Pedagogy 1.3 (2001) 535-537
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Overcoming Inertia in the Basic Writing
Classroom at Midsemester
As I write this essay, it is midsemester, and I have just conducted an informal assessment in my basic writing classes using 3 x 5 cards. On one side, students write their "successes," and on the other, they write their "struggles." A more common variation of this approach is to ask for verbal feedback, but in my experience students are not as honest face-to-face. By using the 3 x 5 card tactic, however, I am more likely to hear the negatives: "Reading responses are hard for me," "My notebook sucks," or "I have to use vocabulary words right in a sentence." As a new teaching assistant (TA) in the writing classroom, I used to believe that an indication of "struggle"--any sign of frustration or discouragement on the part of my students--reflected failure on my part. The longer I teach, though, the more I realize that the mild frustration expressed on these 3 x 5 cards is an indicator of growth.
Marcia Dickson (1995: 30) cautions that teachers too often make misinformed assumptions about basic writers and, consequently, judge them unfairly as "just lazy." I have found that most basic writers are not lazy but often are apathetic. Their apathy reminds me of a physics principle: an object at rest is static in relation to its surroundings and will remain that way indefinitely unless acted on by an outside force. If a teacher can blend encouragement with high expectations to overcome their inertia, students will begin, in some cases, to exert "force" in class, turning from "objects" into subjects, from pawns into agents. I interpret expressions of mild frustration on midsemester 3 x 5 cards as indications of potential energy being converted into kinetic energy, signs that students are leaving their comfort zones and receiving challenges and stimulation, which are conducive to growth and change.
When I assigned sections of Mike Rose's (1990) Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America's Educationally Underprepared to help my students see potential institutional and personal obstacles to their academic success, for example, one student expressed on a 3 x 5 card his antipathy toward reading responses. In class I invited that student to see me in my office, where I learned that his frustration stemmed from not understanding Rose's vocabulary and complex sentences. In response, I redemonstrated active reading for the student, having him engage in a dialogue [End Page 535] with the author, reading aloud the parts that gave him trouble, looking up words he did not understand, discussing what he thought the author was saying. His initial frustration at writing reading responses eventually changed to eagerness to talk and write about ideas in the book, remarking to other students in discussion what he thought the author meant and connecting his own educational experiences to those that Rose examines. The student continued to seek my help throughout the rest of the semester, at least in part because I had validated his frustration.
Another student, perhaps carrying baggage from her past writing experiences, was terribly blocked and complained on a 3 x 5 card that my writing assignments did not explain "what I wanted." I was not sure what she meant until I met with her. She told me that she wanted me to assign her writing topics because she was used to being told what to write and how to write it and was stymied by having to choose her own topics and structure. She also felt that her placement in a developmental writing class was "punishment" for her "bad" writing, and she was scared of further failure. We brainstormed together, and I expressed excitement over several of her suggestions for writing topics. I helped her focus her ideas and design an opening paragraph (we entertained several possibilities), and she went away with a smile. Later that semester she wrote a really fine essay about her adjustments to college life,
a self-selected topic. At...