Monday, March 29, 2010

five things I did not know about teaching Basic Comp

1) Junior- and senior-level education majors will try to register for it. Seriously. They're looking for an English course, any English course, to count toward the required language arts concentration, and either they do not know that "basic" is a euphemism for "remedial," or they're looking for the path of least resistance and don't care. (This is a problem, since the course doesn't actually count toward the concentration or toward the credit hours they need for graduation. You have to keep checking the class rolls and e-mail them when they pop up.)

2) The number of students enrolled can be anywhere from 4 (in the spring) to 40 (in the fall). I suspect that spring-semester and fall-semester classes require completely different strategies.

3) There are people -- native speakers of English -- who do not understand about parts of speech. As in, they'll write about "the advertise" or, conversely, "to advertisement a product." I don't know how to help this student. I don't know whether this phenomenon is a sign of a learning disability, but at any rate, it is far, far outside of the limited training in comp that I got as a grad student. (The official party line in my grad program was that native speakers almost never make grammatical errors, which is the sort of claim that makes me wonder whether any of the composition theorists have ever actually taught a class.)

4) My Basic students seem to be taking the class far more seriously than regular freshman comp students, and putting in more effort; they're needier, and they require more help, but they also do what they can to help themselves, including -- amazingly -- asking questions! (I suspect that insecurity and self-doubt are powerful motivators, provided they exist in just the right proportions and don't overwhelm the student's capacity for rational thought. Hell, that's what drove most of us through grad school, isn't it?)

5) A single bright, engaged student can set the tone for the entire class, particularly if it's an older, returning student who is a former addict and now wants to be a substance abuse counselor. I am in awe.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Regarding #3, I found a lot of my native speakers made these sorts of errors when I was teaching in Indiana. I grew up in Indianapolis, IN; the city kids were generally better with grammar than the country kids. One of my best friends in college used to say things like "That shirt needs ironed" instead of "That shirt needs to be ironed" or "needs ironing." That was constant and drove me nuts. I also found that people would screw up colloquial prepositions. I can't think of an example, but I'm guessing you've seen the same thing. (Oh, and misuse of the word "seen" was rampant, as in, "I seen it yesterday.") Perhaps composition theorists never taught in a town populated by trailer parks. :-/

Fretful Porpentine said...

But "That shirt needs ironed" and "I seen it yesterday" are genuine features of a particular dialect, right? I'm talking about more-or-less-random substitutions of words that are almost, but not quite right -- like "diction" for "dictionary." This definitely isn't how people normally talk in these here parts -- it's peculiar to this particular student.

Bardiac said...

Yeah, it's hard to differentiate between the feature of a regular dialect (shirt needs ironed) and an "error." It gets harder if you hang out with linguists!

Can you talk to the student with the grammar problem about reading issues and maybe ask about getting special help? Does your school have a way to help students with learning disabilities?

I think that's one of the hardest things about teaching comp, when someone doesn't seem to understand the basic language stuff but is a native speaker.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Can you talk to the student with the grammar problem about reading issues and maybe ask about getting special help? Does your school have a way to help students with learning disabilities?

Her ACT scores were low enough to flag her as high-risk, so theoretically she's already getting the best help we have to give her (a year-long learning skills course taught by the academic support specialist who also handles disabilities stuff), plus automatic enrollment in remedial-level reading, math, and writing. She has already passed the reading and math courses; this is her second attempt at writing.

Sisyphus said...

learning disability? sounds like the kids who never learned/couldn't sound out words and so start a word and then make up whatever sounds like a good "guess" for the ending instead of actually slowing down to read it. (I saw that a lot when I tutored k-12 at the learning center --- not sure if it's dislexia or a related strategy.)

Maybe have the student read the essay out loud to you very slowly?

Also, we had some of the students who had eye focusing problems and we cut a long oval in a piece of cardboard and fitted it over the text (as high and as wide as one line of type) to remind them to focus on one word (in the same line!) at a time instead of ducking their heads all about and not really focusing down on reading in a linear fashion.

And maybe the ed majors think it's about how to teach basic comp to k-12ers?

I dunno. Hope you're having a good spring!

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Dialect or not, that isn't standard English, and it shouldn't be included in composition essays. My Indiana comp students wrote like that all the time.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Fie -- Oh yeah, I'm not saying "needs ironed" is in any way appropriate for a formal essay -- all I'm saying is that it's the type of error that makes sense to me, because presumably it's a construction that students are used to hearing and using in informal speech. This student, on the other hand, writes things like "He is wearing an amazement ring," when she clearly means "amazing," and I'm pretty sure that she's never heard anyone use "amazement" as an adjective in her life.

Sisyphus -- Thanks for the potential explanation and the suggestions! That helps a lot.

Bardiac said...

Hmm, I would easily accept "that needs ironed" in a formal essay (about ironing?). It's pretty standard in some parts of the country; my linguist friend studies it, even.

How do you feel about "I'm going to the store; do you want to come with?"

the rebel lettriste said...

If the student with the diction problems speaks English as a second language, I wouldn't sweat it. Make her write and read a lot, and the fluency issue will eventually take care of itself.

If she does have an LD, and its documented, there are ways to help her--the disability services people should be able to direct you, or give her the support she needs.

At any rate, don't sweat the teaching of the grammar too much. Make them write like crazy, instead. And remember, they DO know grammar, as we all do--they wouldn't be able to make themselves verbally understood if they didn't. It's just that everything gets fucked up when they start writing.

the rebel lettriste said...

Sorry, disregard my misreading--the student is obviously not ESL.