If You Ask Me…

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When state performance measures came out this year and the Credit English Success (p.7) rate was below the average band, my first instinct was to become defensive. “It’s not my fault!” I wanted to scream and quickly blame someone else. Another instinct was to point the finger at society’s focus on data. However, after the initial flare up of self-protection, I calmed down and began to reflect more completely on the entirity of the report, which helped to put things into perspective. I want to be prepared to offer suggestions for improvement should anyone ever show any interest in what a retiring English educator with 33 years of experience thinks.

Although our college is considered below average in Credit English Success, we are above average in College Transfer Success (p. 17.) This is encouraging to me because it says that despite extraordinary circumstances such as the pandemic with its accompanying economic and cultural effects, our students who transferred to four-year institutions were well-prepared to continue their education.

Another encouraging factor is that while we are below the average band, only by .03 index points, I know we, and I don’t mean just the English department, I mean the entire college, WE can do so much more to help our students perform better in their English classes. One thing is already in the works, and that is a push to encourage, or even to require, students to take their English classes early in their programs. However, there is more that we as a college can do to help improve College English Success. Here are a few ideas:

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  • Normalize high standards for reading and writing. If students heard from every instructor across divisions how important reading and writing well is to success in school and the workplace, and if instructors incorporated more reading and writing assignments in all classes, our scores would go up.
  • Improve the writing assessment skills of instructors. Although most instructors have advanced degrees in their subject area and are experts in writing within their discipline, few have had any formal education on how best to assess reading and writing skills. Understanding ways to incorporate reading and writing assessments within instructors’ particular divisions based on the writing assessment techniques already used in the college’s English department would be a way to permeate all programs with a consistent standard without violating any instructor’s academic freedom. Topics of professional development could include

  • incorporating vocabulary and other reading lessons into any course
  • adding consistent writing criteria into advanced grading methods such as rubrics, checklists, and marking guides.
  • composing engaging writing assignments with clear instructions.
  • teaching best practices of composition teachers and explore how to translate these techniques into the non-English classroom
  • how to save time when grading written assignments while maintaining high standards of written communication
  • Promote the importance of communication skills throughout the College, maybe even plan special events that highlight the importance of reading and writing in all disciplines. Many organizations are eager to partner with community colleges, groups such as PEN America and the National Writing Project that declares, “Writing is essential to learning, critical thinking, and active citizenship” (NWP).
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  • Across the campus, teach not only students but also faculty and staff the importance of strong reading and writing skills for school and for the workplace. Here are just a few facts.
    • Reading well improves the ability to follow instructions, and reading complex texts, like literature, peer-reviewed scholarly articles, and professional journals, increases critical thinking, a skill highly prized by today’s employers according to World Economic Forum.
    • An August 2022 article from Business News Daily, reports on the professional benefits of reading books, fiction as well as non-fiction, including fostering empathy and creativity as well as developing problem-solving and cognitive skills. According to the article, reading can even lessen stress and build perseverance, skills students definitely need now and in the future. Imagine if all instructors were curating interesting and engaging readings for their students. They would be expanding their knowledge of their own disciplines while encouraging their own students to develop their reading skills.
    • The importance of strong communication skills in the workplace continues to be of high importance in 2022 as reported by major educational institutions like Harvard and MIT as well as career-seeking sites, such as Indeed, Monster, Zip Jobs, and Linked In.
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  • Another thing we can do to work on the problem is to develop a college-wide system for remediating students who need extra help with their writing. For example, when I was a graduate student at Western Carolina University low these many years ago, I worked as a graduate assistant in the Writing Center. I would often tutor students who had received a “CC” on their essays in a course other than English. I can’t remember what CC stands for after all of these years, but I do remember that professors gave CC’s to essays that did not meet basic college-level English standards. Students who received two CC’s would be enrolled at no expense in a remedial English program. The word was that no student wanted to endure that class, so they would come to the Writing Center for help. I remember receiving a thank you note from one grateful student whose scores on all of his essays improved upon just a few visits to the Writing Center. Our college might do something like this–develop a system to identify students in non-English classes who have writing issues and allow them to complete revisions for a higher grade only if they visit the Student Success Center to work on that revision. We already have a referral system in place, but if all instructors could be more proactive in addressing the need to improve writing skills campus-wide, then our success rates would increase.

Just a few ideas of what the college as a whole could do to improve our English scores. Next time on Hey, Mrs. Winkler I’ll offer some suggestions on ways the administration can help English faculty as they struggle to help improve retention and success for our students.

Even if they don’t ask me.

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