Instructor Justin Rogers-Cooper, English Department
This blog is a description of my first-time attempt to construct an online collaboration between students in an ENG 220 "Peer Tutoring" class and an ENG 099 developmental English class.
I am currently teaching an ENG 220 Teaching Writing course during Monday and Wednesday evenings. The course is thankfully capped at 15 students; three subsequently dropped to bring the total to a very productive 12. The course is designed to teach students how to become peer tutors, how to practice responding to student writing, and how to connect pedagogical theory to real classroom experience.
This is my first time teaching the course, and I’m using a syllabus almost entirely in debt to the powerful instructors that came before me in the English department, Marian Arkin and Kristen Gallagher. One of the main objectives of the course is to instruct students in the evolving art of face-to-face peer tutoring, such as the kind that takes place in LaGuardia’s wonderful Writing Center. To further facilitate that goal, students with a B+ average will begin tutoring ENG 099 students around the sixth week of the course. To prepare the students for this experience, I devoted class time to familiarizing my ENG 220 students with the CATW exam. The CATW exam is an end of semester test that ENG 099 students must pass in order to ascend to ENG 101.
To extend our learning experiences into the realm of real practice, and with mutual benefits in mind, I made virtual connections with two ENG 099 classes – Dr. Ximena Gallardo’s and Dr. Jason Smith’s.
The first of these virtual connections was with Dr. Gallardo’s 099 class. Her students had written blog responses as a group that summarized a CATW essay. They did this to practice their critical reading skills. Dr. Gallardo suggested an exercise where my students responded to those summaries by assessing how they incorporated the main ideas of the CATW reading. To accomodate this, I decided to mirror her activity with my own students. So in similarly sized groups, my ENG 220 students also wrote group summaries for the same passage. They then compared their responses to the ENG 099 group responses. Once they accounted for the differences, they drafted a letter as a group to one of the groups from Dr. Gallardo's class. They were able to accomplish this in about 40 minutes of class time. I then sent these summaries along to Dr. Gallardo. The experience was gratifying for the ENG 220 students because they were able to familiarize themselves with a CATW response, collaborate on the written response together, and test-run their responses collectively without the pressure of any individual anxiety. I imagine this was the same for the groups that wrote Dr. Gallardo’s blog.
For the second of our virtual connections, Dr. Smith also generously opened his ENG 099 student blogs to my class. Due to the large number of students in his class relative to mine, I assigned each of my students two of Dr. Smith’s student blogs. I handed out new CATW rubrics that we had already discussed several times, explained their instructions again, and set them to their task. They were to rate each ENG 099 blog in five critical criteria (as per the rubric), and also write a 4-5 sentence "overall" statement that set the priorities for revision for the ENG 099 students. I expected the students to spend 15-20 minutes writing each blog, and I left open 30 minutes of lab time for this.
At the end of this class, however, none of the students had completed their first blog response. Working alone proved to be much more challenging than in groups. I had forgotten to factor in the amount of time students took simply reading the ENG 099 blogs. Most of them took nearly 10 minutes to read each one, and most took notes. Given their procedures, only half of the class finished their first blog responses by the end of the next class’ allotted 30 minutes.
In my frequent tours around the class computers to discuss their ongoing compositions, I learned several things that I believe slowed down my student responses. Somewhat unsurprisingly, some of my students were nervous. The quick confidence they displayed in class discussions and group activities didn’t easily carry over to the unfamiliar design of the CATW "rubrics" and its various categories. My students also had their own issues organizing their responses. Many adopted inappropriate tones, and a small minority only wrote two or three sentences in the "overall comments" section. Many of these sentences were vague, such as: "Your sentences are choppy. Work on them."
By the third hour of yet another class, I realized that students were having a hard time writing one blog response in under 30 minutes. This was perhaps because it was their first time. And unfortunately for my commitments to Dr. Smith, we had other tasks on the syllabus to be completed in lab time. They had been observing peer tutors in the writing center for an hour of class time each week, and then typing up these responses in the lab as well. I finally had to tell the students to finish the second blogs at home and send me their responses.
In a further complication, I also decided to try and make some last minute "fixes" to some blog responses as they took them home to finish. We had just read the "Responding to Student Writing" section in our course text Tutoring Writing by Donald McAndrew and Thomas Reigstad. This terrific passage aptly advised tutors how to give specific comments to specific essays, and I pointedly told three students to review it before they handed in their final blog responses – these were the students with only two or three sentences in their "overall comments" section. Two of these students responded well within three days, but the final student ignored the request. He never finished even his second blog response, ever, even though we had spent at least one and a half hours of class time and almost two and a half weeks working on the assignment. Frustrated, I ended up sending all the blog responses to Dr. Smith except this missing one after three weeks.
The online collaboration between my ENG 220 students and ENG 099 students worked very well, but the assignment itself was something I’d do very differently next time. On the one hand, the ENG 099 student blogs were accessible and easy to find. There were no technological issues that disturbed our progress. The classroom network between Dr. Gallardo, Dr. Smith, and myself was productive and reproducible.
What made this assignment difficult were the old-fashioned pedagogical issues that always hover in the background of tightly-packed semesters. The biggest issue was time-management in the classroom and outside the classroom. The CATW responses were not assigned on the syllabus, and thus did not appear in the course grades. I inherited my syllabus from two previous faculty and decided not to change anything. The online collaboration, however, should have been built into the course schedule and should have counted for an official grade. Without those formal protocols, the assignment felt both weirdly informal and yet obviously important. I lacked critical leverage over the procrastinator students; they were late turning in the work in part because it didn’t go for a grade. I felt the responses of the entire class were held hostage by the two or three students that put the assignment on the back burner. In the future, I need to make this assignment count for a grade, and I need to plan for us spending much more time in class than I previously allowed.
The students also began the individual blog response assignment timid and insecure. Fortunately, by the end of the assignment they felt much more relaxed about their work, the CATW exam, and the online collaboration more generally. In the future, however, I would spend much more time modeling written responses on the classroom projector, and might even pair them up for their first blog responses. Once I had evidence they could work in pairs, I would then assign only one blog to each of them. I believe this revised in-class organization would minimize their anxiety and allow them to work faster and with more confidence.
Web 2.0 technologies can be superb tools to increase student capacities and make them better writers. The goals behind this assignment will make my students better peer tutors for ENG 099 students and exposed them to the kinds of student writing they’ll encounter in their future tutoring sessions. Seeing student work online and responding from classroom to classroom was an interactive experience that taught my students by allowing them to teach themselves. It allowed them to learn by doing, rather than by theorizing. I would do this collaboration again in a heartbeat – but I would make the necessary adjustments to my own classroom organization and syllabus first.