Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Helping students prepare a work plan

In the first school, the students come to class with an index for the text to be produced, and the teacher helps them narrow down the subject, define a focus and the main idea, relate concepts, and think of the structure of the text in different sections with the corresponding subsections; in short, the teacher helps them prepare a work plan, asking questions and pointing to the need to plan which ideas should be driving and organizing the work. In the second meeting, the teacher reads the drafts and asks the authors to define the main problem they faced while writing, making relevant suggestions, but never losing sight of the hierarchy, selection, and organization of the concepts to be included. The teacher stresses the need to create an autonomous text, and for them to think like producers, since the reader should be able to reconstruct the author's thought through the clues left in the text; the teacher indicates problems in the cohesion and coherence of the text (conceptual leaps that need to be marked with connectors, with transitional sentences or separate sections); the teacher questions the relevance of certain segments in relation to the whole; the teacher proposes relocating some ideas, he or she suggests cutting other parts that make the text weaker, and teaches the students how to use a paragraph as a unity in subject, etc.
The goal of this situation is to promote the experience of writing as rewriting, to promote the planning and reviewing of the major aspects of the text -its content and organization- several times during the process, providing a procedural model, from an external reviewer, who observes the text from the perspective of the reader, not the author's, so that the students can gradually incorporate this perspective. In fact, the teacher shares with the students his or her own experience when writing, and admits that he or she still faces difficulties that are intrinsic to all form of writing that involves rearranging what you already know in order to make it clearer, more understandable, founded, and more solid. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Writing Styles

The teaching time and the teacher's time

Addressing the writings of the students takes more time than not doing it: time that is subtracted from working other concepts of the subject, time that is added to the workload of teachers (writing guides, answer models, a correction criteria, and lists of exam questions, as well as time to thoroughly read the works of the students, and make accurate observations in order to improve them). However, ultimately, a part of the teaching job is reduced, since putting together this materials is done during one school year, but can be used in many others, reducing future class preparation time, and giving the teachers systematized teaching tools. It is also true that fewer curriculum contents are discussed, although (paradoxically?) students learn more as a whole, because writing and reading suddenly appear in the curriculum, and because this impacts and improves the learning of the former.
Regardless, teaching reading and writing help the students, but demands a workload that does not exist if this task is overlooked, and takes time from teaching other topics. These are two problems that make us review the hours of students and teachers, the number of students per class, and the objectives of their education. These are two problems -of a political, administrative, educational and academic nature- that relate to the definition of what type of university we want, what type of students we want to educate, and if we are really willing to take charge of their education. 

Writing assignment: An activity that focuses on planning the text

The limited time requires rigorous organization and the selection of the content to be addressed, which implies determining what is relevant, building a hierarchy of notions and concepts. Planning ahead is perfect with this activity. 
Start by reading and creating a summary, what stands out is the evaluation of various text levels (depending on the focus or the problematic of the text), during which the authors receive comments from real readers about their own writing. In fact, this is one of the few situations in which writing, within the context of learning, addresses not only to the teacher or the students, but also to genuine readers. The collective review serves as a model and as a tutored practice for writing the actual exam. Students who voluntarily make the summary report that they learn a lot: they learn to write and to actually understand the contents.
As a reading assignment, the summary helps link what was worked in class with what they read in the literature, and to revisit the topics of previous classes. Students who attended the class compare the summary to their own notes and evaluate if the most relevant concepts are included. If those who are reading were absent in the class, they receive information about what they missed before. On the other hand, the teacher can see what the students have understood in class, and explain concepts again in case of misunderstanding; it also allows him or her to display the correction criteria in act.
I cannot ignore that this activity takes time from classes, during which there is no progress on new topics. Since reviewing notes can take too long if they are really comprehensive, it's the role of the teacher to determine the focus of analysis. Writing the summary is a very laborious task; therefore not all students want to get involved in it. As a teacher, I have to spend a considerable amount of my time in the beginning of the course writing the first two summaries, but if I don't do that I take away from the students a model that they can follow, and I don't encourage any compromise from their part. 

Deciding what is important in your text

Every week a couple of students take notes on the class, at home they then select organize the most important concepts and bring copies to distribute among the other students (1 to 2 pages). The idea is for the notes to be easily understood by those who were not present in the class. Therefore, they have to produce an autonomous text (as opposed to personal notes). These summaries are read in the beginning of the next class, in order to resume the topics started on the one before. Collectively, everyone makes comments to improve the written text. Through these comments, the content is reworked, and the difficulties in understanding the topic of the previous class are assessed. The teacher intervenes, suggesting reformulations. In order not to make the activity a boring routine, after several practice sessions, the reading and analysis are done at home, so the students and the teacher can suggests comments and observations in the start of the following class. The summaries and student's notes are saved, and the students can reuse them as revised notes on the subject of the class, which helps them to organize the reading material for the final exam.
At the beginning of the course, before the students are responsible for making these summaries, the teacher records the first and second class, and in the third, he or she brings copies of his or her own written notes, one in a narrative format and the other in an expository format. They read and analyze them, reflecting on the differences between narrating and exposing, on the various functions of writing (mnemonic, communicative and epistemic) and on the curriculum, which is reworked in spirals while using these summaries. Then the teacher proposes that students take turns to take notes on the remaining classes. The teacher's participation in recording the first classes works as a model to follow, and shows his or her compromise towards the group.
The learning objectives of this activity are many: to make the students face a writing assignment directed towards actual and real recipients, that they go over the issues discussed in the previous class and determine their relative importance, that they can revisit the concepts that presented any difficulty in learning, that they experience a situation of collective review as a model that can be transferred into other situations, and that they be aware of different text levels in the teacher's correction criteria. Moreover, this activity aims to reflect on the difference between narrative and expository texts, on the need for autonomous writings, on its functions (external memory, communication at distance or in time, representation and knowledge development). 

Preparing for the exam

The exam needs to be prepared from the beginning of the semester. Students may notice what the teacher observes when correcting a text during the elaboration of class summaries, when they collectively review the class notes (see below for a further description). Also, a few weeks before the assessment, students receive a comprehensive list of potential questions (about 30), some of which will be those that they have to effectively answer in the actual exam. These questions focus on reading the literature in a particular way, different from the previous readings that they do throughout the classes, using guidelines that can help them read the texts thoroughly. Exam questions demand a higher level of abstraction and generalization, they seek to establish relationships between texts and authors, between the literature and the topics addressed in the classes.
A week before the first midterm exam, students participate in an exam simulation: during class hours, they have to give written answers to these potential questions, in the same time they have during the real exam, and writing them in the same length. This time they are not qualified. This is considered a class for trying the dynamics of the actual examination, and reviewing the questions that may be asked on the topics seen in class. As they deliver the answers, the teacher reads some of them and chooses those that contain common difficulties, exemplifying virtues, or shortcomings worthy of comment. Together with the group of students, the teacher reads these selected responses and proposes an analysis, as if to revise the text and improve it, in regard to its content and form. On the blackboard, everyone collectively builds the structure and contents that the ideal answer should have. The teacher then tells the students that he or she will evaluate the exams in the following week, according to the same criteria shown during this collective simulation. Finally, the teacher gives a written evaluation criteria, which he or she will be taking into account when assessing the actual exams, as well as a model of ideal response; everyone reads these and comments. 

Taking charge of reading and writing in every subject

There is still another reason that justifies the inclusion of reading and writing as inseparable from teaching the particular concepts of a subject. Since there is no appropriation of ideas that doesn't imply some form of rewording, and since the latter depends largely on the analysis and writing of academic texts, reading and writing can be considered distinctive learning instruments. And since it is not possible to take the procedures for understanding and producing text for granted, it is necessary for the teacher to guide and provide support to the students. Taking charge of teaching reading and writing in college is a way of teaching learning strategies. To take charge of teaching to read and write in college is to help students learn.
In short, we must consider the teaching of reading and writing in every subject for two reasons. First, learning the contents of each field consists of two tasks: to appropriate its conceptual and methodological system, as well as its discursive practices, since “a discipline is a discursive and rhetorical space, as well as conceptual”. Furthermore, in order to incorporate any type of knowledge, students have to recreate it again and again; reading and writing become essential tools in this task of assimilation and transformation of knowledge. Therefore, students need to learn to read and write. Isn't it the work of teachers to help them achieve that? 

Who should be in charge of teaching reading and writing in college?

Addressing reading and writing in college

“Students don't know how to write. They do not understand what they read. They do not read”. These complaints, coming from teachers, appear throughout the entire education system, starting from primary education, all the way to college. And the responsibility always seems to fall to someone else: the primary education institution should have done something that it didn't, parents should have done something too, etc. And also, they say, secondary education (or a college entrance course) should train students to reach higher education already knowing how to write, read and study.
There is a certain fallacy in all of this, which implies a simultaneous complaint and rejection to deal with teaching to read and write in college. The reasoning stems from a hidden premise, an assumption that, once revealed, turns out to be false. It is assumed that academic writing and reading are general skills, learned (or not learned) outside of a disciplinary structure, and not specifically related to any specific discipline. The idea that reading and writing are separate and independent from the learning of each discipline is as widespread as it is questionable. Many researchers state, however, that reading and writing at college level demands learning a particular form of discursive production and text consultation for each individual subject, and the possibility of receiving guidance and support from those who master and participate in these practices.
Without detracting from the valuable work performed by reading and writing workshops being offered in the beginning of university courses, it seems that this work is inherently inadequate. That is, the nature of what must be learned (reading and writing specific texts for each subject in the context of disciplinary and academic practices) requires an approach that belongs to the context of each individual subject. A course in reading and writing, separated from the effective contact with the materials, methods, and the conceptual and methodological problems of a particular scientific-professional field serves as a reflexive activity towards the production and comprehension of texts, but does not prevent the discursive and strategic difficulties that students meet when they are challenged to belong to the academic community. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The need for a support program

I have tried to show that teaching writing in a humanities class it is to integrate this topic in situations where the teacher guides the students in the production of academic texts. While this experience has been highly valued by the students and by the teacher who is practicing it, it's not a popular practice that transcends the classes in which it occurs, and has no institutional support. Few teachers and university authorities in our environment are aware that reading and writing are one of the main skills to be learned and taught when you learn and teach a specific subject: on the contrary, understanding and writing texts are considered only as a transparent medium for acquiring the concepts in the curriculum.
To extend this idea to teachers of other subjects, who do not have experience in teaching how to understand and produce texts, would require the creation of a "support program for reading and writing in college", in order to guide teachers according to their needs, offer training, propose models and distribute selected bibliography, and to offer the assistance of an expert that can help to plan and analyze the reading and writing activities that can be undertaken. This is already present in most of Australian, Canadian, and United States universities, which recognize the need to address reading and writing at higher education, that have realized that it's not enough to implement initial workshops that are separated from the classes, and that have overcome a "remedial" conception of teaching reading and writing in college.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A reader that cooperates by discussing draft texts

When the number of students allows it, and as a way of being tested, students write an expository work in groups of three; before delivering the final version, they meet with the teacher twice, for about 20 minutes, in order to discuss their drafts. As part of the writing assignment, they receive written guidelines for developing the text, and the criteria by which it will be corrected. During this tutoring, the teacher acts as an external, critical reader, and commits to improving the text.
As students of the Bachelor of Science in Education, the students must develop a thesis to graduate; the teacher presents the writing of these papers as a simulation task: students write the text as if it were a section of the theoretical framework for their thesis; they have to present the most relevant concepts in different learning theories, which are the foundations of all pedagogical practices. Thus, the paper needs to follow a defined format, and to address an imaginary audience; nevertheless, it has a very specific purpose, that is, it's framed in a rhetorical context. The teacher explains that their productions will be the instrument that will assess the understanding of the contents worked in the class, and that the writing process can give them an idea of what starting a thesis implies: a theoretical framework presents the background from which the problem to be addressed makes sense. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Reading and writing situations in the humanities field

When I took the chair of Learning Theories at the National University of San Martin in 1997, I decided to multiply and include -within the explicit curriculum- the production of text and reading comprehension exercises, as I was convinced that the appropriation of the educational content couldn’t be done without a form of written elaboration. In this paper, I will discuss three of these activities: 1) tutorials for group writings 2) exam preparation, and 3) class summary elaboration. All of these three situations clearly include reviewing times for the student's written production, during which, as a teacher, I speak from the perspective of an external reader that expects a text to be autonomously comprehensive, in which the ideas are developed and organized in order to facilitate the task of the reader.

Tutorials for group writings
The monograph is a form of evaluation that has recently taken off in college. However, the term monograph designates no clearly defined textual form. It has been observed that there is no consensus about what a teacher expects of a monograph, that it is something between an exposition and an argumentation, and that there are no guidelines on how to write one for the students, who in turn write it following their own idea of the task. On the other hand, it clearly differs from a written exam in a classroom, due to its longest extent and to the fact that it allows the students to consult bibliography as they write it.
The activity of writing-discussing-and-rewriting that I organize has the intention of guiding students in the production of texts, and to assist them in the difficulties encountered, and to clarify that producing a text is a process that is framed in a rhetorical context. It also offers an alternative to the usual experience of having to write a piece and receive a note and evaluation only at the end of the semester.