a celebration of our accomplishments, an introduction of these new themes, and a test run for our new committee structure. We now have a steering committee, a high school committee, a middle school committee, and an expansion committee. All of these committees have made a tremendous effort to make this event the best Leadership Certification session ever. Nancy and I thank all the committee members for their ideas, innovation, and hard work.

As you attend your sessions, think about transfer, text to text, the arc of a module, and the principles and practices of ERWC. As you learn, discuss, comment, and ask questions, remember to have fun, laugh, and share the joy of teaching with your colleagues. We are all in this together!

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