Paula M. Krebs has been a professor of English at Wheaton College, a selective New England liberal arts college, for 15 years. Her sister Mary Krebs Flaherty teaches writing as an adjunct at the inner-city campus of Camden County College, a two-year institution. They are writing a series of articles about what it’s like to teach English at their respective institutions.
Paula: Well, how was your first year of teaching? When I started teaching in grad school, it was freshman comp, a required course but one that at least carried graduation. I've never taught "developmental," non-credit courses like the ones you were teaching. Was it frustrating to your students to have to pass your class just to get into a position where they could take an English course that counted for credit? Was it frustrating for you? Did it feel like college teaching?
Mary: Since I've only taught developmental, non-credit courses, I'm not sure there is a difference, but I can tell you that I had college expectations for my students. Several of my first semester Writing Skills III students approached me this past semester and thanked me for preparing them for Comp 101, even though they had complained about how much work there was in my class. They said that Comp was a breeze. I think that their frustration while taking my class was in part due to it being a lot of work for a non-credit course (eight essays in 15 weeks).
Paula: Eight essays in 15 weeks is a lot of work, especially if you know you’re not getting college credit for it. How do you keep them motivated? My students are sometimes motivated to pass my classes so they can keep their scholarships or stay on an athletic team or just stay out of hot water with their parents. But more of your students are independent, aren’t they?
Mary: You’re right -- the students in my classes are at just completely different starting points than your students. Many of the Camden County College students on the Camden campus are usually the first of their family to attend college and they seem to have an inner drive to pass their classes for themselves, while the students with children are motivated because they want to eventually provide better lives and opportunities for their children. Students who test into basic writing classes also test into developmental reading and math classes as well. Imagine paying for three remedial classes that you aren't getting any college credit for!
Paula: Speaking of paying for classes you aren’t getting any credit for: I have a colleague who once a year or so asks his students to bow their heads in silent thanks to the students who don’t show up for class -- the ones who are not cluttering up the classroom but whose tuition dollars are making it possible for those who want to learn to do so. But back to the point: How do you motivate students if they’re not getting credit, and what exactly goes on in a "developmental" course?
Mary: Well, my Writing Skills II class in the spring seemed even more frustrated than my Writing Skills III course in the fall, partly because they knew they still had to pass into Writing Skills III before getting into Comp 101. That's a lot of work to do and not receive any course credit. The students also know that they only receive a pass/fail grade for the developmental classes (although their actual numeric grade will show on their transcripts). On a daily basis, keeping their interest in the writing material and assignments is pretty easy. It’s when we cover a grammar lesson that their eyes glaze over. Luckily, I have a lot of support from the program director and I've done a lot of research for interesting grammar activities. Students’ favorites seem to be cartoons and ad spoofs with grammar topics.
The objective for the Writing Skills II students is to write grammatically correct essays with unity, support, and coherence. These students start at the paragraph level with a focus on topic sentences, supporting evidence, and grammar, and are given ample classroom time for revising and editing with teacher input. After mid-term portfolios, each Writing Skills teacher can modify assignments based on the class’s needs (as long as each student completes seven essays). The majority of my students were ready to move on to a five-paragraph essay. I added in some reading-based assignments, but allowed students to continue to use their personal experiences as supporting evidence. On the other hand, WS III students start off with the five-paragraph essay, usually experience-based as well. They concentrate on writing thesis statements, grammar, and eventually work up to doing peer editing in class. They also move on to reading-based essays and using citations by the end of the semester. The objective for these students is, in addition to proper grammar, unity, support and coherence, to be able to edit their own papers, and to start to critically read an article and write about it objectively. I think the largest leap into Freshman Comp 101 is that comp students must come up with a thesis statement that attempts to prove something, not one that just states the obvious. Of course, you've probably had some students in your classes that could have used a bit of developmental writing before coming into your class!
Paula: My problem this semester was not first-year students who needed developmental writing (although I did have a couple in my Victorian lit class). No, my problem was my seniors, all of whom were well trained in writing good essays. But good training did not always translate into motivation, as it turned out. I had some excellent essays in the senior seminar, and I also had some of the laziest work I’d ever read. It really took me aback. I try to tell myself that it was an acute and contagious case of senioritis, causing otherwise hard-working students to turn into do-the-bare-minimum artists in their last semester. But I can’t help blaming myself, too -- I had to have created the conditions that let them think they could get away with turning in such work. I hate giving C's. It’s a rare thing in a course for majors.
Mary: My students ran the gamut in both semesters: A’s through F’s. All of the F’s in my Writing III were simply no shows -- there wasn’t one student who tried but didn't pass. The Writing II class seemed to be divided in half -- they were either really strong or really weak writers. There were several students in my Writing II class who tried and still failed and there were a couple of others who were right on the border of passing or failing their final portfolios. The decision then comes down to which would benefit the student the most -- repeating the class or taking a risk of failing Writing Skills III the next semester. It’s a difficult decision, especially considering the non-credit status of the class and keeping the students motivated and interested in staying in school. I realize that not everyone is college material, but if students can maintain the desire to do well, then I really do believe that they will eventually succeed.
Paula: Well, I’m really proud of you. I know I never could have done it -- worked full time, taught during my lunch hour, and taken graduate classes at night. I loved doing grad school the traditional way, and teaching is a great joy for me. But I do envy you. I envy you the impact you have on your students -- the difference an inner-city two-year college can make in a student’s sense of self, career prospects, family life. I hope you can stick it out and eventually, if you want, move into full-time teaching.