The National Hispanic University: Teaching Developmental and First Year Composition to Latin@s in the Community College

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Photo by DMG.

The National Hispanic University is a private for-profit institution in San José, California, that grants AA, BA/BS, MA, MBA and certificates in teacher credentials; it is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). The 2014-2015 catalog explains their vision (“that every student at The National Hispanic University will graduate”) and their mission (to provide “a post-secondary education for Hispanics and others grounded in cultural respect, biliteracy, and diversity for engaged students who will become local, national, and global community leaders”).

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Photo by DMG.

The university was established in 1981 in Oakland, California, and a satellite campus was opened in San José in 1990. San José was chosen because it is home to the third largest Hispanic population in California and the 10th largest in the United States. By 1995 the university had consolidated its campuses and moved to an 11-acre campus in east San José, a part of the city with the highest concentration of Hispanics.

According to the catalog, the university exists:

to serve the needs of Hispanics and other underserved groups. As our founding president and academic visionary for 22 years, Dr. B. Roberto Cruz believed that a small, private independent college could make a difference in the graduation rate of Hispanics and other minorities. NHU fosters Familia, a caring learning environment in which students feel valued and supported at every step in their academic journey. Our guiding principles embrace diversity and multiple perspectives, and as a result of the groundbreaking work of Dr. Cruz, we have shaped a framework for supporting the success of Hispanic learners and those active in the Hispanic community. It is within this context that we developed our initial mission: To enable Hispanics, other minorities, women, and others to acquire an undergraduate degree or certificate using a multicultural educational experience to obtain a professional career in business, education, or technology.

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Photo by DMG.

I aimed to observe classes and to interview writing professors at The NHU, because it was created specifically to meet the needs of Latinos, and thus it is logical to surmise that they would have a wealth of information about teaching Latinos. But on March 2014 The NHU announced that it would cease operating and that it would begin transferring students to other institutions. Only students identified as being able to graduate by August 2015 would remain on campus.

Early in winter of 2015, I visited the university and learned that the few remaining students were completing courses online and that no composition courses were being offered, but I was able to contact a former adjunct faculty member who taught at The NHU for five years. He is a bilingual Latino, published poet, trained at the Master of Arts degree level (especially in poetry and creative writing) at a university outside of California. He has taught various levels of writing, critical thinking, American and world literatures, and Chicano-Latino culture at The NHU and at a private university in California. This professor is also a Latino student retention specialist, a writing tutor, and an academic mentor who has led a first-year experience program, and has taught at bridge programs, a juvenile detention center, and several Latino youth development programs; he also served as “Reading Series Coordinator” to bring in writers of color to The NHU campus. He generously talked with me for over two hours.

As a full-time faculty member at The NHU, this professor taught four face-to-face classes per quarter (none online); other than his own use of technology, and the students’ personal use of their own devices, he did not use a learning management system or any other major assistive technology in the classroom. In the early morning classes his students were traditional age (18 years old or so); in the evening classes his students were non-traditional adults (30+ years old or so). Early in his teaching experience at The NHU there were about ten students per class; toward the end, closer to when the university went out of business, there were 25 to 30 students per class. Over 95 per cent of all students at the university and in his classes were Latino, mostly Mexican American and Central American; about a quarter of those students were recent immigrants dealing with more obvious acculturation and language challenges.

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Photo by DMG.

I spoke with this professor pointedly about teaching the required general education freshman writing course (described in The NHU catalog):

ENG 100 English Composition and Reading, 3 units

This course emphasizes reading-based academic writing in a multicultural milieu. Students critically respond to a variety of writers on various topics and themes. In addition, English 100 covers the rhetorical modes and culminates in an argumentative research paper. Prerequisites: English Placement Test or ENG 45 or ENG 45W ENG.

Although we discussed some specific practices and types of assignments (for example, emphasizing the process approach, focusing intently on the revision process, incorporating portfolios, making sure that students compose a writing sample at the beginning of the semester, returning it to them at the end, and requesting that they compose a reflective analysis of their progress), here I want to highlight the factors that he describes as being impactful for Latino students in the writing class (and often in all other classes); these are the major factors that he believes help to increase Latino students’ retention and success in the writing (and many other) classrooms:

  • Understand that there is no “separate different pedagogy” for teaching writing to Latinos, but that professors must be willing to be acutely aware of students’ lives outside of the classroom, particularly the impediments to learning in their individual environments.
  • This professor says: “You need good teachers who are trained to teach writing.”
  • Faculty need to consistently clarify and emphasize the value and relevance of writing in Latino students’ lives.
  • More work/scholarship has to be done in order “to understand how Latinos are treated, especially in high school”–to understand how stereotypes affect Latinos and their attitudes about college in general and about writing specifically.
  • More work/scholarship has to be done/applied on the role of motivation: all those involved in educating Latinos need to better understand how and why some students are more self-motivated than others, and how motivation impacts their performance in the classroom.
    • This professor said: “In my opinion, the more successful students come to my class already motivated. Those students have family support, a good community, and like-minded friends.”
    • This professor stressed that motivation matters in many ways: “Many AB 540 students ask ‘why should I get an education if I won’t be able to get a job?'”
  • Faculty need to be more aware of cultural issues related to gender.
    • This professor said: “Latina students are often told that there’s no point in them going to college,” and
    • “guys are told that they have to work hard and support the family,” and for poor Latinos facing daily struggles with financial survival, that may not leave energy to include working hard at college and the writing classroom.
  • Understand that remedial courses cost students money, often demoralize them and even prevent them from pursuing higher education.
  • When students are underprepared for freshman English, incorporate extra tutoring and other help into the class.
    • Make remediation a graded and integral part of the class.
    • And/or, create a summer bridge program and pay students to attend; present the bridge program as a job, and students’ involvement as a remunerated responsibility to become competent writers; (such a program is probably easy to implement because many Latino students have dire financial need and strong work ethic).
  • “Intervention” (from the professor, counselors, mentors, and the institution) needs to “start on day one.”
  • Professors need to incorporate bi-weekly reports and updates for students, and to send those reports to the students’ counselors and mentors.
  • Faculty, counselors and mentors need to follow-up on those bi-weekly reports.
  • Counseling and mentoring has to be systemic and holistic; that is, the services have to reach beyond academic needs and address personal, financial, and cultural issues in Latino students’ lives.
  • The institution/counselors need to meet more often with Latino students, and to set and consistently review individualized educational plans.
    • Those educational plans need to include classes in study skills, life skills, time management, personal counseling and mentoring (particularly for students whose parents and family have not attended college, or who may not speak English).
    • Those educational plans need to include carefully chosen classes and professors, so that students are set up to succeed.
    • And, this professor says, “if a student is failing, don’t assume that it’s because he’s lazy; find out what’s going on in the student’s life.”
  • The institution, especially if it’s looking to increase its Latino student population, needs to recruit the Latino adult population (because they may be more seriously ready to benefit from writing [and college], and because they can serve as examples for their children, since usually education is a family affair).
  • The institution has to offer invigorating co-currilucar activities that excite and engage students and prompt them to broaden their world views and critical thinking skills. This professor says:
    • “My point is that it’s also important to expose Latina/o students to Latino/a professionals beyond teachers and civic vocations.”
    • Many Latino students can’t imagine themselves as poets, writers, and artists; they can’t “fathom such a thing!” Therefore, it is crucial to expose students to those possibilities. This professor found that such co-curricular activities resulted in students being “surprised, excited, and motivated… to see Brown people working as professional writers.”
  • The institution has to prioritize a concerted effort (discussions, learning opportunities for faculty, actions) to meet the needs of Latino students.
    • For example, both students and faculty need flexible access to counseling services.

Drawing from his experiences, this professor identified these three most important needs in order to improve the rates of retention and success of Latinos in college writing classes:

  • Provide consistent and easily accessible writing tutoring and general mentoring and counseling.
  • Professors must be trained rigorously in writing pedagogy, Latino culture and the specific condition of their Latino student population.
  • Latinos have to be taught and served in a holistic manner, and to do so, professors must align themselves with and use the services provided by counselors. Those services must include:
    • Financial, personal, and oftentimes mental health counseling.
    • Legal counseling for students facing criminal issues and or immigration issues (particularly for AB 540 students)

infographicsSubsequently, a retired professor who taught a related discipline at NHU, and who has taught “many second language learners as an elementary school teacher and a university professor,” very kindly provided, via email, the following suggestions for teaching college writing to Latinos. Dr. Rosenberg asked that I use his name. (Here I leave out some of his more specific details and examples, for instance, on teaching the use of hyphens):

  1. Ask students to write about what they know, or at least include such a choice within the larger curriculum… Not only do most students find it easiest to write about personal experiences, thoughts, and feelings but it also gives the teacher a chance to get to know his students (as individuals and as writers).
  2. Most teachers and professors want to deal with the content but I found you cannot separate sentence structure and correct use of grammar from good writing. I think teachers are fooling themselves who say all that matters is that students should write; when and how do they learn to recognize and correct their mistakes within such an approach? Sometimes such free writing may be called for but it certainly does not suffice to teach (and improve) good writing, in my opinion.
  3. Vocabulary: teachers need to keep building it up every which way they can. I introduced new words and gave them bonus points if they used them in their writing. Not simple vocabulary but longer multi-syllabic words. I picked out vocabulary from each chapter and gave students construction paper and markers. They worked in groups and used both sides of the paper to first give a definition; then the sentence in which the term appeared followed by an original sentence of their own; and drawing if they wished (optional). I used Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” so one of his terms might be “imperialism.” Each group was responsible for a different set of terms; they came to the front of the class and presented. The rest of the class liked it (students learning from students = best practices) and could ask questions. Student success on exams, especially correct identifying terms (and better use of same in their writing) improved dramatically!
  4. I share stories from my own life to help create bonds of understanding and to make them aware that others, including older adults (like their professors, who now appear very successful in their eyes) also had challenges to overcome. It is particularly helpful if one has stories to share [that are related to succeeding] within an educational context.
  5. I like to deal directly with culture and language and history and all the subtle (and not so subtle) interplay thereof.
  6. I present mini-lessons on comparing Spanish and English with a historical explanation as well as a structural analysis.
  7. I talk about Latin/Italian and the Roman soldiers taking the language with them to France and Spain (from Spain to Mexico!) and how languages evolve and change over time… [I talk with students about how] languages are a living breathing medium and are still changing [and I ask them to consider how they speak Spanish as compared to their] parents and grandparents.
  8. I also try to build up pride: I tell my students Spanish is considered one of the world’s great languages, famous for its literature: short stories, novels, and the brilliant imagery of its poetry. I ask students to bring in examples. I remind them which authors have won awards, including the Nobel Prize for Literature (e.g., Pablo Neruda)
  9. I like using poetry because it’s easier than chapters or passages from novels.
  10. I give students choices in group presentations; one semester we did famous Hispanic-American writers on three-waled poster boards with oral presentation (could include web video) and it was a smashing success. The students were energized! Their culture, their heroes! (this helps motivate them to want to become writers at the same time).
  11. I also include brief mini-lessons on the Uto-Aztecan language, which includes Native American languages of the southwest and also Nahuat and Nahuatl of Mexico. Students may not know that words like tomato and coyote come from Nahuatl. This shows clearly how demographic movement across the border was common, which can lead to a discussion of the border today, undocumented workers, state and national policies, and all the rest.
  12. I frequently use Hot Topics—current controversial issues in the news. I vary strategies but one way is to put a prompt on the board; they write a reflective response. Then they discuss in pairs or small groups. Homework: type up reflections to add what you learned from discussion.
  13. Students are free to say whatever they want and I encourage respect for a diversity of views; if I needed to express my own opinion, I let them know that beforehand. My expectation is that they need to support their point of view with evidence and facts.

Culling his extensive feedback and emphases in several areas, I identified that Dr. Rosenberg considers these to be the three most important needs in order to improve the rates of retention and success of Latinos in college writing classes:

  1. Affirm Latino students’ identities, languages and cultural backgrounds.
  2. Provide challenging yet motivating opportunities for Latino students to write about what they know and to be prodded to learn more about what they know.
  3. Teachers must truly care about Latino students; they must know, even a little, about their cultures.

Seeing what I culled, Dr. Rosenberg added the following:

  1. Read carefully for content and establish ongoing dialogue of ideas through appropriate use of thought-provoking comments and questions.
  2. Correct basic grammatical mistakes and errors of syntax in a helpful, friendly, yet purposeful manner, the degree of detail of which should be pegged to the individual student’s existing level of achievement and need.
  3. Encourage students to develop a personal writing style and guide this “writer’s voice” to improve clarity of expression and mastering of the English language.
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