Report Back from the New Jersey Writing Alliance 2015 Conference

IMG_3388 On Thursday, May 28, 2015 a group of us from the First Year Writing Program (FYW) here at Montclair State University ventured out to Georgian Court University in Lakewood, NJ to attend the 16th Annual New Jersey Writing Alliance Conference. Jessica Restaino, Director of FYW, was able to cover our registration fees, and the group of us met as the conference started with breakfast and the keynote address.

What follows is a collaborative write-up of the conference sessions by FYW faculty members Joanmarie Kalter, Henry Margenau, Shelagh Patterson, and Jacqueline Regan. The conference is a great opportunity to bridge conversations between high school and college teachers of writing. Here’s a glimpse of what went on under this year’s theme, “From Common Core to College Composition: How Do They (Dis)Connect?”

Keynote Address

Common Core ELA Standards Across the Disciplines, Kimberly Harrington, Chief Academic Officer & Director of Academic Standards, NJ Department of Education

On Thursday May 28, I attended the NJWA conference. Although primarily geared toward high school English teachers, it provided the FYW instructor with a clear picture of how future students’ writing and reading needs will be addressed via the core standards. Kimberly Harrington, from the NJ Department of Education, provided the audience with some background on the core and how the standards should be implemented in the different subject areas. She addressed the problems of teaching to a test and urged teachers not to do so. Unfortunately some administrators and teachers will feel the need to direct and design instruction based on the test, and we as FYW instructors will then have to address this problem. However, it is encouraging that all students will be adhering to the same standards, and there will be some sense of consistency in how well students are prepared for college. (Jackie)

Kimberly Harrington did an excellent job extolling the positive aspects of PARCC outlining where it promotes critical thinking, where it promotes digital literacy, and where it promotes arts literacy. In many ways, the literacy that Harrington was arguing for is very similar to the definitions of literature I explored with my students in ENWR106 this semester as we experimented with what it meant to “read” a videogame or a pop song as literature and historicized these questions by reading performance-based literature from Ancient Greece. From Harrington’s presentation, PARCC seemed like the solution its proponents say it is. Her presentation, however, did not address the reasons why there is a growing movement in New Jersey to refuse to take the test. From what I gathered from conversations with high school teachers, the major concern with PARCC is what happens when the primary goal of a curriculum is corporate profit. What type of human does the economics behind PARCC create? (Shelagh)

There were a number of interesting points Kimberly Harrington made in her keynote speech which touched on the multimodal writing environment that high school students are immersed in (and which plays a significant role in the first year writing classroom).  She talked a lot about the pitfalls of centering writing instruction on how to compose essays for various standardized testing situations, scenarios in which students, as she mentioned, are “writing for a machine” rather than a human reader.  I wanted to attend the NJWA conference primarily to learn more about the Common Core State Standards and the type of environment students who we will have in First Year Writing have come from. This idea of “writing for a machine” particularly interested me because, as we often see in our composition classes, students have trouble with the idea of audience and envisioning a particular reader for their work.  Furthering this idea, she discussed various reading situations using YouTube instructional videos as an example.  Harrington stated, “Anything they want to learn, there’s a video for it.  But how do they read it?”  I found this interesting because YouTube videos are a hybridized medium; on one hand, the viewer has an actual person to connect with (or take instruction from in this case), but on the other hand it is a one-way exchange; viewers miss out on the ability to ask questions and engage with the material on a more substantial level.  Students are used to engaging with these types of texts on a regular basis and it made me think more about how often high school students are reading without “reading.” (Henry)

Breakout Session One

Empowering Developmental Writing Students through a Non-Traditional Approach to Academic Assistance: An Inter-Institutional Collaborative, Veronica Guevara-Lovgren, Doreen Castellanos, Danielle Murphy, and Lynn Kraemer-Siracusa, Ocean Community College, and Neva Lozada, Monmouth University

The presentation began with Neva Lozada of Monmouth University providing the audience with a history of Supplemental Instruction (SI) which was developed at the University of Missouri, Kansas City in 1973. SI sessions target historically difficult courses and provide voluntary collaborative learning opportunities for students. After Lozada spoke about how she revived the SI sessions at Monmouth, Veronica Guevara-Lovgren of Ocean Community College presented how she adapted SI for the first-year writing classroom at a college where “one of the best (if not the best) failure indicators…is to withdraw or fail English 091 their first semester of college.” After its first year, it seems that SI is working in meaningful ways to fulfill the college’s mission to develop intentional learners who are empowered, informed, and responsible. This was an excellent and inspiring presentation of a program that seems to be strengthen learning for all students by focusing on the needs of the students most likely to fail. (Shelagh)

Let’s Take a Closer Look: Best Practices for Implementing Close Reading Strategies in the Classroom, Marie Palma (Arthur L. Johnson High School)

The first session I attended was on close reading. The instructor gave us examples of how she utilizes close reading in her classroom. She provided some excellent ideas on how to use close reading to help create analysis by choosing thought-provoking passages and providing direction for student annotations, which in turn help students answer a critical question about the passage. I believe this will be very valuable to introduce in both 105 and 106. It can help students begin the process of making meaning from the text as well as introduce the concept of analysis, which many students struggle to understand. (Jackie)

Though I always introduce close reading (annotating, “active” reading) in my classes, I suspect that many students drop the practice as soon as it’s no longer explicitly required. To avoid this, Palma suggests periodically introducing a “cold reading.” She distributes a passage new to her students; has them read it, silently and independently; and annotate it on the spot, looking first “as through a magnifying glass” to observe its details, and then to interpret those details, asking “what does the author want me to understand here?”

Another variation is what she calls “interrupted readings.”  She finds a passage long enough to divide into several sections and posts each section around the room.  In small groups, students go from section to section, writing/annotating first without discussion about the section, then comparing notes with others in the group.  At the end, the class as a whole discusses a “core question” about the reading.

Palma also recommends the Harvard College Writing Center as an online resource. (Joanmarie)

Student Affect and the Transition to College, Rachel Howe, Katie Budris, Andrew Davison, and Bonny Chezik, Rowan University

The morning session I attended discussed student affect and how students’ experiences with classroom dynamics, teacher/student interaction, and motivation shape how they will enter college.  The speakers talked a lot about the problem of “students as consumers,” one that exists in high schools and which we, unfortunately, face on the college level as well.  This “consumer” mentality,” according to the speakers, does not only devalue and debase the learning experience for high school students, but also breeds a mentality of entitlement.  One example of a product of this mindset, they argued, was that an A is seen as a default grade.  In other words, students have the mentality that simply “completing work is above average.”  I’ve encountered this attitude many times in my classes (as I’m sure many of you have) and it was interesting to chart the foundations of this entitlement.  Because of this, students are likely to form what the speakers referred to as a “fixed” vs. a “flexible” mindset in which they are concerned more with how they will be judged (and whom to blame for this harsh judgment) rather than how they can do better.  Students with a “fixed” mindset lack what the panelists referred to as “grit,” the ability to persevere in the face of criticism or failure.  I went to the 4 C’s conference this year (Conference on College Composition and Communication) and attended a panel that discussed the benefits of failure.  Though “grit” wasn’t named as such at that panel, the ideas are the same.  Thinking about how to cultivate “grit” seems to be a worthy question for our first year writing classes, one that requires us to really think about how to give students a sense of what’s at stake for each writing task. (Henry)

Breakout Session Two

PARCC and Recreation: How Nature Writing Is Revitalizing the Core Curriculum at the University of the Sciences, Christine Flanagan, University of the Sciences

Christine Flanagan presented a persuasive argument for the role of nature writing in combatting the problems of core curriculums that make cuts to literature and humanities. To find writings about nature, she urged us to look beyond the usual suspects like Emerson and Thoreau and began her presentation with a group reading and analysis of a long paragraph about a fox hunt from John McPhee’s The Pine Barrens where by the end of the paragraph the fox is at the top of the hierarchy between human and animal. Flanagan’s pedagogical goals seem to be to get her students to challenge their commonly hold perspectives on the relationships between us as humans and the worlds in which we find ourselves. I imagine the success of her teaching has as much to do with the texts she assigns as it does her charismatic intelligence as it, but nevertheless, here’s a list from her MD212 Nature class at University of the Sciences: creation stories from Judeo-Christian, Egyptian, Hindu, African, and Native American traditions; Copernicus; Galilei; Bacon; Addison; Turner; Twain; Emerson; Whitman; Muir; Malthus; Darwin; Hersey; Talcott; Parsons; Carson; Palmer. For a more scholarly conversation about the role of science in the humanities classroom, Flanagan recommended the article “Eh? The Rise of the Environmental Humanities Movement” by Peter Wood and Rachelle Peterson. A useful project would be to go back and read texts that have been canonized as slave narratives using the lens of Environmental Humanities and nature writing as a preemptive solution to the problems of creating literary categories within systems that have institutionalized racism. (Shelagh)

The Scaffolded Research Assignment, Edmund Jones (Seton Hall University)

The second session I attended was on writing a literary research paper. Ed Jones provided some insightful ideas on how to help students learn to create a conversation between sources and then draw their own conclusions from evaluating multiple sources.

By creating a google doc, he has students write questions about the literature they have read for homework. Then students answer their peers’ questions. For their first essay, students use the answers of their peers as evidence. He finds that quoting other students helps establish the concept of making connections between sources placing them in a conversation rather than simply included them as evidence of a thesis. It was a really informative session, but, unfortunately, there was not enough time. (Jackie)

In Jones’s next essay assignment (following this progressively “scaffolded approach”), he chooses three critical sources on a literary work for his students, and requires them to add one more of their own.  He has them compose a chart in which they paraphrase and quote from each source (listed horizontally across the top) according to whether the source is “in support of my perspective” or “challenging my perspective” on a series of points listed vertically on the left.  The column on the far right is for a “synthesis of ideas” in which the student considers his own perspective on this conversation among his sources, point by point.  At the bottom of this far-right column the student will write his “synthesis of syntheses” – his central claim.

In the final essay, the student finds his own sources entirely as he considers a question he cares about.  By this time, according to Jones’s plan, the student understands that research is not linear but recursive.  He no longer simply drops in sources as “back up” to his preconceived claim, but selects sources that help lead him to a more narrowly focused question. Jones generally requires two drafts after the student completes his chart. (Joanmarie)

Synthesize This! How to Help Your Students Rock the Common Core and More, Kristie-Anne Opaleski-Dimeo, Jackson Liberty High School, and Laurie Hunter, Freehold Regional H.S. District and Brookdale Community College

I attended this panel because I wanted to find out more about the Common Core and what our students are doing in their high school English classes.  After the NJWA conference, I feel like I have a better idea of the types of skills that the Common Core curriculum focuses on.  What I wanted to find out, in a general sense, is why students are going through these revised state standards and yet coming to college seemingly unprepared for making claims and thinking critically about texts in many respects.  What I found out about the Common Core standards for English and writing is that they sound comprehensive and relevant to our first year writing learning goals.  Laurie Hunter gave a presentation where she showed a sample assignment on Fahrenheit 451 where students were asked to come up with claims, pick specific quotes and explain their use as evidence, and to focus on transitions.  I was delighted to see that these types of concerns were being discussed in high school English classes.  However, after the panel I was still left with questions (perhaps even more) about this gap between these seemingly well-intentioned and focused writing standards Hunter uses with her students and how and why these same standards seem alien to many students in our first year writing classes.  Is the Common Core not being carried out in this manner across the board?  Perhaps it consists mostly of good intentions and does not accurately reflect the level of engagement and retention on the part of students.  The impression the presenters gave of the Common Core and how it is being utilized, at least in their schools and classes, seemed directly in line with the types of global and local issues we stress in first year writing.  However, I did not leave with an answer to my question about how and why many students, products of the Common Core standards, seem to have floated through them without retaining much of it. (Henry)

Breakout Session Three From FLC to TLC: An Exploration of Linguistic Differences & Student Experiences with Academic Writing, Cynthia Kopp and Sharada Krishnamurthy (Rowan University)

The final session I attended focused on the experiences of ESL students in learning academic writing. I had been hoping for some strategies on how to help second language learners, but the session focused more on the respect for an individual’s language as part of his or her identity as well as the importance of peer tutors helping these students not only with their language skills but with their transition into the culture of the academy. (Jackie)

I attended this panel with Jackie.  One thing that I found to be particularly thought provoking was when the speakers discussed a sense of “distance between their [students] worldview and the academic worldview.”  They also articulated this as “ideological disenfranchisement.”  Cynthia Kopp stated that the “student who gains admission…must lose or deny…her home knowledge…to acquire the power to defend…the validity of that worldview.” I found this notion fascinating.  I’ve thought along these lines before, but Kopp articulated it in such as way that it became a fresh idea to me.  She discussed this “disenfranchisement” and the preference for an academic tone to be a hostile act that undermines customs, values, and social conventions of students from other countries and cultures.  For instance, sometimes we perceive students’ approach to writing an introduction, for instance, to be wrong if it’s too wordy or doesn’t get to the point quickly enough.  However, in another culture (I believe she mentioned some Asian cultures) it is seen as impolite and without social etiquette to “talk business” right away without some type of buffer conversation.  Another interesting idea is that telling all students that they are writers (as I have been known to do in my classes) is in itself, as Kopp said, “a colonizing gesture we make in claiming the right to name them.”  (Henry)

Norm!  How to Know It When you See It:  Consistency in Grading Essays, Roberta Reavey and Don Stoll (Rowan University)

From this third and final session I attended, I learned that there are significant inconsistencies in the grading of essays.  The participants, who included both high school and college writing instructors, read and evaluated three essays that students had written for the 2005 AP English Language and Composition test.  We all agreed that essay #2 was the least proficient, but there was considerable – and heated – disagreement about the relative merits of essays #1 and #3.

No rubric was provided, and that could have exacerbated the debate.  Different instructors looked for and valued different aspects of the essays.  But I left feeling that our FYW department should do more to develop a common set of criteria, and make it as detailed and explicit as possible.  It’s not fair to our students to leave their grades so vulnerable to the differing standards of their instructors.   And if you have a child who’s soon to take the AP Lang and Comp test, be forewarned:  the grading is fairly random! (Joanmarie)

Common Core, College-Ready: What Do These Mean? Ask a High School or College Teacher, Olga Polites, Cherokee High School and Rowan University; Kristie-Anne Opaleski-Dimeo, Jackson Liberty High School; Laurie Hunter, Freehold Regional H.S. District and Brookdale Community College; Jessica Hausmann, Georgian Court University; and Amy Woodworth, Rowan University.

This was an exciting roundtable discussion–where we raised questions and began conversation between the writing instruction we are doing in the high school classroom and instruction we are doing in the college classroom. There seemed to be a tension between trying to have a pedagogical approach that can encompass, and perhaps solve, all and a desire to understand that for students to negotiate different approaches to the teaching of writing prepares them for a world where they feel comfortable navigating difference.  (Shelagh)


That’s all from us…until next year… hope to see you there. For a link to the full schedule click here:–saving-to-convert-for-2016.html.


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