Great Tools

July 22, 2011

I’ve assigned myself an upbeat column amid the grim assault on Pell Grants and the deafening silence of anyone fighting the cuts. My first point, in policy, is evidence -- more evidence -- that the students whose Pell we are decimating, have intellects we, the people, should be investing in. My second point, constructive I hope, is to offer free-to-cheap ideas to add some learning and inspiration to these students under siege.

I’ll share some classroom tools that brought me through this year. My hope is that in the comments below, readers will share theirs. Reporting our discoveries is evidence of the formidable intellects of students whose Pell Grants Congress is savaging. I’ll be brief per item.

Somewhere in the Academy, erect a statue of the late Diana Hacker. Bronze or marble? Either is fine by me. Her book A Pocket Style Manual (Bedford/St. Martin's) and its companion website make my shortlist for a Nobel Prize. Yes, I teach grammar in college writing, and I make no apologies. English is the second language for many of my students, who are from Colombia, Sudan, Eritrea, the Stans, Vietnam, Cambodia and Ethiopia. I don’t need to make learning more difficult that it’s been for students from the urban high schools around our campuses.

I discovered the Hacker book in my textbook-optimizing quest for low cost, excellence, and portability (without a forklift). My students in College Writing I at Bunker Hill Community College need a sense of possibility as they re-enter college. Too many writing books weigh too much and intimidate even me. The Hacker guide has plain English, concise explanations, examples, and a table of contents in the inside cover that’s a dream for anyone correcting essays. I refer the student to the page in the book, “See Hacker p. 32, ‘Use pronouns with care.’ ”

Best of all, the online exercises (free) provide practice in commas, verb tenses, pronouns, even research questions in 10-question batches. The questions all have two choices. Click the wrong one, and the student receives an explanation. Same with the correct answer. Students don’t have to wait to receive a corrected paper to learn, and I can treat individuals without devoting class time to covering all topics for all students regardless of need. I do explain that I will help them learn grammar by providing this tool; I will not, however, devote College Writing I class time to grammar.

I read a paper this semester where the student displayed clear, original thinking without any punctuation. “I don’t do punctuation. That’s not who I am. I’m more of a freewriter,” he said. He was an adult and proud, back in school after years away. Singling him out in class or giving him marked-up papers might drive him away. I explained that the course (and life) requires punctuation. After class, I showed him a few of the Hacker online comma exercises. “You don’t have to do the essay this week. I want you to do all the punctuation exercises. You can do these anywhere you can log on,” I said. His next paper, two weeks later, came punctuated and in MLA style.

“I do a lot of writing at my job. They didn’t say it, but my supervisors were always kind of condescending to me,” he told me when I praised him for the achievement. “Now that I am using the right punctuation and capitalization, I can see how their attitudes have changed.” Shootings are frequent in his neighborhood; of course he missed punctuation the first time around. The online privacy didn’t challenge his dignity. He started helping other students. Erect a statue, then, of Diana Hacker.

Uncommon Genius -- How Great Ideas are Born (Viking 1990, Penguin 1991) by Denise Shekerjian studies the plight of original thinking in a conventional world. Shekerjian keeps up with her thinking on creativity on a blog, Soul of a Word. I had no idea how the stories of MacArthur winners would sit with community college students. No problems. As a practical research focus, Shekerjian, a curious lawyer rather than an academic, decided to interview 40 MacArthur winners about the challenge of work the world may consider impossible. Mayan glyphs. Modern music. Fossils. Fireproof pajamas for children.

I assign the book to my College Writing I class. I give them from Wednesday until Monday. Reading a whole book is too much, they say. The willingness to take sensible risks is one characteristic Shekerjian identified across the people she interviewed. My assignment: “Write an essay describing where you see yourself in this book.” Risk is what comes up the most. The stories in Uncommon Genius align with their decisions to come to a 7 a.m. or a midnight class, they understand. The students understand their risk, that education costs a paycheck today with a possible payoff down the road. The clear message from Uncommon Genius to community college students in a windowless basement classroom at 7 a.m.: We are not alone.

Disclosure: My financial relationship with Uncommon Genius/Shekerjian and Hacker is that I assign the books in my classes and I buy and give away scores of copies to any students who ask. Tom Jehn, one of the Hacker contributing authors and director of the expository writing program at Harvard, has been wonderful and generous in his willingness to share whatever can help my students.

Especially in winter, I try to provide my students with experiences – a.k.a. evidence for essays -- from beyond our classroom and their lives. I haven’t (yet) discovered how to walk the class through the SMART board to other worlds. A projector and a web link are a start. The students’ imaginations have loved meeting the scientists and professors and problem solvers on the PBS/Nova site, Secret Lives of Scientists and Engineers and on the MacArthur Foundation’s “Meet the Fellows” site. “Secret Lives” shows that real people who can tell jokes also create world-class science. Watch “Thirty Second Science: Andre Fenton” with the New York University neuroscientist Andre Fenton. You’ll be hooked. Watching Fenton, my student Punctuation said, “That guy is really cool.” I reached out and found Fenton, who was delighted to contact and encourage that student to stick with calculus.

Since reading Shekerjian’s book, I have looked up the new MacArthur Fellow winners each year. (I have also made peace with the tragic news that government employees, such as community college teachers, are ineligible.) The questions these scientists and engineers and MacArthur Fellows ask inspire me. A year or two ago, the foundation began brief videos of the fellows. The filmmakers went to where the fellows were working, far away from our basement classroom. The explorations of the hydrodynamics of jellyfish by John Dabiri at Cal Tech are a good leap from our basement classroom.

If my students have a chance to see or hear any beauty and wonder amid 60-hour jobs, school, families and commutes, I can’t figure out when that would be. From the tool shelf for a weary day, I click the breathtaking film of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach on YouTube. Before I found the film, I had never considered what hands must do to play these Variations. I tell my students the unsourceable (to me so far) aphorism, “If God could speak, he would speak Bach.” The assignment is to “write whatever this film makes you wonder.” Whoever is talking, my students hear.

I begin and end each semester with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and the AP Exam question to “analyze the rhetorical strategies Lincoln uses to achieve his purpose.” I could convey language and the rhetoric and the specific history. Students discovered that they could understand a 146-year-old speech. Am I using this speech for community college students to show off to my overeducated friends? As personal defiance of the powers that be? Or because Lincoln’s words might show my students the way out of our windowless basement? I don’t know.

Lincoln’s words sting today. Half the students in my sections are usually blacks from Dorchester and Roxbury and Haiti, descendants of slaves.

I let Lincoln speak, and I listen.

“These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.”

Human beings as intelligent and as motivated as my students struggling for a basic education today in the 21st century? The nation’s wounds are bleeding today in our basement classroom. I need trips out of our basement, too. Bill T. Jones and Bill Moyers joined for a fine journey. In an interview, Jones and Moyers brought Lincoln forward, into our basement and inspired us all. History is people, doing something. Watch “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray” from the archive of "Bill Moyers Journal."

Each semester, most students assume that they can’t or won’t be able to understand a 19th-century speech. The Shakespeare trick works with Lincoln, too. Read the words aloud once, twice. Everyone can hear Lincoln before we finish the third reading. Moyers and Bill T. Jones seal the deal.

Why show this to my community college students? Or your students? Without any help, the students understand Lincoln’s close.

“...let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

The students understand on their own that they must join “to finish the work we are in.” Our tolerance of shattering Pell Grants is evidence to me that we, the people, are not done with the work of the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Act.

Share all these with your students. Let us all know what you inspire.

Bill Moyers, don’t ever take this down.


Wick Sloane writes the Devil's Workshop column for Inside Higher Ed.

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