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

(Photo by DMG)

(Photo by DMG)

Pasadena City College, a compact 53 acres campus nestled in the West San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles County, was founded in 1924 and today serves over 30,000 students, including international students from over 90 different countries. The college’s mission is “to provide a high quality, academically robust learning environment that encourages, supports and facilitates student learning and success. The College provides an academically rigorous and comprehensive curriculum for students pursuing educational and career goals as well as learning opportunities designed for individual development. The College is committed to providing access to higher education for members of the diverse communities within the District service area and to offering courses, programs, and other activities to enhance the economic conditions and the quality of life in these communities.”

PCC offers more than 60 academic and 70 Career and Technical Education programs in both face-to-face and online modes. Classes are scheduled during fall, spring and summer semesters, as well as short-term and evening sessions. PCC is recognized for its emphasis and success in transferring students to local universities. Arguably, its most famous alum is Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play Major League Baseball; he attended PCC in 1937 and 1938 (and his brother Mack, a member of the 1936 Olympic team and silver medal winner of the 200 meters sprint,  attended PCC in 1936 and 1937). Today, the ethnic profile includes: 36.9% Hispanic; 25.3% Asian or Pacific Islander; 12.0% White; 4.7% Black; 3.9% Filipino; 0.4% Native American; 0.3% Other; 6.3% Decline to state.

(Photo by DMG)

(Photo by DMG)

The PCC English Department‘s mission is “to provide a core curriculum for students to be successful in attaining their educational goals… The department is also committed to providing equity for all student populations by addressing the many learning styles of students through various pedagogical approaches.” It offers an Associate in Arts degree for transfer. The Student Learning Outcomes are as follows:

  1. Demonstrate sensitivity to and an analytical grasp of the nuances of literary language.
  2. Demonstrate critical thinking skills, specifically in relation to poetry, drama, fiction, or other types of literature.
  3. Demonstrate an understanding of the ways that literature helps to illuminate the human condition.
  4. Demonstrate reading skills relevant to literary study.
  5. Demonstrate writing skills relevant to literary study.

English (or in some cases the ESL) assessment is required of all new first-time college students attending Pasadena City College. PCC administers the ACCUPLACER exam to assess students’ skills in reading, grammar, and writing. There are two parts: Reading Comprehension and Sentence Skills. The computerized test adapts to the individual student’s skills. That means that the test first provides a basic question (not too easy, not too difficult.) If the student answers that question correctly, then the test provides an item of greater difficulty which is valued with more points. If the student gets the basic question wrong, then the test provides an item of lesser difficulty, which is valued with fewer points. The ACCUPLACER English assessment test measures a variety of skills, including Reading Comprehension (20 questions related to long and short reading passages, sentence relationships) and Sentence Skills (20 questions on sentence structure).

Students enter the composition sequence based on their assessment and placement exam.

But PCC also offers the Stretch Accelerated Composition (STACC) Program which places reading, writing, thinking, and scholarship as the core content of English Composition courses. By compressing the English Composition courses and sequence and allowing students to self-select their courses, the STACC program aims to increase access to and success in transfer-level English Composition courses.

(Photo by DMG)

(Photo by DMG)

The PCC 2014-2015 college catalog describes the pre-collegiate and freshman composition courses as follows:

ENGL 100 Reading and Writing Skills, 4 units
Prerequisite: One of the following: (1) Engl 400 or Bus 112; (2) placement based on the English assessment process. Corequisite: Engl 901.

Writing expository, analytical, and argumentative essays; developing critical reading research skills. Review of sentence structure and grammar. Required concurrent enrollment in Engl 901 Writing Center Lab. Recommended enrollment in Engl 130. No credit if taken after Engl 001A. Total of 72 hours lecture.

ENGL 001A Reading and Composition, 4 units
Prerequisite: One of the following: (1) Engl 100; (2) ESL 033B; (3) placement based on the English assess- ment process. Recommended Preparation: Engl 014.

Development of expository and argumentative essays. Instruction in writing annotated papers. Analysis of various forms of writing with emphasis on expository and argumentative essays. Total of 72 hours lecture. Transfer Credit: CSU; UC. *C-ID: ENGL 100

I observed the teaching of two sections of pre-collegiate English 100 Reading and Writing Skills, and I interviewed the two professors teaching each class.

(Photo by DMG)

(Photo by DMG)

The first section of English 100 Reading and Writing Skills that I observed is being taught by an adjunct professor. On the day I observed (during the eighth week of the spring semester), there were 27 students (out of the 29 registered), all of them seemingly in their late teens and early twenties (except one woman who seemed to be in her thirties). The majority (70 per cent have Hispanic last names, according to the professor), were Latinos; two males African American; two females Asian; one male Caucasian. Desk chairs were arranged in rows; there was a computer and document camera on a portable desk in the corner, and in the front wall a roll-down screen and two speakers.

As I waited for class to begin, students chatted easily; the professor sat at his desk in front of the classroom and talked with different students. Class began officially with the professor’s greeting and instructions for the day’s work. The professor collected the first and second drafts of their essay #2, and, since students were scheduled to take their midterm exam on grammar, he distributed the exam and the Scantron sheet for the answers. Then he gave instructions: this was an open-book/open-notes exam covering everything taught up to that date; they had forty minutes to answer questions one through fifty. He wrote the beginning time, the end time, and while students worked (keeping count on his smart phone), he wrote (every ten minutes) the time left. Open-book exams “improve your confidence level, and who is going to be foolish enough to cheat on an open book exam,” he said; students laughed. He walked around the room and answered, in low voice, students’ questions, then he worked at his desk.

When all students had submitted their exams, he asked students to take a 15 minute break, and he took all of the Scantrons to the department office and graded them. Upon his return, students seemed very pleased to have their grades back so soon. He announced the general results (e.g., 90 percent earned 45; one person earned 3.80 percent). Then the professor said, “let’s talk about these grammar items; ask questions, if you got it right or wrong, ask questions.” Students began to ask questions (e.g., “I thought #5 is a fragment”). They discussed #5 (“I love to eat and cook Italian food, especially lasagna and ravioli. I make everything from scratch”), the function of nouns and verbs, and why #5 is not a fragment. Students also asked about the use of pronouns, pronoun agreement, dangling modifiers, faulty parallelism, additives, adverbs, subject-verb agreement, and misplaced modifiers. Students had a great laugh with the dangling modifier sentence: “Jamal test-drove a car at a dealership with power windows and a sunroof.”

Next, the professor reminded students that including the results of that day’s test, 25 percent of the final grade had been determined. He told them to pay attention to upcoming deadlines: for dropping the class, for submitting their next draft of essay #2, for reading T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, and for reading chapter 9 in Flachmann’s 10th edition of The Prose Reader: Essays for Thinking, Reading and Writing. He wrote these dates on the board and underlined the specific date for when the final draft of essay #2 would be due–and reminded them that it is important for them to include a Works Cited page.

Then they discussed essay #1 (a researched piece about three character traits of a successful entrepreneur), which, he said, he would be returning after the next week’s spring break: “Some of you did very well… after three drafts and a month working on this essay, I expected them to be quite polished.” Students were more interested in discussing the weaknesses, and the professor identified the major ones: lack of evidence that research was done, underdevelopment, lack of substantiating information to prove the main point, lack of textual evidence and a Works Cited page that follows MLA formatting, and too many recurrent errors.

Class ended and some students remained and talked with him: some wanted to check on their progress and grades; he consulted his grade book. One student was worried that he’d been absent too many times, and the professor assured him that if he continued to attend regularly he would have opportunities to improve his grade. Another student worried that he’d missed points in the midterm exam, and the professor assured him that if he did really well in the next exam, his grades would even out. He reminded each student that he is available for conferencing and that there are many other sources of support for them (e.g., Writing Center Lab).

In this class session, I observed that this professor applies/enacts several pedagogical approaches, providing clear and detailed oral and written instructions, including pointed emphasis on process, a little bit of lecturing, small group and whole class interaction, repeating a pattern of activities (reading, writing, revising), affirming students’ responses, asking probing questions, administering Scantron exams, and incorporating work in the Writing Center. In reading his syllabus I noted that he also incorporates reading and writing content that is relevant to Latino students, class discussions/writing activities/presentations, journal entries, and recurrent reminders of due dates and requirements.

(Photo by DMG)

(Photo by DMG)

Once students were gone, I spoke with this professor for ten minutes, and since I had to observe another class, he very graciously agreed to talk with me later that day. Subsequently, we met in his classroom and he spoke with me for a generous hour. This professor is also teaching writing at two other community colleges, and he has taught Spanish online. In an academic year he may teach nine or more courses in four or more community colleges. He has been teaching writing in the community college for fifteen years, since earning a master’s degree (from a university in California) in comparative literature (of Spain and Latin America). He does not teach pre-collegiate composition online “ever,” and does not include technology, but “occasionally” he shows “a YouTube video.” He believes that his students need and want the interpersonal exchanges of the face-to-face classroom.

When I asked him to tell me about his experiences teaching writing to Latinos in the community college, his response was enthusiastic: “Latinos are the most sincere genuine students, especially at these colleges [where there is a high concentration of Latinos]. They are the ones of all the ethnicities who value education. I feel strong about this, but if I say it, it’ll sound like I have a preference for Latinos students. It’s that my background is from Spain. I feel closer to Latinos, especially those students over the age of 25 who work very hard. But in the classroom I treat all my students the same.” This professor said that he has noticed patterns of Latino student behavior: in community colleges where White students are in the majority, Latino students seem to believe that they’re getting “a better education,” but at the same time they believe that “they are out of their element”; in community colleges where there is a high concentration of Latinos, Latino students seem to be more “hungry for knowledge” [perhaps because they are newer immigrants, or striving harder to get out of low socio-economic conditions]; he finds that there is a combination of these patterns at PCC.

When I asked this professor to tell me about his pedagogical approaches for teaching writing in the community college, he said that he applies the same pedagogical approach to all students no matter their ethnicity or race or gender, but that he does give “more attention” to students who “stand out,” that is, students who seek extra help and who show that they need and want more support. “I ask students a lot of questions [about their needs], the same questions to everyone, no matter their ethnicity,” he said, “but their answers are different,” and thus, he said, he tries to respond accordingly to each student’s individual needs. He aims to be pointedly clear with students, so that, he said, they always know what and why they are learning, and what he expects of them.

His syllabus details the Student Learning Outcomes for English 100 Reading and Writing Skills:

Students will be assessed on their ability to:

  • write coherent, developed, and clearly constructed thesis-driven in-class and out-of-class essays using a variety of rhetorical approaches;
  • use effective strategies for pre-writing, composing, and revising of essays, both in and out of class;
  • read, summarize, analyze, and evaluate a variety of texts;
  • compose credible academic resources from the library to research a topic; and
  • document sources (print, electronic, and other) in MLA format;

His syllabus also details the Student Performance Outcomes:

Students who successfully complete this course will be able to:

  • Read critically as demonstrated by
    • identifying the main and supporting ideas in works of fiction and non-fiction.
    • recognizing the assumptions, stated and implied, in an argument.
  • Write clearly as demonstrated by
    • writing coherent, developed and clearly constructed expository, analytical and argumentative essays of 500-700 words that support thesis statements adequately. This should include the ability to write complete essays in class.
    • forming grammatical sentences free from major errors in mechanics, punctuation, and spelling.
(Photo by DMG)

(Photo by DMG)

Drawing from his experience teaching writing to Latino students in the community college, this professor identified these as the three most important factors needed in order to improve Latino students’ rates of success:

  1. “Teach them time management, planning their lives, and organizing. That’s important.”
  2. “Plant seeds and curiosity” in students, especially because “so many things are handed to them, for example, spellcheck, so they don’t work as hard as they should.” But if you “plant seeds and encourage curiosity, students can be motivated.”
  3. Create opportunities for students to practice writing consistently. They have to write and read inside and outside of class; they have to be “encouraged to want to write, write every day, in a journal for example—write and read consistently.”
(Photo by DMG)

(Photo by DMG)

The second section of English 100 Reading and Writing Skills that I observed is being taught by an adjunct professor. On the day I observed (during the eighth week of the spring semester), there were 22 students (out of the 30 registered), all of them seemingly in their late teens and early twenties. Most seemed to be Latinos; two African American; two Asian; one Caucasian. Desk chairs were arranged in rows; there was a large television in front, a computer and document camera on a portable desk in the corner, a white board, and in the front wall a roll-down screen and two speakers.

As I waited for class to begin, students chatted easily. I noticed the agenda for the day written on the board: Tonight

  • freewriting
  • peer review
  • collecting journals/freewriting on Thursday 3/19

Class started officially with the professor’s greeting, taking roll and noting that a few students were absent (perhaps because they left early for spring break). She announced that she was reading/grading their essays #1, and that although she had “a lot to do over the break,” she was “really enjoying” the process. Then she explained that they were going to start class by spending 15 minutes freewriting about their out-of-class essay #2, and that this freewriting was “a little more focused than usual.” She wrote on the board: “Two things I want you to address. Please answer both: 1) What do you like most about your essay? 2) What do you need to work on?” Most students wrote non-stop; at the end, she collected their hand-written freewrites.

Next, she asked students to form groups of three or four, and to welcome any student who arrived late. Their task was to do guided peer review on their in-progress essay #2 about raising children. She distributed a handout with the following instructions:

  • Everyone must take a turn to read their work out loud to the group. After an essay has been read, the group should have a conversation about the essay and then answer the questions in this form. (All authors must complete a “peer review” for their own work as well.) Repeat this process until each group member has been peer reviewed.
  • Each reviewer is encouraged to write comments and make corrections on the author’s manuscrip in addition to answering each peer review question. Reviewers should write their names at the top of each manuscript.
  • When you are finished reviewing the author’s paper, give all materials back to the author. All peer review sheets must be put into the author’s final folder along with other required materials.
  1. Is the thesis statement underlined in the introductory paragraph? Is it clearly written? Does it make sense? If not, where does the author need help?
  2. Examine the body of the essay. Does each paragraph relate to the thesis? Is the paper clear and focused? If not, where does the author need help?
  3. Consider the level of detail in the manuscript. Where could the author use more specific details?
  4. Examine the introduction and conclusion of the essay. Does the essay begin in an interesting way? Does it move smoothly into the body of the essay? Also consider the conclusion. Does it feel like a part of the essay or does it feel tacked on? Is there a clear enough point to the essay that others can relate to?
  5. Examine the author’s use of sources from Flackmann’s The Prose Reader: Essays for Thinking, Reading and Writing (if any): does the author introduce each source to the readers before citing the information? Does the author provide page numbers (parenthetical citation) after direct quotes? (See page 441 in Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference.) Do you always know when the author is using information from The Prose Reader? Where does the author need help?
  6. Proofread the author’s essay. Circle and/or underline as many sentence-level and technical errors as you can.
(Photo by DMG)

(Photo by DMG)

(Sidenote: Later, I read the professor’s handout with instructions for completing Out of Class Essay #2. Students could choose from two modes: compose an argument or compose a comparison/contrast. In each of those modes there were two options for themes: students could choose to argue for or against Richard Rodriguez’s point in “Public and Private Language,” or, for or against Amy Chua’s point in “How Chinese Mothers are Superior.” Or, students could compare and contrast the way they were raised with the style of parenting they plan to use for raising their own children, or they could compare and contrast the gender roles and expectations for men and women in their own family and/or a specific culture.)

Writers distributed hard copies of their essays, so that every student in the group had everyone else’s essays. They started by reading aloud to the members of their small groups, and (I admit my enjoyment of this…) the room filled with euphony. (Listen to a two minute clip here.) The professor encouraged everyone to read “as loud as you can.” Students in each group followed the reader in their own copy of the author’s essay. “Reading aloud to one another,” the professor explained, “teaches you a lot about your voice and not to ignore mistakes.” She reminded students that before working on the peer review sheet, they had to describe what they wrote about in their freewrites that night, “circle errors” in the author’s essay, and explain what they liked and did not like about the essay read. It took each reader about four minutes to finish reading, then the groups started working on the peer review worksheet. The professor walked around the room listening and talking with students. I heard students say the following:

  • “What you say in the first paragraph… I don’t get it.”
  • “Why don’t you say this instead…”
  • “It sounded good, honestly. Your thesis is clear and to the point.”
  • “Write that down so you don’t forget.”
  • “Oh, I was supposed to use italics there.”
  • “I feel like these two sentences should be united. You should find a way to combine them. How about…”
  • “So what kind of parenting do you think your parents did? How was it like Amy Chua’s?” [That comment was a reference to an piece students read, in The Prose Reader, titled “How Chinese Mothers are Superior,”  which is an excerpt from Amy Chua’s The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.]
  • “Your ideas are there but the organization… look… here…”
  • “I wrote like twenty paragraphs. I think mine’s too long. Can it be longer than three pages?”
  • Peer: “The first two sentences are getting to me, in the first paragraph. You’re saying something out of the blue.”
  • Writer: “Take that out?”
  • Peer: “Yeah. Make sure you put in supporting concrete details.”
  • “I would suggest that you don’t write in third person; this essay is about how you were raised.”
  • “My mother never really pushed me to have better morals and I should have. Morals are important to me. If my kids don’t have anything, they’ll have that. If a child does not respect, they don’t respect what they have and will lose what they have.” [This came from a student responding to his peer’s question about how he planned to provide more details and examples in a section of his essay.]
  • “I’m going to write a little about me. Luckily, I have two sisters I grew up with. My dad had six kids, three boys and three girls. My dad was a good person but he wasn’t around a lot. He died when I was so young.” (This came from a student responding to her peer’s question about how she was going to include evidence.]
  • “I believe children have to be heard more; I was told to go to my room and shut up. I will raise my children better than how I was raised.” [This came from a student responding to his peer’s question about clarifying his thesis.]
(Photo by DMG)

(Photo by DMG)

The professor walked around the classroom and talked with students until the second person started reading, then she sat at her desk and talked with students she either called or came up to her. Most students had brief questions. Here are sample exchanges:

Student 1: “Can a thesis be more than one sentence?”

Professor: “Do you want me to look at it… Revise this one and then take it to the Writing Center so that some one else can work with you too.”

Student 2: “Can you look at my conclusion?”

Professor: Reads… “This is good. Great details. What about this paragraph here? What do you want to say?”

Student 2: Looks it over… “I want to say that…”

Professor: “Then say that at the beginning of the paragraph; it’s compelling. Go back and do that in each paragraph” [meaning to create topic sentences].

Student 3: “I don’t know about my introduction.”

Professor: Looks it over, points to a section… “Yes, that’s a good start, but think about the words that are necessary in your thesis. And, can you make these clear, these three points?”

Student 4: “I felt good when I was writing it, and then I started reading it aloud… hmmm, hmmmm, dang. Barnes and Noble’s not waiting for me. That is not going to be a best seller.”

Professor: Looks it over, then they discuss clarifying his thesis and the supporting points, plus some of the punctuation (e.g., semicolons and commas).

About five minutes before class was to end officially, the professor made a couple of reminders and encouraged students to revise during spring break, and then to take their drafts to the Writing Center Lab. Students who had not finished editing their peer’s draft remained in the room about ten more minutes;  the professor and I stayed too.

(Photo by DMG)

(Photo by DMG)

In this class session, I observed that this professor applies/enacts several pedagogical approaches, including pointed emphasis on process, small group collaboration, whole class interaction, some lecturing, affirming students’ work and responses, journaling/ freewriting inside and outside the classroom, repeating a pattern of activities (reading, discussing, writing, revising) inside and outside of the classroom, asking probing questions, individual conferencing in the classroom, reminding students that English 901 Writing Center Lab work is (required and) useful, distributing electronic and hard copies (of handouts, notes and assignments), underscoring and repeating instructions in written and oral form. In reading this professor’s syllabus, I noted that she also incorporates reading comprehension quizzes and that she grades participation/attendance/Writing Center work.

Her syllabus notes the Student Learning Outcomes for English 100 Reading and Writing Skills:

Students will be assessed on their ability to:

  • write coherent, developed, and clearly constructed thesis-driven in-class and out-of-class essays using a variety of rhetorical approaches;
  • use effective strategies for pre-writing, composing, and revising of essays, both in and out of class;
  • read, summarize, analyze, and evaluate a variety of texts;
  • compose credible academic resources from the library to research a topic; and
  • document sources (print, electronic, and other) in MLA format;

Her syllabus also details the Student Performance Outcomes:

Students who successfully complete this course will be able to:

  • Read critically as demonstrated by
    • identifying the main and supporting ideas in works of fiction and non-fiction.
    • recognizing the assumptions, stated and implied, in an argument.
  • Write clearly as demonstrated by
    • writing coherent, developed and clearly constructed expository, analytical and argumentative essays of 500-700 words that support thesis statements adequately. This should include the ability to write complete essays in class.
    • forming grammatical sentences free from major errors in mechanics, punctuation, and spelling.
(Photo by DMG)

(Photo by DMG)

Once students were gone, I spoke with this professor, in the classroom, for half an hour. On a yearly basis, this professor also teaches about nine writing courses, at two or more community colleges. She earned a master’s degree in English at a university in California and has been teaching writing in the community college for eight and a half years. She does not teach pre-collegiate composition online, but she incorporates technology (e.g., handouts, lessons and other material are archived in CANVAS, the college’s learning management system; although she keeps “a more detailed” hard copy of her grade book, in order to make it easier for students to access their grades, she uses CANVAS’ grade book as a second option; all students must save their work in a thumb drive; they screen a documentary). (When she teaches English 1A freshman composition, she incorporates more technology; for instance, students do reader response activities online. She also incorporates culturally responsive texts, such as The Distance Between Us, a memoir by Reyna Grande, a Mexican American graduate of PCC–though she worries about how to teach and talk to Latino students from her perspective as a White woman.)

This professor said that she does not use a different pedagogy with Latino students, partly because PCC controls/guides curriculum and pedagogy more closely than other colleges where she teaches, but that she’s aware and informed about Latinos. She noted that it’s important to remember students’ names, to read their stories/what they write and get to know them as individuals, “not to put them in one group” (because “Latinos” are not a monolith), to pay attention to the women (especially, because they tend to be quiet and “less likely to talk”), to “find ways to make Latinos feel comfortable and welcomed” in her classroom.

(Photo by DMG)

(Photo by DMG)

Drawing from her experience teaching writing to Latino students in the community college, this professor identified these as the three most important factors needed in order to improve Latino students’ rates of success:

  1. Focus on the “human level, on human interaction” (that is, “the attitude that everybody brings to the table”): “make them feel like they belong here; make them feel like they have a voice; use the reading assignments and the writing to say ‘you belong, you have a right to be here’.”
  2. Provide “something outside of the classroom, some sort of place where they can go to connect with other first generation college students. Most Latino students here are first generation and it’s very intimidating for them to be in college; they need not just a first year program.”
  3. “I feel like there needs to be more outreach, especially for older students. I have some students that are older than me.”
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