When I finish teaching a class I ask the students what they’ve learned. Often this relates to what I’ve taught.
The way that I ask students to demonstrate what they’ve learned is not by a multiple choice test, which would be helpful in determining what I thought they should have learned, but rather through an essay or a letter. I choose this open-ended form for a couple reasons.
First, it supports differentiation of instruction. In the same way that all first graders don’t come to reading at the same time, learners at any level don’t gain skills in lock step. Knowing this doesn’t defeat me from presenting a particular curriculum. But it does disabuse me of the notion that everyone’s going to get it all now.
The second reason I like an end of course “position paper” instead of a final exam is because writing is thinking. Here’s one more chance for each student to solidify the most important things they’ll take away from the class.
This week, the course that is ending is freshman composition at the local community college, and the curriculum is essentially “How to do a college research paper.” As is typical in a community college, the population of students consists of adult learners who need extra help in writing before they tackle other college classes. Many are immigrants, some with university or professional experience in another country and some without. Some students have jobs in the military, government or the private sector, with a few of traditional college age.
I had a lot of A students this time around: Abebe, Abrham, Azene, Ali, Ashemi, Aziz… The topics they researched mirror today’s headlines: HIV/AIDS among women in Zimbabwe; eating disorders among American teenagers; stem cell research; breast implants; music file-sharing and illegal downloading; immigration reform…
One of the appeals of teaching this group, unlike my normal diet of high school kids, is that they are mature adults concerned with the same weighty issues of the day as I am. The greatest challenge, conversely, is that their language skills may be inadequate to penetrate an op-ed piece, at least without a frustrating degree of effort.
What follows are excerpts (unedited by me) from several end-of-course letters about a range of topics addressed in the course.
Hao, a Taiwanese engineer who regularly walked me to my car after class to continue the night’s lessons, described the stages of the writing process:
To become a good writer, one must think and have a mind of his or her own. In the class we are given an article about writing process…At the architect stage, we organize the preliminaries to lay out the structure of the argument so that we can get a big picture of what we want to present. Then we go into more details by refining and sharpening each paragraph to make our objective concrete. Finally, at the Judge stage, we apply critical thinking to look at the piece we are writing in a more intellectual and argumentative way so as to fortify the ground where our view points stand.
Farhan, also my student nearly a decade ago in a ninth grade ESL class, wrote about showing versus telling:
In the process of writing… we wanted to get the audience’s attention by using sensory imagery by showing or drawing a picture to let the reader know what we are trying to tell them without really telling them. This was done by using snapshots to have a reader understand the moment.
JR, a submariner built like a fireplug, tells how he learned to skim sources:
Next bit of knowledge which I have ingested is the ability to helicopter over a source. I have long had a problem in my research with attempting to read an entire document line by line as if I were reading my favorite fiction book. Amazingly I can now skim over a source and capture the thought being expressed.
Konjit, a middle-aged Ethiopian mom, records what she learned about making in-text citations:
In my summer class, I also learned how to write MLA in-text citations. Those is made with a combination of signal phrases and parenthetical referenced. A signal phrase indicted that something taken from a source (a quotation, summary, paraphrase or facts) is about to be used; usually the signal phrase includes the authors name after the cited material, normally includes at least a page number. It is very helpful if the reader decided to consult the sourced, the page number will take them straight to the passage that has been cited.