The Why and Where of Remedial Writing

by | Posted February 25th, 2013

In my last blog entry, I outlined a brief history of basic writing and outlined several questions that have been on the table in our first year writing program. Let’s get to work on the first question: How do we redress the imperfect educational system of remediation within an imperfect educational system of the United States? Okay, so I’m answering my blog’s title question with another question.

First, remedial writing programs takes different shapes at two- or four-year colleges, and Masters- or PhD- granting universities. The difference rests primarily in the background and needs of students enrolled in these classes. Students entering community colleges may be immigrants with varied educational history, first generation students whose training in U.S. schools didn’t prepare them for college, high school drop outs, returning adults, and lifelong learners. Though writing classes in two-year colleges often have the goal of preparing students to succeed in advanced writing classes, a recent study of 100,000 two-year college students in urban areas suggests that these efforts could better focus on writing needed in workplaces. In two-year colleges, these programs have come into question because of their cost, qualified success, and educational goals: why prepare students to write for advanced, college writing classes when the students’ intent is to find jobs in the skilled labor market?

Students seeking degrees beyond the Associate’s degree often place in remedial classes after taking an entrance exam. These students have high school diplomas, are the best students to have graduated from their schools, have histories of academic achievement, and may be international or heritage language speakers. Many graduated from the K-12 education in the US system, which has seen educational goals limited to teaching to the test thanks to Bush era educational policies. Small wonder there’s been alarming increase in numbers of students needing remedial writing classes.

All this focus on the student who needs the kinds of educational opportunities an intensive writing course prevents policy makers and program administrators from turning our attention to “fixing” the student. This focus on the student places the onus to change solely on the students. But let’s also consider teachers, teacher trainers, and the institution of schooling. Now, I’m not saying that K-12 teachers are to blame for underprepared students. If we want to address the problem systematically as a country, we need educational reform in K-12 settings that 1) increases the number of qualified teachers in classrooms, 2) equally provides resources to schools, 3) allows for varied forms of writing assignments and not just those appropriate to score well on tests (5 paragraph essays), and 4) we need to respect teachers and train them well to meet the challenges of schooling. There are more ways to reform, of course, but these would be a good place to start.

We think there’s another place to begin this work as well—the place where future teachers and professors get trained, or not, to do their educational work in the first place. How are our preservice teachers and instructors of first generation students trained to build upon students’ knowledge and learning as they interact with content? What can we do better?

At MSU, we want to do our part in contributing to educational reform by refocusing our efforts on training future teachers and university instructors. Instead of focusing on what students’ lack, we’re focusing on what we as teachers and teacher trainers owe to students. We think there’s systemic reproduction of teachers who were taught the content areas of their disciplines, but haven’t learned how to teach students this content.

So we did what universities and policy makers do. We set up a committee. The Preparation for College Writing Sub-Committee of the First Year Writing committee created two innovations in our preparatory classes that we’re now piloting. First, we hoped to better address the curricular needs of our students through asset-based, culturally sustaining pedagogies; and second, we hoped to promote teacher inquiry and innovation by placing preservice teachers in our writing classes. The idea is that these preservice teachers can act as peer mentors and teachers-in-training at once, while the instructors gain an opportunity to innovate their practice through engaging these preservice teachers in reflective practice. The preservice teachers work with the instructor to engage in activities and classroom work around the rich reading and writing assignments of a college writing class, that they in turn can use in their future high school classrooms. I’ll explore findings from this pilot project in my next blog posting.