Information Sheet #106

February 7, 1997


by Jane Nesmith

Every fall I hear from Coe faculty about students we have in common. We don't talk about our stellar performers and Presidential Scholars. Nope. You stop me on the sidewalk and say, "I'm really glad those students of mine are taking your class. They really need some help with their writing!" For the last three fall terms, I've been teaching WTG-105, Reading/Writing Workshop. It's a course for first-year students (and some transfer students) who are under-prepared for the kind of reading and writing they'll be expected to do at Coe.

Many of you have seen their writing as you have scored the writing exams during fall orientation. We've all grimaced over the weak compositions in those writing samples. Bad spelling, atrocious grammar, confusing syntax--these are the most obvious problems. But worse, I think, are the answers that never get going, the 3/4 page responses with the writer squeezing out each word. Or the answers that ramble on and on, full of generalizations or cliches, with no sense that the writer has any clue about what material is important to the essay and what isn't. The students who write those exams--the exams with woefully scrambled syntax, or no organizational scheme, or little thought and fewer ideas--those students are the ones who are encouraged to take the Reading/Writing Workshop.

The Teachers' Perspective

The students in the Reading/Writing Workshop don't get a remedial course. We don't teach from grammar workbooks. We don't teach sure-fire methods for finding "main ideas." College-level reading, writing, and learning demands that students do more than write grammatically and hunt for main ideas. While the course provides many one-on-one opportunities for students needing help with grammar and basic reading skills, the Workshop focuses on students discovering that reading and writing are processes in which the student actively constructs meaning.

This past fall we read a novel (In Country), a non-fiction book (Into the Wild), and many shorter, difficult texts, ones that resist skimming and searching for simple topic sentences. Our students learn that reading is a constructive act, not a passive one. Each reader must postpone closure, be challenged, backtrack, and eventually assign some significance to what he or she reads. Classroom discussions help students talk about their growing understandings of difficult texts, and match them up with other students' understandings. In this way, students learn to construct stronger, more vigorous (and less cliched!) understandings of very difficult texts.

Writing assignments also encourage students to think of writing as a constructive process. Besides doing lots of first-draft, unedited writing (to get them used to the idea of facing a blank page), students write drafts and multiple revisions of essays that encourage them to see interactions between what they're reading and their own lives.

One assignment asked them to write about a recent event that challenged them in some way or helped them grow. They began hesitantly, squeezing out short, generalized chronologies. After several revisions and class "workshops" in which each student's paper was read and commented on by the entire class, the essays became deeper, more vigorous, and more exciting. One student began with a disorganized description of leaving for college; she ended up with an insightful essay showing how leaving for college meant struggling to disentangle herself from her family's expectations that she stay home and marry. Later writing assignments had students analyze several of their peers' essays, report on field research, and distinguish between different types of "personal experience" essays.

This year, we tried something new to help students meet the challenges of RWW: we experimented with Writing Assistants, upperclass Writing Center consultants assigned to attend the course, act as peer mentors, assist with conferences, and act as liaisons with the Coe Writing Center. The students flocked to writing conferences with these consultants (Kristie Spiers, Travis Stiles, Matthew Jacobs, and Ben Kulbartz), and many students told me how productive the conferences were. Their revised papers told the same story. We'll continue employing Writing Assistants in the future.

So that's Reading/Writing Workshop from a teacher's perspective. Our goal is to teach the course with a work load and expectations in quality virtually identical to what is expected in a Freshman Seminar. Our students do 120-200 pages of writing during the term. A little over half of those pages are first drafts, the rest are revisions. Our job is not so much to "fix" the reading and writing, but to initiate changes in how these students think about themselves as readers and writers.

The Students' Perspective

Of course teachers' views are important. But I'm always curious about how students view their assignments. Over the term, I frequently have them reflect on their work in the course. Here are some comments from Reading/Writing Workshop students--primarily on their writing throughout the term. Students began as hesitant writers, often unable to produce more than a page on any topic. As the term progressed, they became more fluent, and also more aware of how multiple drafts and comments from readers could help them deepen and lengthen any piece of writing.

The Writing Process--Early Thoughts

I asked the students to comment on the way they wrote the first paper they handed in. One student wrote:

--Starting my paper was difficult. I didn't know where to start. Finally I pick a point, thought for a while, then started, and never looked back. After I started it was sort of easy to keep going because I was on a roll. Finally the last 100 words were impossible.

When asked to write about how they might revise drafts that were often incomplete, vague, cliched, and much too short, students fell back on the belief that their only writing problems were mechanical:

--I'll work on grammar, spelling, and punctuation, lots!

--I need to work on more complete sentences.

--I will type it and check for spelling errors.

Some students vaguely sensed that they needed to do more, but what?

--I need to lengthen it.

--In my next draft I need some better ideas.

Reading and Commenting on Other Students' Drafts

Early in the term, students began to share their drafts with each other, at first, only to sample what other students were doing on similar assignments. One student commented on this process:

--When you said we are now going to start passing your paper to the left for the other students to read what you wrote, I was really nervous, or maybe even scared. I don't know everybody . . . and don't know what other people would perceive or think about what I wrote. The last thing I want is for someone to think I am stupid or make fun of what I wrote. Now that I think about it, I guess it wasn't that bad. I enjoyed reading other people's papers.

Other students wrote:

--I liked reading other people's papers because most of us in here were in the same boat.

--I liked reading other people's work. It gives me ideas on how I can change my writing style.

Later we conducted classroom discussions of papers by each student. Most students were more worried about getting comments from their peers than from me! This became a great motivator for my students to make their work as clear and as meaningful as possible. Their comments on each others' work also became more insightful as the term progressed. One student's end-of-term revision of an essay about the death of her classmate drew the following comments:

--The thing I like about this piece is that she lets her feelings go . . . she told the truth about the situation, she did not make it seem like she was his only friend. She was honest; she said that she was a bitch toward him.

--Tell me more about the last paragraph. Why were you so mean to K.C.; was he somebody that kept to himself or didn't he fit into your group of friends?

The Writing Process, Revisited

By the end of the term, most RWW students talked about writing in much different terms. When asked to compare the writing they did at the beginning of the term with the writing they did at the end, they emphasized newly-found confidence in developing ideas:

--The first time I wrote . . . I was scared to death. I knew that I could not write or at least I thought that I could not, but by taking this course I'm not afraid of writing a paper and actually have someone read it and understand it.

--I do feel confident of what I'm writing. I feel that I organize my thoughts better and give vivid and full details.

Students also wrote about the process of revision:

--In my second draft, I expanded the essay. I also interviewed a student for a different point of view....I added a conclusion on the relationship between teachers and students. In my third draft, I reconsidered the organization and transitions between sentences.

--My first draft of this paper was terrible. Then I took it to the writing center and the consultants helped me by asking me questions and helping me organize it. It's almost twice as long now, and it flows much better.

--It is surprising to see how much I wrote over this semester, and that gives me another proof that I can write.

Does it Work?

The students see themselves improving. But do they actually improve? According to quantitative and qualitative assessments, they do. During a three-year period, 1987-89, the Writing Committee attempted to assess the effects of the course by using the Nelson-Denny reading exam. In that three-year period, RWW students entered Coe reading on approximately the 10th grade level but ended the fall term with an average 2-year increase in their reading scores.

In a pre- and post-course writing test given in 1989, all but three students produced better papers at the end of the term than they did in their initial writing test. There was also a dramatic difference in fluency: students wrote much more on the end-of-term papers.

It also helps us to know that we have many "success stories," RWW students who have done well at Coe. A student who took the course in the fall of '92 graduated Phi Beta Kappa, another student graduated with honors in biology, and a third student from that section graduated with excellent grades in business administration.

Reading/Writing Workshop is a tough course to teach. It's hard work motivating students, reading pages upon pages of student writing, and meeting individually with students. And there are always some students who, despite our efforts, just don't seem to improve. But the overall feel of the course--the sense that we are introducing these not-so-well-prepared students to the conversation and work of the liberal arts college--makes Reading/Writing Workshop one of the most exciting courses I teach here at Coe.

Watch for a change that's in the works for RWW. We're proposing to add a component on study skills that will be taught by the ESP staff during a 70-minute lab period once a week. In this new course, "Colloquium: An Introduction to Academic Discourse," students will encounter the same rigorous reading and writing challenges that have always been the heart of RWW. But with a more comprehensive support program, we believe we can do a better job in helping students with their transition into college work. This new program should give more students the chance to be Coe "success stories," the kind of students we all like to have in common.

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