Thursday, May 10, 2007

Study of Teacher Error

The article Study of Teacher Error: Misreading Resistance in the Classroom presented some interesting insight as to how we as teachers handle the resistance to writing. It seems to me that Sara Biggs Chaney was setting Amber up to fail. By presenting counterpoints, Chaney was attempting to help Amber qualify her argument, but it is an argument Amber will never win with Chaney. While the assignment achieves most of what Chaney hopes, it only serves to frustrate Amber further. As discussed in class, Chaney could have done more that simply direct the student to Howard Gardener’s Multiple Intelligences. The opportunity was there to provide some constructive guidance. Spewing academic reasoning and dropping names of theorists whom mean nothing to a basic writing student likely made Amber’s point more valid in her mind.
I suspect that Amber’s act of plagiarism on the final paper was possibly an earnest effort to belong to the academic community of which she felt she could never belong. Not all students plagiarize because they are lazy; most feel that they do not possess the ability to write intelligently and desperately want to hand in a paper with academic merit, even if they did not earn it.
Chaney appears, to me, to take a sarcastic tone when stating that it was unfortunate that she could not stop assigning writing and do something of more interest to Amber. I know first hand that it is difficult to teach a subject that many students dislike, or even fear. It is always a nice feeling to teach something that students are enthusiastic about. It makes it easier on everyone involved. However, we as teachers must strive to help our students see the value in writing. Chances are, many will fail to see the value immediately, but will be thankful for what they have learned later down the road.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Lu on Shaughnessy

In Min-Zhan Lu’s essay Redefining the Legacy of Mina Shaughnessy: A Critique of the Politcs of Liguistic Innocence, Lu analyzes the essentialist view of language. What one must consider is whether or not meaning can be present without a solid grasp of language. Furthermore, one may also contend that the writing process changes the meaning intended by the writer, given different styles and discourses.

Lu states that “the image of someone using words to coax meaning ‘to the surface’ suggests that meaning exists separately from and ‘at some subterranean level of language’” (107). For unskilled writers, I believe that the meaning, or “essence,” can be at a much lower level than the teacher-desired academic level. Basic writers must struggle with meaning, as well as how to convey the meaning in a manner that will do it justice. Lu challenges Shaughnessy’s dismissal of writing being a process in which meaning is created. While meaning can be created in the process, it can also be lost. I agree with Lu that as teachers, we should consider grammar as well as the meaning when assessing student writing. This is the very reason I often conduct teacher-student conferences for writing assignments. It allows me the opportunity to understand the student’s position, rather than simply making grammatical corrections that could change the “essence” of the paper.

I tend to agree with Lu’s assessment of Shaughnessy’s pedagogy, in particular that “her [Shaughnessy’s] pedagogy enacts a systematic denial of the political context of students’ linguistic decisions” (115). While some conventions should be upheld, it should not be done so at the expense of the writer’s life experience. A balance struck between the two entities can only benefit student writers, and provide a better connection between home and academic discourse.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Sociality of Error

In Chapter 6 of Representing the Other, Bruce Horner contemplates the sociality of error. Section one addresses the possibility that errors are in a sense a social achievement, that is to say that errors are dependent on many factors involving both the reader and the writer. A writer may intentionally supply less than standard usage. If this writer is considered experienced, one may deem his error as a stylistic choice. Several fiction writers today choose this method. In class Monday evening, someone mentioned James Patterson as an author he has difficulty reading because of the usage. Many of my high school students adore James Patterson. While my classmate is made painfully aware of the fragmented sentences and often omitted commas in Patterson’s writing, my students are somewhat oblivious to these “errors.” Point of fact, my students may be more comfortable reading an author whose usage is not perfect. Nonetheless, the students are much more forgiving because they are not bound to the conventions of Standard English.. Although it may distract us from our enjoyment to an extent, even we as teachers are forgiving of writers such as Patterson. We chalk the “errors” up to being a “stylistic choice” based on the experience of the writer, but if a student commits the same error, it is not overlooked. Joseph Williams is quoted on page 143 as saying “if we [teachers] could read those [error-ridden] student essays unreflexively, if we could make the ordinary kind of contract with those texts that we make with other kinds of texts, then we could find many fewer errors.” I agree that a contract such as this would allow us as teachers to read beyond the surface and focus more on the actual writing. This is not to say that mechanics and usage ought to be thrown out completely, but maybe just set to the side. Taking the focus off of the errors removes the pressures put on the writer, thus producing a higher quality thought process.

Works Cited

Horner, Bruce, and Min-Zhan Lu. Representing the "Other". Urbana, IL: NationalCouncil of Teachers of English, 1999.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Errors and Basic Writers

To err is human, yet how many students receive the courtesy of this epiphany? Barriers presented from the pressure of committing errors cause a multitude of problems basic writers face. Although unintentional, teachers create a standard of writing that many students believe is unattainable. Sometimes, the objective of writing is unclear. Many teachers simply do not know how to evaluate writing based on content and rely on errors to sort out the “good” writers from the “bad.”

One passage in Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors & Expectations states that basic writers are beginners and must learn by making mistakes (4). While, yes, there are times that mistakes must be pointed out and corrected, they should not be the paramount issue at hand. When my six year old writes a four sentence paragraph, I do not grab my pen and correct his grammatical errors. I praise him for being brave enough to express his thoughts on paper. I am able to make teaching moments out of his mistakes, but I strive to separate those from his victory in writing a paragraph. Can you imagine how much longer his enthusiasm for writing would last if I were to berate him for his errors? He would be crushed and then resist putting himself out on that limb again. Granted, there is a difference between a six year old first grader and a freshman in college, but ultimately they are both beginners in writing. It is my first grader, however, who is still uninhibited in his writing. He knows not the fear of being critiqued for his errors.

In reference to obsession with error, Shaughnessy states that students often crave a more “prescriptive” teaching of grammar and language, with the hopes that the concept will click eventually (9). My eleventh grade students often note that although grammar has been hammered into them since primary school, it has failed to make a permanent impression on them. I am currently using a program called Daily Grammar Practice, which was devised by Dawn Burnette. My students love this technique as it keeps grammar fresh in their minds, and it is relatively painless. Prior to this program, I practiced what I referred to as “shove it down your throat” grammar. It was as if I was trying to give my students a whole bottle of vitamins at once, rather than just one a day. Once a day is much more effective in the long run, and it is hard to keep a whole bottle of vitamins down. I have seen the benefits of this program in my students writing as well, and it allows me to separate grammar and writing to a certain degree.

Works Cited

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations: A Guide for the Teacher of Basic
Writing. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Basic Writing

Basic writing is the bare bones of written communication. Tear off the complex flesh of analysis and abstract thought, and you have basic writing. Many people struggle with self expression due to a number of reasons: lack of confidence, lack of skill, or fear of putting themselves "out there." As a teacher, I most often encounter those individuals who feel inferior in expressing thoughts, and especially opinions. As if what they have to say has little influence on society.

Mike Rose's interview with Bill Moyers provides an important message in that many students feel left out of the writing process, and we as teachers must make students feel welcome to share their views. For most individuals, writing ability is left to sit stagnate - untapped - until someone comes along to unleash the flood of raw emotion that is within all of us. Making language and expression fun will produce confident, passionate writers who take pride and ownership in their writing. Mr. Rose's "power of invitation" has really left an impression on me in that it has made me think about those students who feel like they have nothing of significance to contribute, and what means I may use to change this perception.