Integrating Reading and Writing.
Article by Katie Hern.
With 3 levels of developmental reading and 3 levels of developmental writing, a Citrus College student who blew the placement test could spend a year and a half and take a total of 18 remedial units before he even got to college English. If, that is, he could even get into the classes he needed.
Starting in Fall 2011, aside from a few grandfathered sections for students already in the pipeline, Citrus College has replaced its entire curriculum. Most developmental students now enroll in just one 5-unit integrated reading and writing course. The rest take an additional 1-unit lab.
When Citrus College presented this change at a 3CSN regional acceleration workshop in Spring 2011, they electrified the packed room of Southern California faculty. The workshop had begun with a discussion of the need to shorten remedial pathways in English and math and eliminate the exit points where students are lost. Now here was a college that had done just that, in a bigger way than anyone in the room thought possible. How did they do it?
Becky Rudd, an English instructor helping to lead the effort, says that focusing on student completion was key. “All the stats show that for every level you add, the percentage who complete drops,” she says.
Data from the new online Basic Skills Progress Tracker illustrates the point. In Fall 2007, 203 students enrolled for the first time in Citrus’s developmental writing course three levels below transfer. Three years later, at the end of Spring 2010, just 32 of those students had passed college-level English at Citrus, a completion rate of 16%. Another year didn’t make much of a difference: by Spring 2011, only 37 students from the original group had completed college English, or 18%.
“You need to get them through faster to get a higher completion rate,” says Rudd. “They just won’t stick around if it’s going to take them two years.”
The redesign was also buoyed by the college’s experience with what they called “Fast Track” courses – a version of acceleration sometimes called “compression,” in which two separate levels are taught back to back within the same semester in a more intensive format. Students’ success rates in Fast Track had been impressive, and faculty were becoming increasingly aware of the redundancy in their developmental offerings. Maybe students didn’t really need all those levels.
The budget climate of the last few years provided an additional push. The college just couldn’t afford to keep offering 3, 4, 5, 6 separate courses to move a group of students into college English. They began to ask, “What can we do that’s going to serve the largest number of students possible?”
But even with all these nudges toward change, the redesign could have gone nowhere if Citrus had not been skillful about navigating one of the hot-buttons of acceleration: the integration of separate reading and writing curricula, with separate reading and writing faculty and separate minimum qualifications.
Here’s a common dynamic: writing teachers claim that they already teach reading (they assign reading in class, have class discussions about it), and they don’t know why there need to be separate reading courses. Reading teachers feel like their expertise is being discounted and that they’re about to be swallowed up by the Goliath English department. Arms start crossing, heads start shaking, and the conversation is over.
Rudd says that, when they first started talking about acceleration, she and her colleagues were only thinking about redesigning the writing sequence. But the new transfer-degree legislation SB 1440 had created space for a different kind of conversation. Because the new degrees did not include a college-level reading requirement, some of her colleagues were concerned about the long-term implications for separate reading courses.
Citrus came up with a solution that colleges around the country are increasingly considering: an integrated curriculum that teachers with either credential can teach (minimum qualifications for English or reading), combined with intentional professional development to “cross train” them in the other area.
Citrus used basic skills funds to support Rudd to serve as faculty lead and organize professional development activities to support the integrated curricula. She and a core group of English and reading teachers got together and asked the question, “In a perfect world, what do you want students to walk away with?”
On the reading side, for example, the faculty wanted students to be able to read critically, make inferences, identify main ideas. On the writing side, they wanted students to have a good sense of essay structure, be able to write a clear thesis, and provide rich supporting details.
The next question: “How do you make this happen in your classroom?” The organizers collected handouts and information from faculty in both areas and used these to set up a Blackboard online space. They also held three in-person workshops in the summer before the new classes began, and faculty took turns sharing classroom activities with each other.
Rudd says she noticed that there was a lot of overlap between the two disciplines but that they used different language – reading teachers might say “main idea,” while writing teachers might say “topic sentence” or “thesis.” Rudd posted a glossary on the Blackboard site to help build a more common language.
During the first semester of the new course – Fall 2011 – faculty had three more in-person meetings, and Rudd kept her door open to her colleagues. Writing teachers could drop by to talk about addressing students’ reading skills; reading teachers could get help with responding to student essays. Sometimes Rudd and her colleagues would review student essays together. She recalls one essay in which the student was trying to blow the teacher away with his vocabulary, but he didn’t actually have much content. Hearing what Rudd — formerly a “writing teacher” — saw in the student’s work, the former “readingteacher” felt more equipped to guide the student on his writing.
Results to Date:
Student outcomes from the first semester were good. According to the Basic Skills Progress Tracker, in Fall 2011, 763 students enrolled in the new 5-unit accelerated course as their first class in the English writing sequence, and 538 of them passed, a first-time success rate of 70.5%. (First-time pass rates are calculated in the Progress Tracker by using the same time frame for the cohort start term and end term – in this case, Fall 2011.) How does this compare to first-time pass rates under the old curriculum? In Fall 2010, the English writing course one-level-below transfer had a first-time pass rate of 80.6%, two-levels-below was 67.3%, and three-levels-below was 40.6%.
Of course, the most important outcome will be how many students from the original cohort go on to pass the college English course under the new curriculum. By shortening the pipeline, Citrus has dramatically reduced the number of exit points in students’ paths, so this completion rate is expected to go up significantly, especially among students who previously would have been placed 2-3 levels below college. We’ll have to wait until Summer 2012, when spring grades are finalized from the first year, to get our first glimpse of this outcome.
While the data is still in process, the benefits of integrating reading and writing are already clear to Rudd. Last semester, she organized her new class around the theme of what makes for a meaningful life, using Peter Buffet’s book Life is What You Make It and other supplemental readings. “The level of writing is much deeper because it’s a response to something they’ve read,” she says. Engagement is higher, and students are adopting the language of the text, taking new vocabulary and making it their own. “To me, as a composition instructor, that’s the ultimate. We’re not just transforming their writing, we’re transforming who they are.”
Rudd says the cross-trainings have made her more aware of how to approach reading in the classroom, such as being more explicit about teaching students to make inferences. “It’s so helpful,” she says. “How do you come up with a theme for analyzing literature? It’s an inference!”
Another person on the Citrus redesign team is Suzanne Martinez, the College Success Coordinator. Martinez has noticed that the new 5-unit integrated course (English 99) has dramatically increased the level of collaboration among the faculty. The hallways are full of instructors discussing what they’re doing, she says, and asking each other for advice. “Everybody who teaches English 99 wants to talk about it.”
Rudd agrees. “I definitely have more colleagues stopping by my office in the afternoon saying ‘What about this?’”
Of course, there have also been challenges. Building upon their experience with the Fast Track compressed courses, the college decided they would schedule most sections to meet every day, rather than the typical two-day schedule. And while this is great for building connections and engagement, it adds a level of pressure for teachers to keep up with the grading and the daily classroom preps. “The overwhelming feeling on this is that people had no idea how hard this was going to be,” says Rudd, “but they still love it.”
Teachers also had to build entirely new classroom materials for the courses, with new texts, new lesson plans, and new assignments. At the end of the fall, Rudd said that she and her fellow faculty were looking forward to being able to start their second semester.
“We’ll have laid a foundation and not be building everything from scratch,” she says, “We get to move into make-it-better mode.”
For more information about Citrus College’s approach to redesigning developmental reading and writing, contact Becky Rudd, firstname.lastname@example.org