Friday, April 15, 2005

What Counts as “Student-Centered”? Rethinking my Work with Developing Writers

Lee Torda

When I first began teaching at Bridgewater State College, I was appalled that at-risk students had to take a not-for-credit course, Fundamental Skills (FS 101), prior to enrolling in Writing I. Asking working class students to pay for a three-credit course that would not help them graduate seemed unconscionable to me, and I was happy to tell anyone who would listen. And it was in this way that I became involved in teaching a special section of Writing II for students on academic probation. I, naturally, began the semester with this question: how did you get here? There were lots of answers, but one was rather startling and very disturbing: all of them had taken FS 101 (and often the other remedial course the college offers, Fundamental Skills in Math) and, whether they passed the pass/fail course or not, had done badly in other courses and landed, in their second precarious semester, on academic probation. This is a textbook case of what Samantha Caughlin and Sean Kelly are writing about in “Bridging Methodological Gaps: Instructional and Institutional Effects of Tracking in Two English Classes” (RTE, 2004).

Caughlin and Kelly suggest that one of the reasons tracking fails students is because it can become “inextricably interwoven with the teacher’s conceptions of students’ needs and abilities” and thus “constrains the level of instruction and the coherence of the curriculum” (20). While I agree that tracking can shape teachers’ conceptions of students’ abilities and thus constrain the curriculum, it is important to realize that this isn't necessarily the case. Indeed, at Bridgewater we have an illustrative counter-example: most of the students in our special support sections not only passed EN 102 and stayed at the institution but were legitimately off probation within one or two semesters of taking the course. I wish there was time and space here to chronicle their many success stories. But I believe their success came out of two things: 1) the willingness, on the part of the class and myself, to talk honestly and openly about past failures and what was at stake during the semester; and 2) my full-on, force-of-nature faith in the kinds of classroom practices I used in all of my writing classes combined with an equally intense faith that these students would be fine—perhaps more than fine—if they just gave it a chance.

I believed in my pedagogy so much that I suggested that the students currently being funneled into sections of FS 101 would be better served if we taught special, targeted sections of EN 101 supported by a writing fellows program in BSC’s Academic Achievement Center. And the institution took me up on it.

Which brings me to my point: I’m in my second semester of teaching our college’s new targeted sections of EN 101, and nothing I typically rely on has worked. Not that everything has failed, but nothing has entirely worked—not conferences, not drafts, not writing workshops, not portfolios, not book clubs, not my tough love schtick. It troubles me that students have so many absences and that they blow off conferences and just seem so okay with failing. It troubles me even more that these are the largest populations of non-native students and students of color that I’ve worked with at the college.

One day when students either hadn’t read or didn’t understand the text we were reading, I explicated the text and thought students would hate that I was doing this. I was this talking head. Well, not quite: I’m moving around. I’m making charts and drawing arrows. I’m soliciting information and ideas from students. But it’s all me. I’m the star. I’m the ringmaster in this circus. But, after that class, students did the reading and, even if imperfectly, did a much better job of talking about what it meant. I’m embarrassed that this sort of old-fashioned modeling, cult of personality teaching is what helped students most. But, really, I don’t think I should be. I felt sure I knew what student-centered meant, but it doesn’t mean only and exclusively that you do things that have the students in charge of their own learning; instead, I’m realizing, it means that you are responsive to the ever-changing material conditions that the students in your classroom present you with. It does feel as though what I’m doing this semester sometimes gets me more actively involved than the students. It does feel as though what I’m doing is lecturing about writing and reading more than getting my students to engage in meaningful acts of reading and writing sometimes. But what I am not doing, just to confound Caughlin and Kelly, is lowering my expectations for student work in these classes. If anything, I was nearly blasé about their ability and entirely too faithful to practices that were clearly not working. I was teaching one way and thought that I didn’t need to change, but, with this population, I am always being asked to change. To try something a different way, to conceive and reconceive each class period--sometimes mid-way through the class: revision is not linear and not perfect and not something you only do in first year writing.

The result of my revision? Students in the class, by the end of the semester, are in a place to better participate in academic life. They are not on probation. They have not been dismissed. They have legitimately earned the credit for Writing I when a year ago they would not have.