Bronx Community College: Teaching Developmental and First Year Composition to Latin@s in the Community College

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Model of main buildings on the BCC campus. Photo by DMG.

Bronx Community College is one of the seven community colleges within the City University of New York (CUNY) system that also includes eleven senior colleges. BCC is designated as a National Historic Landmark. Its 43-acre tree-lined campus has been opened since 1957 and today prepares over 11,000 students each semester for either transferring to a senior college or for careers. The English Department aims to provide “a strong academic foundation for students of diverse backgrounds, preparations, and aspirations.” BCC is a Hispanic/Minority Serving institution; 49% of the students are Latino, overwhelmingly Dominican.

I observed the teaching of two of their fundamental courses, and interviewed the two professors teaching the courses. Following are the college catalog descriptions of each course, redacted descriptions from each professor’s syllabus, and the notes I took while and after observing.

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The new North Hall and Library at BCC library seen from the second level. Photo by DMG.

ENG 10 Fundamentals of Composition & Rhetoric
5 rec 1 conf/rec 3 cr
Fundamental principles of expository organization and grammar that emphasize essay development, unity and clarity, utilizing various rhetorical styles; selected readings. Approximately nine compositions required, including practice ACTs, and one research paper with MLA documentation using library resources. Students must pass the ACT and complete the ENG 11 final exam.

Successful completion of this course is equivalent to passing ENG 11. Students who pass ENG 10 are permitted to enroll in ENG 12 or above. Students who do not pass the CATW Writing Exam cannot pass the course.

Prerequisite: A score of 48-55 on the CATW Writing Exam and a passing score on the CUNY/ACT Reading Skills Assessment Test; or with Chairperson’s permission.

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The new North Hall and Library at BCC. More about this beautiful building here. Photo by DMG.

ENG 11 Composition and Rhetoric I
3 rec 1 conf/rec 3 cr
Fundamental principles of organization and rhetoric; practice in expository writing; selected readings, mainly nonfiction; approximately eight papers required, including one research paper with MLA documentation using library resources.

ENG 11 is a prerequisite for all subsequent English courses

Prerequisite: Passing scores on both the CATW Writing Exam and the CUNY/ACT Reading Skills Assessment Test.

The English 11 final exam is a two-hour essay given during the two-hour final exam period. You will be given one reading, usually excerpts of or full articles from the New York Times or another source, a few weeks before the end of the semester. Your instructor will go over this article in class and may make assignments based on this reading. On the day of the exam, you will be given a second reading on the same topic as the first reading, and you will be asked to write an essay that discusses the issue addressed in the two readings. Your essay must use excerpts from the two articles as well as your own ideas, and must present the information in standard essay form, containing an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Your instructor will grade the exam and determine how much the final exam counts toward your final grade. It is possible, though unlikely, to fail the English 11 final exam but pass English 11.

***

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Inside the new North Hall and Library at BCC: an ample, wired, clean, and well-lighted place for students to be. Photo by DMG.

The syllabus for the English 11 I observed notes this description of the course (names and identifying information have been redacted):

In ENG 11, students will read various literary texts and improve their critical thinking, close reading, and analytical writing skills. In addition, students must demonstrate competence in college-level research and in MLA documentation by the end of the semester. This particular section of ENG 11 is linked to History 10 [History of the Modern World: an exploration of outstanding political, intellectual, philosophical, social and economic trends, movements and events from mid-18th century to present; analysis of forces that have shaped the modern world]. The texts in ENG 11 are in conversation with some of the historical movements and events in [the History class], particularly the rise of democracy and the importance of the ordinary individual, the nature of revolution and war, and the effects of industrialization, colonialism, and globalization. In our course, we will be examining the complicated relationship between fictional narratives and historical change and exploring the often startling and varied ways literature and film grapple with significant historical and cultural ideas and events. Students should expect to write several shorter essays, as well as weekly in-class reflections/quizzes. There will be a departmental final worth 20% of the grade, and the final project of the course will be a longer research essay.

General Education Goals for this course: Students will demonstrate the ability to

*present informed perspectives drawn from various sources,

*articulate and support complex ideas,

*investigate and critique arguments,

*sustain focused and coherent discussion,

*use MLA documentation and show academic information literacy.

Achievement of Gen Ed goals will be assessed through a final research essay and an exam created by the instructor.

Assignments and Papers: Students should expect to do an average of 60 – 80 pages of reading per week (occasionally more) as well as some brief writing in response to the reading due every class day, either in the form of a short quiz or brief journal question. There will be three papers in this class and you must revise one of the first two papers. A second revision is optional (all revisions should be turned in to me on December 15). The third paper will be your research essay and will be completed in stages; it will be weighted more heavily than the first two papers. All papers and assignments should be turned in on time. I will take a half letter grade off each day an assignment is late. If there is an emergency that will prevent the completion of an assignment, please discuss it with me as soon as possible. All paragraphs and essays written outside of class should be typed and double-spaced and use MLA format (which we will discuss).

Exams: There will be both a mid-term (designed by the professor) and a final exam (departmental).

***

The University Avenue entrance to BCC. Photo by DMG.

The University Avenue entrance to BCC. Photo by DMG.

On the day I observed English 11 (in the middle of the eighth week of the sixteen week fall 2014 semester), there were 23 (out of 29 students still registered) who accomplished a variety of tasks. After the professor greeted everyone, distributed the study guide for the text students were completing (Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), took roll, and discussed the upcoming midterm essay exam, she wrote an “analysis quiz” question on the board and then read it aloud: “Dr. Jekyll describes how even before he creates Mr. Hyde he struggles with a feeling that he is dual, or double. Explain his experience of doubleness based on your own analysis of at least one moment from page 110-112.” Students spent fifteen minutes completing this handwritten open-book quiz while the professor walked around the room and, every five minutes, announced the remaining time. As she collected their sheets, I noticed that most students composed from a quarter to half a page.

BCC's Brown Annex, where many of the English courses are taught.

BCC’s Brown Annex, where many of the English courses are taught.

Next, the professor distributed written instructions for the midterm essay, and talked about how the quiz is a way of practicing for the midterm and final exams, since for those they will be given excerpts and they will have to compose analyses. The instructions for the midterm exam:  “Please write a 3-4 page essay on one of the following topics. Your essay should make an argument stated in the thesis and supported by textual analysis in the body of your essay. For more detailed guidelines about structure, organization, etc., please flip this sheet over.

  1. Compare and contrast the respective portrayals of urban environments (cities) in The Jungle and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. To develop a thesis, you might ask whether or not the various descriptions of the city in each novel are alike and, if so, how and to what end? Does each author turn the city into a symbol of the social problems his novel critiques, for example?
  2. If human beings evolved as Darwin suggests, one implication of this theory is that theu can also devolve. Both The Jungle and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde feature characters (Jurgis, Dr. Jekyll) that do indeed devolve. Compare and contrast these characters’ devolutions. How does this comparison help us to understand what each novel believes is the cause of devolution in human beings?
  3. The jungle referred to in the book of the same name is figurative, but in Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad leads us into a literal jungle. Is there any resemblance between the figurative jungle in Sinclair’s novel and the literal jungle in Conrad’s? Do both jungles work symbolically, even the more “literal” one?
  4. You may, in consultation with me, develop your own topic for this essay. Please see me/email me no later than October 29 to get your topic approved. (Note: your topic must deal with at least two of the texts named above.)
Beautiful fall day looking toward the Gould Memorial Library, one of the classical-revival buildings at BCC, built between 1892 and 1901 when the campus was part of New York University. Photo by DMG.

Beautiful fall day looking toward the Gould Memorial Library, one of the classical-revival buildings at BCC, built between 1892 and 1901 when the campus was part of New York University. Photo by DMG.

On the back of the sheet, the professor included this information:

The following areas are the main ones I will be evaluating in any essays you write for this course. I have also included the number of points available in each area.

Structure and Analysis: Your essay should have a traditional structure, with an introduction, multiple body pragraphs, and a conclusion. The introduction’s last sentence or two should be a thesis. The body paragraphs should each have a topic sentence at their start. The conclusion’s first sentence or two should be a rephrased thesis. (20 points)

Content and Analysis:  The essay must answer the question you have chosen and make an argument clearly stated in your thesis and then consistently supported/developed in your body paragraphs through textual analysis. Textual analysis includes a claim, support for the claim in the form of examples or quotations, and explanation of how or why the examples/quotations support your claim. (30 points)

Organization: The essay must have a logical, clear organization and include transitions, both between paragraphs and sentences. (20 points)

Grammar and spelling: While a few minor grammatical or spelling mistakes will not lower your grade, a frequent pattern of errors like fragments, comma splices, run-on sentences, pronoun or subject-verb agreement problems, wrong words, and misspelled words will hurt the grade. Reminder: literary essays should, for the most part, employ tense in discussing texts. (15 points)

Format and MLA Documentation: The essay should be typed, double-spaced, and use Times New Roman 12-point font. The essay must fulfill the minimum page requirement required by the assignment. Page numbers should appear in the upper right-hand corner of the essay. Please do not include a separate title page but put your name, course, and the date in the upper left-hand corner of the first page of the essay and center the title two spaces above the first sentence of your essay. MLA in-text citations, with proper punctuation, should be used when citing quotations and an MLA works cited page should be included at the end of your essay. (15 points)

***

The Hall of Fame for Great Americans, an outdoor sculpture gallery housing 98 bronze portrait busts completed in 1900 at BCC. Photo by DMG.

The Hall of Fame for Great Americans at BCC, an outdoor sculpture gallery housing 98 bronze portrait busts completed in 1900. Photo by DMG.

Once students finished asking questions about the midterm and final exams, the professor began a discussion about the quiz they had just completed. She asked pointed generative questions and wrote students’ responses on the board, the aim being to lead students to connect Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to the other (excerpts of) texts they read since the beginning of the semester. Most questions asked by the professor were about content, except one about why Stevenson structured his novella without a clear conclusion. One student’s answer was: “he wanted readers to think for themselves.” In this discussion the professor asked that students find substantiating evidence in the text, and they did, often reading parts of the text that proved their points of view precisely. At one point, a student expressed his disagreement with the professor’s stance, and that led to an even more animated exchange. The professor was very affirming and students seemed to enjoy the discussion; most participated.

This is what students in the BCC English Department are reading. Photo by DMG.

This is what students in the BCC English Department are reading. Photo by DMG.

Often, students talked about what they learned in the History class linked to this English class, and how what they learned there helps them to understand the texts in English. Only one student used his smart phone to look up information; only one student used a laptop.

After a five minute break, the conversation focused on the professor explicating (and writing the main points on the board) the ways to think about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde today, which brought them back to connecting with (excerpts of) texts they had already read in this English class (Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress [series of engravings posted online], and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities). They proceeded to enumerate the ways in which Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde can be read mainly as a moral tale. The professor read an excerpt from The Descent of Man and asked them to think about the “Darwinian threat to human beings.” Students raised their hands and she called on each by their names. They responded that the threat is thinking that humans evolved from animals, and that therefore they can devolve, like in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The conversation continued with an unpacking of how evolution means that humans follow developed morality and devolution means humans lose their moral sense. “It is frightening to people to think that they can behave like animals,” one student said. As the conversation slowed, the professor reminded them that “there are always differences in readings of a text.”

One of the cafeterias and gathering place for students at BCC. Photo by DMG.

One of the cafeterias and gathering place for students at BCC. Photo by DMG.

Next, the professor shifted the conversation to organization and transition in writing, especially for the next essay. They talked briefly about needing to have a thesis, analysis of the text with evidence/quotes and a conclusion. The professor returned their midterm essays saying “I was really pleased… people did really well… if you think I added [the grade points] wrong, please tell me.” Students reviewed the handwritten comments in their yellow exam booklet and commented on how “great” it was that she had given them extra credit questions too.

Finally, the professor passed another sheet of paper and requested that students take a few minutes to complete a “midterm review” of her. The sheet included these questions:

  1. What aspects of the class are effective/enjoyable so far? Why? What aspects have been more difficult/less enjoyable? Why?
  2. Do you have any suggestions for how the instructor could help you better to succeed in the class?
  3. Additional comments:

Thank you very much for your comments–I take them seriously and will do my best to implement constructive suggestions.

BCC building seen from outside the gate.

BCC building seen from outside the gate.

Once the review was done, students left; many stopped to talk with the professor, mostly to clarify their questions about the midterm essay exam, one wanted to explain that she did not do well on the day’s quiz because she ran out of time.

According to the syllabus, after the session I observed, students will be attending a visit to the library to help prepare them for the research essay, they will screen and discuss Leni Wiefenstahl’s propaganda film titled Triumph of the Will, one of Frank Capra’s Why We Fight films, and Don Siegel’s film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and they will read excerpts from P.D. James’ Children of Men and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Class lasted 1:40 minutes (from 10:00 to 11:40 AM); it meets twice a week (Mondays and Wednesdays). The professor is white and all students are brown or black; one female was wearing a head scarf. Later, the professor told me that most students are Dominican, many of them almost new immigrants who are also addressing economic, cultural and language transition struggles.

***

A tree-lined walkway at BCC.

A tree-lined walkway at BCC.

Right after class ended, I interviewed the professor; we talked in the cafeteria for about 45 minutes.

  • This professor has been teaching at BCC since completing (in a local institution) a Doctorate in 18th and 19th century literature in English eight years ago; she is not from New York originally and now lives in a predominantly Latino community not too far from the college.
  • She enjoys teaching at BCC because her colleagues are supportive, and because the job makes her feel that her work has great impact on individual lives.
  • She teaches face-to-face classes but she incorporates minimal use of the college’s course management system, Blackboard. (For instance, students must access study guides and handouts through Blackboard, as well as screen films and review visuals online.) Her syllabus notes the following: “BCC Email and Blackboard: Please make sure that you are regularly checking your BCC email and our course’s Blackboard page. I often send messages to your BCC email account via Blackboard, and I post the syllabus, study guides, and other important information on Blackboard. Additionally, Blackboard gives you access to helpful MLA documentation and research guides. While we will be looking at some of this material together in class, it is your responsibility to make sure that you have access to both your email and Blackboard accounts; please ask me for help as soon as possible if you do not understand how to access them.”
  • She does not teach courses fully online. In her syllabus she notes this: “Electronics: We will have a brief break during each class, at which time you are welcome to look at cell phones, blackberries, iPods, etc. If you are consistently looking at these items at any other time, however, it will start to lower your final grade. eReader editions for phone or tablet are not acceptable for this course. Some of the texts for the course are films or handouts I will provide at no cost to students. You should also purchase a notebook for class notes and a folder to hold your writing assignments and any handouts.”
  • Since currently she’s also serving in an administrative capacity (which she likes partly because it provides her “a sense of the whole system”), she is teaching only two (out of the four) courses she usually teaches per semester.
  • She reports that about 80% of her students are Latino, predominantly Dominican, but that she sees an increase in the number of students from the Middle East (especially Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen).
  • She reports that she truly enjoys teaching Latinos, and has observed that Dominican women seem especially rigorous and hungry for education, that they seem to care more deeply for attaining higher education and for the burden of improving the condition of their dependents.
  • This professor’s most salient experience teaching Latinos consistently brings her back to her conviction that it is imperative to show that you respect them; respect is a big component of establishing trust and of therefore having Latino students be more receptive to the teaching.
  • This professor reports that she does not deliberately employ a “different” pedagogy when teaching college writing to Latinos, but that she is fully aware of the needs of Latinos in her classrooms.
  • In this class session I observed that she applies several pedagogical approaches, including lecturing, providing study guides, linking writing classes with other classes (History this semester), incorporating content that helps students with their English language development, being very clear in her instructions, enunciating slowly and carefully, incorporating short writing assignments in the class, scheduling a five minute break during class, leading class discussions by asking pointed generative questions, affirming students’ answers and work but also being honest, and letting students know–through her words and actions–that she respects each student. Her syllabus for the class that I observed notes the following explanation:
    • HOW TO SUCCEED IN THIS CLASS:
      • Come to class.
      • Purchase/rent the required books.
      • Do the reading.
      • Participate/be engaged during class time.
      • Regularly check your BCC email and Blackboard.
      • Turn in assignments on time.
      • Demonstrate the ability to write critical, logical arguments about the texts we read.
      • Show engagement with and mastery of the readings on exams and quizzes.
      • If you feel yourself getting lost, ask for help!
  • Drawing from her experiences, this professor identified these three most important needs in order to improve the rates of success of Latinos in college writing classes:
    • The professor must make a personal but professional connection with the student.
    • The professor must establish an emphasis on reading and language development inside and outside of the classroom.
    • The professor must clarify the specific criteria for determining grades.
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