February

As I mentioned two weeks ago, I had to set up a website for the Kean University Writing Project, which I've done. For now, I took the easy path using Sandvox, a nifty website creator, and the Franchise theme from Sandvox Web Designs. It's just a matter of copy and paste the information needed into the pages, sometimes with a little tweaking of the html code, and the program and template make it look good.

I was thinking, Did I learn anything from using this program? Do I need always to learn something in all endeavors? To both questions, I've come to the conclusion: No. Although I would enjoy learning more about html and css, spending too much time there would stop me from learning more about what I need to do as a technology liaison between our local site and the National Writing Project. It would take time away from learning about e-Anthology, how to introduce technology to the participants in the Summer Institute, and so on. Just like everything else in life, there are priorities of learning.



Michael Shaughnessy (Ednews.org) interviews E.D. Hirsch on school choice and the Core Knowledge Curriculum, and they discussed an article by Sol Stern and reactions to that article by E.D. Hirsch and others such as Jay P. Greene, Diane Ravitch, Neal McCluskey, Matthew Ladner, Thomas W. Carroll, Andrew J. Coulson and Robert Enlow. Here are two excerpts from the interview:

Critical thinking skills cannot be learned in the abstract.They always pertain to concrete knowledge of subject matter.I review the scientific literature on this in The Schools We Need.Writing skills are obverse of reading skills.They both depend more on knowledge of the unspoken within the language community than on knowledge of the spoken.The main, somewhat revolutionary point I have been making is that teaching content is teaching skills, where as teaching formal processes is, in the end, teaching neither content nor skills.This is not only clear in the scientific literature, it is also clear from comparative results.Students who have had been taught coherent knowledge are more highly skilled than those who have been taught "skills."See the (unfortunately repressed) book by the late Jeanne Chall: The Academic Achievement Challenge

The state standards in language arts (where students spend most of their time in early grades) are empty of content.It's all process.They are not standards at all in a meaningful sense.And they cause reading tests to be hugely unfair, because the topics in passages on reading tests always assume content knowledge that has not been taught in the schools.

This makes sense to me. Just try reading a treatise on quantum mechanics. Without a strong background in physics, any previous critical thinking skills you've acquired will be useless in interpreting this text.

This is one of the problems in many first-year composition programs: They teach the process of writing with limited content knowledge. Usually, students will choose one issue for, say, a definition paper, then another topic for an evaluative argument, and so on. Moving from content area to content area shortchanges students' ability to master process skills, as they must learn two areas: content knowledge and skills.

A better approach is to have students stay with one issue of their own interest the entire semester. In that way, they'll build their content knowledge, so that as the semester continues, they can begin to pay more attention to the critical thinking and writing skills associated with that domain. I noticed the Department of Rhetoric & Composition at UT Austin seems to be doing that now in First-Year Writing.

Of course, there's still the question of whether the writing skills they've learned will transfer to other courses not pertaining to those issues. My guess is they will have some chance of transferring, because the knowledge required in introductory courses is "introductory", unlike the knowledge in the example on quantum mechanics, meaning also that the skills acquired should be more general in nature. Testing that guess would make a good research project.



This semester, my posting frequency will likely be less frequent than previous semesters due to two new responsibilities.

One responsibility is overseeing the establishing of a website that will support writing across the curriculum at Kean University. (At least we have someone, Alex Taner, on board who will design the website and its architecture and is a professional in this area.) Initially, we'll have a skeleton of writing concepts linked to other sites that already have the content for those ideas. Next fall, we'll begin working on our own content to fit our particular students' needs, and a year from now, we'll start working with other departments to integrate their writing needs into the site, so it will truly be "Writing @ Kean" instead of only writing in the English Department.

My other responsibility is related to our English Department becoming a National Writing Project site: I've been appointed the technology liaison--not because I know a lot, but my meager knowledge is more than most others (and others have their own strengths that lead them to other positions). That means I have to set up a website for us, become acquainted with our Summer Institute's technology expectations, and figure out how to help our participants and collaborators become more proficient in using technology in their classes. (I need to figure that out for myself, too, so I'll be hitting two birds with one stone.)

So much to consider, too. Do we want a blog hosted on Blogger or Wordpress, or our own blog installed on our own domain? Do we want static pages or dynamic ones controlled by a CMS? Do we want a commercial CMS like ExpressionEngine that provides support (and costs money) or an open-source CMS like Drupal, which has a community but a steep learning curve. The former items in those sentences are easy to accomplish, while the latter will require much learning on my part. I like learning, but sometimes there's just not enough time to do everything you want and keep up with your other responsibilities. Of course, we can take the easy path now and later move on the more powerful and flexible tools. What problems will that create?



There's a great new writing resource hosted by McGraw-Hill (requires free registration): Teaching English: The Instructor's Resource Portal.

One thing I like about it is the teaching topics. I imagine they'll expand this section but right now they have five topics:

  • Plagiarism and using sources
  • Evaluating student work
  • Responding to student papers
  • Peer response
  • Writing with computers

Each of these topics, besides introducing the topic, covers the following:

  • Background of its respective research and theories
  • Instructional strategies
  • FAQ
  • Resources
  • Bibliography

I took a glance at them, and they'll concisely thorough. I'll be going back to look at them more closely.

Another appealing section is the two blogs. Right now there are two: Teaching Composition and Teaching Basic Writing. Teaching Composition focuses on first-year college composition. These blogs already have about 1 1/2 years of archives, as they are taking the place of their former email lists that used to discuss these particular entries.

This site is going to be a staple in my reading. It's worth it.