“You must be in culture shock, right?” Miss Hass’s teaching intern meant well. My steely look somehow convinced her to go on: “I mean coming to this place must be so different.” She knew I had just arrived from upstate New York the month before to sit in the first class of my senior year at San Bernadino High School. Picture Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club anticipating Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice— that was me. Grim. Disengaged. Pissed at the world.
When our rust-belt poverty resulted in a second eviction notice in 4 years, Mom read this as an invitation to southern California’s sun-belt opportunity. So we packed what we could into a UHAUL (sleeping accommodations on the roof), and we drove the 2673 miles from Corning, New York to 29 Palms, California. My brother, a Marine stationed there, put us up until we could get on our feet. Mom found us a home in San Bernardino a few months later, and I began my senior year of high school, the only white-looking, punk girl in my English class. These superfacial differences aside, I was checked out of school, felt under-challenged, and dropped out for a month or so before eventually going back to finish.
I began to resolve my culture shock after two years of working at the Jack in the Box on Baseline and Waterman. I enrolled full time in California State University, San Bernadino, an open enrollment university, and worked my way through, mostly in fast food and retail for 25-30 hours a week.
When I did get into classes, my writing was awful: fragmented thinking led to equally fragmented writing. Ideas dolloped on the page like layers of a bean dip. With similes about that bad. But I loved reading, and words helped me make sense of my experience. So I began paying attention to the writers who were turning phrases in ways that made sense to me. I went through more writing styles than Madonna identities. Eventually, during my junior and senior years when classes got smaller, a few encouraging professors listened to what I was trying to say and I began to improve.
More importantly, culture shock as a theory, can help us make sense of the struggles that come with loss and migration. It can help us put words to the foreignness of coming to a new country, region, or college. It can help us tell the stories behind the steely looks. Professor Cheryl Caesar developed a site that does just this. Students writing for this site voice their struggles when coming to a place like Michigan State University, help each other find resources, and share their stories. Visit: caitlah.cal.msu.edu/divein for more stories.
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.
“Remediation is not new, and unless we have an unprecedented transformation of our social order and educational institutions, it will be with us for some time to come. As long as we continue to hold onto the ideal of educational opportunity, we will need remediation to help correct an imperfect educational system” (Mike Rose Back to School 96).
You can trace a history of remediation from the words used to describe it over the last few decades: bonehead English, basic writing, preparatory writing, and writing intensive. You can see the types of learning and assumptions about students’ abilities that are implied in each of these names. Bonehead English brings to mind skills and drills, worksheets, grammar and red ink. Basic writing conjures correct simple sentences, moving on to the well-formed paragraph, perhaps advancing as far as the five-paragraph essay for entrance exams. Preparatory writing classes suggest that students are being prepared to write longer essays, perhaps through an emphasis on the writing process. In these classes, genres like the personal narrative open a sequence of assignments that perhaps moves students into defining, serializing, comparing, and, finally, analyzing—all as a practice run for the college writing class. And writing intensive classes? Think preparatory writing and add to it more contact hours and longer page-length requirements. (more…)
The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the People’s Perseverance, the newest book written by associate professor and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Dr. Ellen Cushman, was released by the University of Oklahoma Press earlier this month.
Book cover courtesy of Ellen Cushman
It took Cushman nearly five years to research, analyze, write, and complete this ethnohistorical study, which was funded in part by the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies grant (VPRGS).
The Cherokee Syllabary analyzes and explains the complex linguistic concepts behind the Cherokee writing system, introduced in 1821 by Sequoyah, a Cherokee metalworker and inventor. Cushman finds that the writing system was created apart from Western alphabetical models. Because it works so closely with the language, its legacy has endured.
In addition to this book, Cushman has also written a number of scholarly essays, found in Ethnohistory, Wicazo Sa Review, and Written Communication, to name a few. The book is available for purchase through Amazon.
Every year, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) sponsors the Academic Leadership program. The Big 10 Universities (plus the University of Chicago) select Leadership Fellows to participate in the program. Michigan State University selects six faculty members, and this year Ellen Cushman, WRAC associate professor, received one of the six.
The purpose of the fellowship is to develop faculty leaders who are knowledgeable about Michigan State and the issues that face education (budget cuts, changing student populations, increasing pressures from external sources). The fellowship gives faculty an introduction to the university beyond their college (for Ellen, beyond the College of Arts & Letters). During the next year, Ellen will be meeting with the other six faculty who have received fellowships and with university administrators. The MSU fellows will also travel to Indiana University, University of Chicago, and Penn State for meetings of all the CIC-ALP Fellows from all the CIC institutions.
The department congratulates Ellen on her selection.
In October, WRAC associate professor Dr. Ellen Cushman attended the 2010 American Society for Ethnohistory Conference. The theme of the conference was “Creating Nations and Building States: Past and Present,” with a specific focus on “indigenous societies and their relations with expanding colonial and modern state structures of Canada, America, and Latin America.” The conference was held to facilitate discussions about relations between Native societies and expanding state structures in the Americas. She presented along with MSU faculty Dr. Mindy Morgan and Dr. Rocio Quispe-Agnoli as well as Margaret Bender (Wake Forest). Their panel explored indigenous writing systems and tribal people’s resistance to outside impositions of alphabetic writing systems. Cushman was interested in the conference because it focused on research that explores the writing systems native societies adopt or resist and reasons they do so. She was able to meet many scholars committed to the study of indigenous societies as well as scholars from a great number of tribes.
Cushman is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation; she has spent the last six years researching the Nation, and its writing systems. The Cherokee Nation is one of the largest tribes in existence today with more than 290,000 citizens, yet best estimates suggest there are only 10,000 people fluent in the Cherokee language. Cushman hopes that her research, publications, and conference presentations, will make the study of Sequoyan more transparent and cultivate support for increased education and preservation of the endangered writing system and language.