Monday, January 31, 2011

Topic: Small-group Discussion

Question: Why don’t teachers break the class into small groups?

Answer: The students “are often visiting instead of working.” “Mrs. Smith looks at her 29 seventh graders. ‘Okay, I’m going to have you try to work in small groups again today,’ she begins. ‘but you have to keep the noise down and get your questions answered.’ The students fly out of their seats and into the assigned groups. Mrs. Smith begins circulating the room. Some kids are talking about the book, while others are listening passively, and a few are discussing last night’s basketball game or the breakup of a couple. ‘This just isn’t working,’ Mrs. Smith sighs. Tomorrow she’ll give up on talk and teach from the front. It is just easier.”

Comment: In my book, Teaching English, How To…. I offer a method for teaching the various roles people play in small-group discussion. I will use tomorrow’s blog to share this method with you. RayS.

Title: “Making the Most of Talk.” Carol Gilles. Voices From The Middle (December 2010), 9-15.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Topic: Basic Writers

Question: What are the issues in teaching basic writers?

Answer: One issue is whether to include them at the college level. The admission of basic writing (remedial) students at City College of New York started the trend and ended in a sense with City College of New York’s shunting remedial writing and reading students to community colleges. Reviews five books about basic writing What follows is a quick review of the contents of these books and a listing of the books reviewed.

“Taken together, the five books under review here tell the story of the crucial, if not always exemplary, role of basic writing (BW) in the unfinished democratization of American universities and colleges. From these myriad perspectives, access [to college] emerges as the central, most pressing concern. However, each of the authors productively complicates the horizon by raising additional issues….”

Basic Writing. George Otte and Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk. West Lafayette: Parlor Press and WAC Clearinghouse. 2010.

Basic Writing in America: The History of Nine College Programs. Ed. Nicole Pepinster Greene and Patricia J. McAlexander. Cresskill: Hampton Press. 2008.

Before Shaughnessy: Basic Writing at Yale and Harvard, 1920-1960. Kelly Ritter. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP. 2009.

The Rhetoric of Remediation: Negotiating Entitlement and Access to Higher Education. Jane Stanley. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P. 2010.

The Way Literacy Lives: Rhetorical Dexterity ad Basic Writing Instruction. Shannon Carter. Albany: State U of New York P. 2008.

Comment: One of these issues is defining the Basic Writer. In my experience, they come from all levels  of IQ. They are often articulate talkers but disabled writers. They are an interesting and challenging group of individuals. They are difficult to teach. RayS.

Title: “Review: Basic Writing and the Future of Higher Education.” Reviewed by D. Mutnick. College English (January 2011), pp. 322-326.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Topic: Language Differences and Writing

Question: What is the real world of English in 2011?

Answer: Quote. “Growing numbers of U.S. teachers and scholars of writing recognize that traditional ways of understanding and responding to language differences are inadequate to the facts on the ground. Language use in our classrooms, our communities, the nation, and the world has always been multilingual rather than monolingual. Around the globe, most people speak more than one language. Indeed, they speak more than one variation of these languages. In addition, these languages and variations are constantly changing as they intermingle. The growing majority of English speakers worldwide—including substantial numbers within the United States—know other language, and, through interaction, the Englishes they use vary and multiply.”

Quote: “Traditional approaches to writing in the United States are at odds with these facts. They take as the norm a linguistically homogeneous situation: one where writers, speakers, and readers are expected to use Standard English or Edited American English—imagined ideally as uniform—to the exclusion of other languages and language variations. These approaches assume that heterogeneity in language impedes communication and meaning. Hence the long-standing aim of traditional writing instruction has been to reduce ‘interference,’ excising what appears to show difference.”

Comment: The authors argue that the use of Standard English does not lead to clarity in meaning.

The authors use the term “translingual” to describe acceptance of the many varieties of English and reject the belief that using Standard English will help to achieve clarity in meaning.

What is maddening about this article is its conclusion. The authors pose the perfectly understandable question about how acceptance of translingual writing would be dealt with in the classroom and use weasel words in reply. Here’s the question: “I’m intrigued by the notion of taking a translingual approach, but I don’t know how to do it. Where can I of go for help?”

Answer: “Taking a translingual approach goes against the grain of many of the assumptions of our field and, indeed, of dominant culture. At the same time, it is in close alignment with people’s everyday language practices. While we’ve found the works listed in the selected bibliography that follows to be helpful in thinking through why it is important to take a tanslingual approach, and what it might mean to do so, we don’t claim expertise, nor do we believe it necessary to first acquire such expertise before taking up the important work that is called for. Instead, we believe we can all, teachers and students alike and together, develop ways of taking up such an approach by changing the kind of attention we pay to our language practices, questioning the assumptions underlying our learned dispositions toward difference in language, and engaging in critical inquiry on alternative dispositions to take toward such differences in our writing and reading.”


I prefer to define what we call Standard Edited American English as the degree to which in writing we avoid the conversational aspects of spoken English in order to achieve precision in expression. In short, avoid needless repetition of words; use the subject of the sentence rather than “there” or “it”; make clear reference for the demonstrative pronouns; substitute precise words for the verb “get,” and its cousins “getting,” “got,” etc.; and do the same for the noun “thing”; use parallel structure, the active voice rather than passive and avoid problems like dangling modifiers. All these conversational characteristics undermine the clear and precise expression of Standard, Edited American English. RayS.

Title: “Opinion: Language Difference in Writing: Toward a Translingual Approach.” Bruce Horner, et al. College English (January 2011), 303-321.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Topic: The Problem with Writing and Technology

Question: How is Bartleby, the Scrivener like present-day writing students?

Answer: They would prefer not to. Why? Because technology makes writing and thinking too easy. The author ends his article with the following quotation about freedom—and the danger of technology to its existence:

“…we (or our institutions) have been mesmerized by technology’s ease and comfort as well as its promise. If this all sounds too curmudgeonly or too deterministic for some, I will end with a reminder from Jacques Ellul, author of The Technological Society, which I now know is as important for composition teachers as it is for students of composition: ‘Freedom is not static but dynamic; not a vested interest, but a prize continually to be won. The moment man stops and resigns himself, he becomes subject to determinism. He is most enslaved when he thinks he is comfortably settled in freedom…. It is not a question of getting rid of [technology], but, by an act of freedom, of transcending it.’ Let us, now, prefer to write.”

Comment: It never occurred to me to realize that the problem with technology and writing is that it makes writing too easy. I remember when we as students did not have word processors and all the adjuncts that come with it. When the word processor was introduced, I saw it as freedom from tedium in writing.

But since people are used to the word processor, freedom from tedium has become boring. It’s too easy not to think and write. Writing by hand or even by typewriter was difficult—the page filled with illegible revisions, for example. Thinking on paper was work because you had to do it by hand or by typewriter—and now the word processor has made writing and thinking too easy. We fall into the trap of not working and thinking. Interesting. RayS.

Title: “Opinion: Teaching Bartleby to Write: Passive Resistance and Technology’s Place in the Composition Classroom.” Gregory Palmerino. College English (January 2011), 283-302.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Topic: Learning to Write

Question: How do we learn to write?

Answer: “Although The Performing Self never names composition as a field, it assumes that ‘composition’ is something we come to understand by reading and by learning through the example of other writers. It argues that a certain form of close reading (although not the close reading of the New Criticism) is the essential lesson for any writer/reader/thinker.”

Comment: In other words, we learn to write by reading, not by reading only for meaning, but reading as writers, noting how writers achieve their effects. I have often noted that people whose writing I admire claim that they never learned to write in school, but that they were never without a book when growing up. RayS.

Title: “Reconsiderations: ‘Inventing the University’ at 25: An Interview with David Bartholomae.” David Bartholomae and John Schilb. College English (January 2011), 260-282.