Strong Performance by Students Placed 2-3 Levels Below College in Traditional Sequence
By Homeira Foth, English Instructor, Chabot College
In Fall 2012, City College of San Francisco English Instructor Caroline Minkowski taught an accelerated class for students placed three levels below college English. Instead of taking three full semesters of remedial courses, her students were able to take her six-unit course during one semester, then enroll the following semester in a 6-unit course that combined developmental and college-level English. Minkowski’s accelerated course focused on the theme of ending gang violence, with students reading books and articles on the topic and synthesizing what they’d read in their own essays. Teaching the course, she says, changed her perspective on student capacity.
“I learned to trust in students’ ability to handle challenges and tackle meaningful academic work,” says Minkowski. “Students are not only able to read complex texts and write complex arguments, but they also enjoy these challenges. They value reading and writing about real issues rather than contrived topics, and they are more engaged, earn higher grades.”
Minkowski’s reflections are echoed by many other faculty teaching new accelerated reading and writing classes within the California Acceleration Project (CAP). In CAP’s Community of Practice in Acceleration, teachers report being surprised and delighted by the quality of student work and high levels of engagement in their accelerated classes, and the experience has led many to question the assumptions of the traditional sequence. “Students are more capable than what the older lower-level course outlines & SLOs describe/prescribe,” said one teacher at a recent CAP gathering.
This article features teachers from three community colleges across California – Minkowski from CCSF, Summer Serpas from Irvine Valley College, and Andrea Hammock from Mt. San Jacinto College. Each was asked to share sample work from students who were thriving in their accelerated classes but would have been required to take 2 or 3 separate remedial courses in their college’s traditional sequence. We asked them to choose students whose performance was strong but not exceptional or rare. Taken together, these examples provide a window into the day-to-day of accelerated classes – the types of assignments faculty are giving, the strengths students are demonstrating, and the areas for continued improvement.
Irvine Valley College
At Irvine Valley College, the acceleration model combines two of their pre-college writing classes into a one-semester, 5-unit class that leads directly to college English. In Summer Serpas’ accelerated course, students read full-length books and a number of shorter articles, and they write 3-5 page essays from the start of the semester. Serpas points out that in the traditional non-accelerated courses at Irvine Valley, students typically begin with paragraph-length assignments and have minimal readings.
In Serpas’s class the written assignments are based on challenging readings that address the complexities of human psychology and behavior. One unit focuses on addiction, and students read a chapter from Charles Duhigg’s full-length book, The Power of Habit and a chapter titled “Rat Park: The Radical Addiction Experiment” from Lauren Slater’s book Opening Skinner’s Box. In another unit, students examine the question: is it human nature to be cruel? The texts include Stanley Milgram’s “The Perils of Obedience,” on his experiments in which subjects were instructed to deliver electric shocks to another person, and Diana Baumrind’s critical review of these experiments. Students also read another chapter from Slater’s Opening Skinner’s Box about situational factors influencing whether human beings help – or don’t help – during crisis situations, including the infamous real-life case of Kitty Genovese, who was attacked and killed in front of her New York apartment building while none the 38 witnesses intervened or called for help.
In selecting a strong example of student work, Serpas chose an essay by Ypani Guerrero. Guerrero was originally placed three levels below college English and passed that course, then tried to enroll in the two-levels-below class but couldn’t get a seat. This fall, she enrolled in Serpas’s accelerated class. Serpas describes Guererro as “the type of student who had me shaking my head thinking, ‘Why was she placed so low?’”
What impressed Serpas about Guerrero’s essay was her ability to synthesize two difficult texts. According to Serpas, Guerrero makes strong connections between the Milgram and Slater readings, and she does an impressive job of “pointing out the complexities in her argument.” Her thesis: “The subjects in Milgram’s experiment and the people who witnessed Kitty Genovese murder as described in Slater’s article did not act out of cruelty but were forced into doing cruel things by having the pressure of a higher authority or being put in a situation where the environment and the diffusion of responsibility affected their way of thinking and physically taking action.” Serpas notes that Guerrero shows she can think critically about the topic and go “beyond the black and white and dig into the gray areas of academic argument.”
Serpas notes that there are issues Guerrero needs to keep working on in her writing — “she has some word choice errors, missing commas, and several instances of awkward syntax” – but she thinks of these issues differently now than in her traditional remedial courses. “[In the past,] I think I focused more on teaching students to eliminate the errors, so students in the class ended up producing a ‘prettier’ assignment; however, their writing did not illustrate the complexity of thought shown in Ypani Guerrerro’s writing…This was partly due to the formulaic nature of the assignments I used to give (topic sentence should look like this and be placed here, supporting details should go here, etc.) and mostly due to the lack of opportunity for critical thinking in my previous assignments.”
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Students discuss their experience in Serpas’s accelerated course
Mt. San Jacinto College
Mt. San Jacinto’s accelerated model is a 5-unit developmental course that replaces the two levels below college English in the traditional sequence. Hammock explains that the students in her accelerated course “would have traditionally been placed into a paragraph-to-essay course with few readings and little if any research.” A typical assignment might ask them to write a paragraph describing a room in their house. Students in the accelerated course, however, read nonfiction texts and write about a thematic question – in Hammock’s case, reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and exploring the theme, “What is success?”
Much like Serpas, Hammock shared a sample essay that illustrated a high level of critical thinking. She chose Robert White. At the beginning of the semester, White admitted that his previous experiences with English had not been positive – in fact, he’d never passed an English class. Hammock assumed Robert’s first essay was going to be a “mess with huge gaps in logic or tremendous grammatical errors.” However, much to her surprise, “I was confronted with a young man who knew how to write, and when he had something meaningful to say, he had a huge motivation to write well.”
In his paper, titled “Debit or Credit,” White explored a societal problem that he believed hinders a person’s pursuit of success, arguing that, “The biggest obstacle most Americans face on their journey to personal success is debt and how that debt is managed.” He used research material to effectively develop his ideas, with seven sources on his works cited page, including the Harvard Business Review and the journal Nonprofit Management & Leadership. Hammock says, “Robert’s ideas are solid and show both original thought and synthesis of appropriate sources.” She points out that even though White could have expanded on some possible solutions for the issue of personal debt, and strengthened the connections between his argument and the various points from his sources, she was impressed with his “ability to think critically about and solve a complex issue.”
Reflecting on the experience of teaching an accelerated course, Hammock says, “When pushed to expect more of their own writing in a way that is motivating and personal, students like Robert White begin to emerge – students who are capable, motivated, intelligent, and perhaps even future English majors.”
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Students discuss their experience in Hammock’s accelerated course. Robert White on left.
City College of San Francisco
Minkowski was impressed by student Lauren Leung, who grew up in Hong Kong and had been in the United States for four years. Leung was enrolled in Minkowski’s six-unit developmental English class for students placed three levels below transfer. Mikowski reports that Leung was generally quiet and sat in the back of class, but in small group activities she seemed engaged and often took initiative in facilitating discussions. She described Leung as having a growth mindset and not giving up when faced with challenging readings, such as David Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot, John Russo’s “Oakland’s Gang Injunction is a Chance to Save Lives,” and Alex Kingsbury’s “The War on Gangs.”
According to Minkwoski, Leung formed an interesting thesis in her essay, arguing that gang violence can be reduced but not eradicated “because all methods to address gang violence have their weaknesses.” She then systematically presented and critiqued several approaches to gang violence. She summarized, for example, Oakland City Attorney John Russo’s argument that injunctions prevent crimes by keeping gang members off the street between 10pm and 5am; then used an article by Kingsbury to show that gang members are planning crimes online through social networking sites. She also questioned how much government prevention programs help, pointing out that gang members don’t trust the government and are loyal to their peers.
Minkowski was impressed with Leung’s ability to substantiate her claims through her research and her strong sense of originality in argumentation. According to Minkowski, “Lauren’s arguments are largely her own; instead of rehashing ideas discussed in class, as I often see in the work of students enrolled in courses with non-accelerated curricula, Lauren came up with her own assertions.”
Minkowski also addresses areas of weakness in Leung’s writing, noting that she “still needs work on breaking up paragraphs, transitioning between points and paragraphs, and identifying grammatical errors.” However, she considers these issues “manageable” and believes they will be resolved as Leung continues to read and write. What mattered more to Minkowski was that the student’s showed she was “ready to work more independently, an accomplishment that will serve her well in the next accelerated course in our sequence.”
Reflections on teaching accelerated courses
Serpas has come to question the accuracy of placement tests as an indicator of student ability. She notes that students like Guerrero are clearly misplaced below their true potential and that, “if the placement tests were accurate, there would be a clear difference and much more homogeneity in the various leveled classrooms.”
Serpas acknowledges a concern that faculty sometimes express about whether lower-skilled students will struggle in an accelerated class: “Will acceleration help these students in the same way a slower-paced two-semester course will?” Her response: “After teaching both classes, I truly believe the answer is yes. By providing these students with college-level academic reading and writing assignments, we are increasing their exposure to the kinds of texts they will encounter in college, and exposure to these kinds of texts and assignments will certainly help them gain skills. In addition, in the accelerated classroom, we are giving students an accurate view of college-level expectations and providing the support they need to succeed.”
Hammock’s experience with acceleration has left her concerned about all the students who have not made it through the traditional sequence and been demoralized by the process. “I was awestruck when some of my students, often quite capable writers and thinkers, share with me about … the English failures they have endured. For too many bright, capable students, being placed two or three levels below college-level English is crippling their self-esteem and their motivation.”
Minkowski says her attitude about students has changed. She realized that when challenged, her students rose to the occasion, especially when given extra support: “Because students feel safe, supported, and responsible for their learning, they become comfortable taking intellectual risks. They value reading and writing about real issues rather than contrived topics.”
Minkowski’s final comments reflect the positive experiences of many teachers in the California Acceleration Project: the “high level of student commitment makes accelerated courses incredible fun and rewarding – both for students and the instructor.”