Can College Students Write?

December 24, 2013

The Three Rs (reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic) have probably never ceased to summarize what parents and the public want from education.  The ability to read becomes more refined and multidimensional at higher levels, as do the writing and the math, but in some sense these often remain the core educational mission.  So it is worrisome, and yet in another sense unsurprising, that one would often hear concerns about the prospect that college students can’t write.

At one point, I had an opportunity to compare my own writing against that of other students in a course I was taking.  In this case many of the other students were undergraduates.  I knew I was not a Pulitzer Prize winner, but at the same time it did seem that I was an adequate writer.  So I thought the comparison might be interesting.

I was especially intrigued in this case because the students in question were American education majors.  They were going to be teachers.  With them, I felt that the comparison should not be a mere matter of using proper grammar and spelling:  it should include an ability to think critically and at least a fledgling tendency to dig beneath the surface.  Moreover, we were enrolled in a supposedly master’s-level course (one that, indeed, some students were taking for doctoral-level credit), where one might hope for something better than freshman composition.

In this course, we were assigned to write a series of short “reaction” papers.  These tended to run to approximately 200-300 words.  Each typically discussed one article, or one chapter, among the assigned or optional readings.  I found many of these readings appalling, both for their quality and for the fact that we were required to read them.  My papers tended to explain that reaction.

Unfortunately, as noted in the companion post, the professor gave virtually no feedback or other sign of having read my papers, never mind engaging me in discussion of a viewpoint that evidently varied markedly from hers.  I did think that I had written thoughtful papers.  I wanted to make them available for others whose searching might lead in my direction.

So in this post I have decided to pair up each of my papers with a selected paper from some other student in the class.  Hopefully this will accomplish two things at once:  make my own reactions available, as just suggested, and also provide a contrasting illustration at the undergraduate (or, in a few cases, the graduate) level.  (This pairing uses the numbers I gave to my papers.  That is, the assignments were somewhat chaotic in this course.  My paper no. 5 might be some other student’s paper no. 10 – if, indeed, s/he wrote any paper at all on the subject of my paper no. 5.)

I do realize that a comparison of writing abilities between an old lawyer and a college student can be odd.  Note that I did not compare my own papers against any of these others until the time came to write this post.  That is, I did not deliberately write my papers to contrast against any other student’s.  Note also that each of these classmate papers comes from a different undergraduate or graduate student.  That is, I did not pick on just one or two people.  So I think I have provided, here, a fair representation of the writing abilities of American students in this class.  (I have tried to reproduce the texts in their original forms, with spelling and other errors intact.)

My suggestion to the reader, for whatever it may be worth, is to read the Classmate Reaction Papers from the professor’s perspective, looking for lower- and also higher-level writing and thinking issues that could have been developed in this class; then read my reaction paper, covering the same texts, and see how it compares.  I think my papers tend to be better, but not always.  Sometimes (especially in the case of papers written by other graduate students) they are just different.  Be that as it may, my primary interest here is on the quality of the education that has informed these writers.

There is a lot of material here, and there is obviously no expectation that everyone will read it all.  As with most things online, it is just here for anyone who finds it interesting.  Given the professor’s lack of feedback, and the fact that few if any other students engaged in the kind of comparison shown here, it is not clear that this assignment served any purpose at all, within the context of this particular class.  It appears that virtually every submission received an A grade, if not an A+.  It was possible to write the papers on the basis of a few random observations, without reading more than a few snippets from (or about) the assigned text.  Critical reading was not particularly taught or encouraged.

For purposes of this post, I think the conclusion is that my classmates were generally able to write, that there was room for improvement in some cases, and that improvement might be only partly a matter of phrasing – that, along with writing ability per se, there is a separate issue of having exposure to different kinds of reasoning, different sources of evidence, different ways of setting up an essay, and so forth.  Some may share my sense that, from this post, it appears that a writing instructor might get some mileage out of an exercise in which students would first write about some specific topic, would then read what a skilled writer had written on the same topic, and would parse how the two treatments differed.

Topic  1:  Goldstein

Classmate Reaction Paper

After reading the article, “The Nation: History of the Education Culture Wars,” it is interesting to see how “the nation” perceives public education.  According to the author, Dana Goldstein, there were a variety of perceptions given on public education on how and why the nation’s youth could potentially be at stake.  Parents of children in public schools state they want government to “get out of the way” when it comes to educating their children and put the learning back locally and into the community.  With this knowledge, it is critical to understand that if government does overtake main control at a federal level, there will still be a lot to argue about because different areas have different views.

This article was also interesting because it broke up a variety of ideas on how Republicans view religious conservations and extreme tax-cutters verses what the Democratic Party has to say.  Extreme tax-cutters and religious conservatives prefer to criticize schools on the notion that the youth is being corrupted.  This information is beneficial because it will assist in my learning process of how culture wars are affecting the nation’s youth.  This article gives me a better perception on how the people of our nation stand on a variety of topics based around public education.

My Reaction Paper

Writing professors have been assigning Strunk and White (1959) for decades.  The famous little book contains distilled bits of guidance – bits that Pullum (2004) disparages, as summarized in a chat on National Public Radio (NPR) (Conan & Pullum, 2009).  Among other examples, Pullum said on NPR that, when Strunk and White order writers to say “none of us is” (rather than “are”), they are guilty of “silly bossiness” that is “harmful” in that it makes students unnecessarily uncertain in their writing.  Conan and Pullum support the point by citing great writers (e.g., Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde) who observed no such rule.  And yet this and other alleged rules have functioned for a half-century and more as bludgeons, in the hands of supposedly knowledgeable products of higher education.

Goldstein (2012) comparably demonstrates that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, in her denigration of opposing views.  Redundant self-promotion is par for political stump speeches; yet, to her, Rick Santorum’s tale about his own homeschooling qualifies as “ad nauseum boasting.”  Santorum’s view that “state governments should start to get out of the education business” makes him a “culture warrior,” whereas people on the left who likewise “want to empower local educators” are simply “pedagogical progressives.”  Goldstein tut-tuts the Republicans with her observation that “[i]deological fervor is often tamed in the byways of the Capitol”; yet her own example suggests otherwise.

Reflecting a modernist conceit characteristic of contemporary higher education, Goldstein (2012) purports to provide an implicitly factual “history of the education culture wars.”  Like the so-called rules of Strunk and White (1959), however, what she really provides is a tiresome recitation of personal grievances, for a society that could benefit from less partisan rule-mongering.  In this era, a higher education worthy of the name might produce writers, mindful of their limitations, who seek to inform rather than hector.

Topic 2:  Body Ritual Among the Nacirema

Classmate Reaction Paper

In this article the anthropologist, Horace Miner, is referring to Americans, but it can also relate to us as well.  Basically, he has played around with the words to make it all seem unusual.  At first when I read the article I was very confused and could not interpret what kind of people would perform such unusual rituals.  Now knowing this article is pertaining to the American culture, it’s very interesting to see the things we call “normal” and are routine to us can be seen by others in another cultures as bizarre.

After discovering that the article was about Americans I started to recognize the rituals and began looking at our daily lives.  I then realized that I was “judging a book by its cover” when I first read the article not knowing anything.  Without having sufficient knowledge about a certain subject, I was coming to my own conclusions about what I thought about a certain group. For instance, he used the term “hog hairs” instead of a toothbrush to play with our minds.  Also, the “holy-mouth-men” can be described as the dentist, “medicine man” as a doctor, and the “listener” as a counselor or psychological therapist.  I realized that if someone else from the outside was to look at our daily “rituals” or routines, they would be astonished and amazed to some extent, but for us it’s normal and nothing unusual.  It is interesting how a change in some words can make something seem so off and not right.

I think this article has somewhat made me realize that we need to be more open minded when looking at certain cultures.  Every culture or religion performs their own distinct rituals and we should not be the judge of what is normal or not.  Miner has made me realize that cultures are defined differently and it is up to us to respect their differences.

My Reaction Paper

Miner (1956) offers a characterization of Americans in language that one might use to describe some primitive or alien culture – referring to the bathroom, for example, as a “shrine” and a “ritual center.”  As those terms suggest, Miner’s approach is ironical.  He does seem, however, to intend more than humor:  he sticks with a theme of magical thinking to such an extent that I concluded he must be at least somewhat serious about it.

Overall, I felt that his effort did not work – not in 2013, anyway, though I suspect it probably played better in 1956, else it would not have been written by a professor from the University of Michigan and published in an apparently recognized journal.  To me, regrettably, it wasn’t funny, and it was transparent from the outset.  Worse, I felt that his parody (if I can call it that) was weakened by plain misrepresentations of Americans’ so-called magic.  Writer and reader alike realize that a toothbrush is not a ceremonial object.

So would I just write it off as tedious and overdone?  Yes.  Or no, if you prefer.  He does have some points.  For instance, it was funny to read his baffled description of the medicine cabinet.  If he intended to imitate the misunderstandings that social scientists often achieve, as seems likely, then his rendition of the toothbrush and the razor make the point.  At the least, though, I would have welcomed a more tightly edited version.

Alternately, he might have incorporated more material from outside the home.  It might have been interesting to see his version of the Nacirema in their houses of learning.  For that matter, if one could find the right articles or book excerpts, it could be interesting to see a contemporary discussion of a topic from 50 years ago, which in turn was discussing an article on the same topic from 50 years before that – and so forth.  It could be enlightening, in other words, to see how the words of the wise have wandered.  That, I think, may have been in the spirit he intended, even if he did exempt himself from it.

Topic 3:  Brabham & Villaume on Literature Circles

Classmate Reaction Paper

I found this article extremely helpful and insightful.  Growing up and even now, I have always loved to read!  In school, I would always enjoy literature circle type lessons where as students we could help each other and see other peoples’ points of view.  Educators could really use this to their advantage in their classrooms, especially in classrooms with multiple languages.  Literature circles enable students to have a way of communication that isn’t too structured.  I suppose that the teacher could make them more structured if need be, like giving each student a certain “job” or responsibility within the group.  Each student will bring something new and different to the circle, which I think is so important!  One thing that really stood out to me was how the literature circles provided the students with responsibility in the classroom.  At times I believe that the teacher takes on all of the responsibility and does not let the students have input.  Students should be held accountable for what they read and should be able to express something about it!  I have always been an advocate for these, so I look forward to our class literature circles and being able to use them in my own classroom in the future!

My Reaction Paper

Brabham and Villaume (2000) (“BV”) offer opinions about literature circles (LCs).  It does not appear that these opinions are empirically informed.  The short article’s six formal references (all at least 14 years old at this point) include only two presumably peer-reviewed journal sources – one pertaining to K–6 and the other to middle school.  As a spot check, I looked at the latter (Burns, 1998).  (All the others were either book chapters or no longer available.)  That one, too, conveyed only anecdotes and impressions.  The article does list a dozen other aging sources whose titles do not consistently evince a clear focus on documented best practices in literature circles at any level, including especially the higher education context in which we are now commencing an exploration of such circles.

BV (p. 278) state that skillful reading “is marked by an intimate engagement with text.”  For example, they say, skillful readers evaluate content and argue with the author.  Many readers would concur.  What, then, is the basis for the claim, by BV, that “Literature circles are important because they promote . . .  active and thoughtful stances toward reading”?  It seems that the skillful reader is already active and thoughtful.  Might a group not actually detract from or interfere with the reader’s “intimate” engagement with text?  This is the sort of question on which careful research could shed light.  For instance, it could turn out that literature circles are good for some readers, but not for “skillful” ones.

BV (pp. 278-279) further suggest that literature circles “help students generate ideas and their own thoughtful conversations about what they have read.”  Do they really?  If so, they must be different from the standard small groups into which students have been subsorted over the decades, whose members include the diligent, the lazy, and the intimidated.  Are these allegedly thoughtful conversations reliably superior to the conversations that a skilled instructor in an appropriately sized class might stimulate?  Yes, BV say:  they are, in every case, no matter how structured.  A “narrow focus on procedures” should not be allowed to interfere with the gospel that “literature circles are important,” period.

The foregoing criticisms may seem to imply that this writer prefers dry quantitative research reports.  That would be a misreading.  Indeed, BV could be construed as offering a commentary consistent with expectations in their particular strain of academic culture.  Yes, they seem to be advancing an uncritical belief without the kind of support that a social scientist would normally expect.  But possibly, in the literature of the field of education, this sort of thing is normal.  It could be, for instance, that readers familiar with this particular journal, at least, are able to detect a self-deprecating undertone, as if to say, “Here’s something we tried; we like it; you should try it; we think it works for everyone in every situation; but we aren’t really trying to prove it or otherwise ram it down anyone’s throat.”  An academic culture tolerant of that undertone could be undesirable, however, to the extent that it discourages informed debate of serious proposals.  We should not be simply assuming that literature circles work, or that the procedures do not matter.

Topic 4:  Minilessons

Classmate Reaction Paper

Using a series of minilessons, Harvey Daniels lays out the rules in how to operate a literature circle (Daniels, 2004).  This is gratifying to those of us who enjoy knowing where the limits are so that we can operate within a safe comfort zone.  I like to feel productive, and Daniels’ rules contribute greatly to such comfort and the resultant productivity.

It is clever how Daniels explains the way a literature circle can establish its own rules without a putative leader jamming such rules down the members’ throats.  During the organization session of the literature circle he presents the problems that accrue when some members “read ahead” and then asks the group to brainstorm for solutions.  Accordingly, when group members become part of the solution, it lessens the likelihood that they are part of the problem.

Because this class is my first experience with literature circles, this minilesson is helpful for me to learn the limits and the reasons for those limits.  I am reminded of the country comedian Will Rogers who said that it was best to learn by reading or from the experience of others rather than make the mistakes ourselves.  My father added a corollary to Will Rogers’ observation:  “It is best to learn from the experiences of others because you cannot live long enough to make all of the mistakes yourself.”

The concept of self-regulation coupled with periodic monitoring gets everyone involved in the process.  Accordingly, the literature circle members will follow the rules better because they have some “skin in the game” that they helped create and are now policing.

My Reaction Paper

Daniels (2004) proposes using “minilessons” to address the problem of spoilers – of literature circle members who read ahead and then give away parts of the story before other members have had a chance to read and enjoy those parts for themselves.  Daniels characterizes minilessons as simply “five-minute lessons” used, in this case, to “help book clubs work better” (p. 48).  These lessons can apparently take a variety of forms.  Daniels offers the example of a class brainstorming session, which may not be everyone’s idea of a “lesson.”  The balance of his article further discusses the spoiler problem.  It is not really an article about minilessons.  The minilesson concept, per se, seems to be extraneous.

Daniels says that the brainstorming session achieved most of its purposes just by producing conversation leading to solutions.  This is not clear.  The balance of the article departs significantly from the suggestions offered by students in that session.  In particular, he discusses a rubber-banding solution that does not seem to have been derived from the students’ suggestions listed in the article.  The available information suggests that students may have been invited to put forth their best ideas, only to see them overruled by the teacher’s ideas.  Moreover, as Daniels admits at the end, some spoiling will inevitably occur despite efforts.  It seems that the teacher could achieve more or less the same thing by simply advising students not to spoil and/or by using the rubber-banding technique described in the article.  A sentence or two might suffice to convey these thoughts.

Having covered minilessons, brainstorming, and the rubber-banding technique, Daniels closes his two-page article with a few paragraphs on the question of whether students who finish early should be required to start a new book immediately.  He acknowledges that “good-hearted teachers disagree on this one” (p. 49), and offers a few thoughts on both sides of that question.

Topic 5:  García Chapter 1

Classmate Reaction Paper

It is becoming more and more important for teachers and schools to understand and accommodate to the rising population of culturally and linguistically diverse students.  I think sometimes teachers and schools just think that knowing students speak another language is all that they need to know.  However, this is not the case.  The language barrier is not the only factor that affects the education process.  This is why I was happy to see that this chapter included other things for teachers and schools to take into account.  These included demographic factors, issues of academic performance, language background, and child and family well-being.  A factor of education that I am very passionate about is decreasing the dropout rate of students from schools.  This another reason I enjoyed reading Chapter 1.  Garcia gives many facts about dropout rates.  Statistics show that most non-Anglo-American and Hispanic students are more likely to attend schools with few financial resources and larger classes and are thus more likely to dropout than Anglo-American students.  This is why it is important to be an effective teacher.  Garcia describes effective teachers as mastering content knowledge, teaching for student learning, creating a classroom community for student learning, teacher professionalism, and incorporating culturally responsive pedagogy.  I think that these five points are very important and should be qualities that every school looks for when hiring teachers.

My Reaction Paper

Garcia provides a straightforward recitation of general facts regarding the composition and teaching of students from diverse cultures in U.S. schools.  My reactions were of a relatively minor and piecemeal nature.

One such reaction had to do with the concept of human capital.  It is undeniable that schools can and should work to develop students’ capacities and capabilities.  At the same time, it is interesting if not dismaying to ponder that proposition in current economic conditions.  Contemporary reports convey the impression that employment opportunities are such that graduating from high school hardly even counts – that, indeed, only certain fields of study in college carry much weight toward relatively reliable employability.  A competitive economy always has been, and is now more than ever, oriented toward shedding excess human capital – not toward making the most of it.  This prospect does not necessarily attenuate the teacher’s obligations.  But it may diminish optimism, for teacher and student alike, at least to the extent that human capital is conceived in terms related to employability as distinct from learning as a virtue for its own sake.

A second reaction had to do with the ideal of the teacher who has taught for many years and now finds him/herself compelled to accommodate multiculturalism of unprecedented scope.  I suspected that such adaptation might come easier to the experienced teacher, for whom such changes would arrive over the years at a relatively evolutionary pace, than to the novice, who could find it overwhelming to attempt all this while simultaneously learning other basics of teaching.  I wondered whether the model of the traditional classroom might be to some extent obsolete under such conditions.

Finally, I doubted Garcia’s “connoisseur model.”  He seemed to assume that it is possible to develop unbiased connoisseurs on a mass scale.  There did not seem to be an empirical basis for this assumption.  I would expect research to indicate that these supposedly fair individuals would tend to indulge preferences and favorites in entirely human fashion.  In a field as politicized as education, I would have been reassured by a less wishful approach to the topic of teacher assessment.

Topic 6:  García Chapter 2

Classmate Reaction Paper

There is a cycle of interdependence that constitutes the role of schools in the success of its students.  Each student’s success is very dependent upon the school’s climate (or the climate as perceived by the students) and the school’s learning environment.  The learning environment is dependent upon its leadership and the leadership is dependent upon how teachers translate the leadership’s policies to their students.  The role of each student’s language and cultural capital is of utmost importance and should be the center of the cycle.  When a student doesn’t feel that he/she is the center or the most important part of the cycle, the cycle becomes a cycle of negativity and sooner or later the cycle will spin out of control causing students to drop out of school.

The worst aspect of a lack of a positive learning environment is to have an “us vs. them” attitude which causes educators to disregard students’ talents and intelligence.  The manifestation of this is the “pobrecito” syndrome.  Lowering academic expectations for students under the premise of trying to give them a safe an loving environment does neither and only causes a subculture of underachievement.  I have known teachers who do just that!  What teachers who do this fail to understand is that they are failing to see THEIR OWN humanity in their students.  They are perpetuating the “us vs. them” attitude.  We as educators CANNOT EVER see our students as less neither intellectually nor culturally.  As Carlos Fuentes said “If we do not see our humanity in others we will never see it in ourselves”

My Reaction Paper

In chapter 2, Garcia’s stated goal is to set the context for a discussion of educational challenges facing educators.  In pursuing that effort, he makes a number of statements that I found worthy of challenge.  My challenges, like his statements, were inevitably the fruit of their author’s preconceptions; a difference was that I did not approach the topic with a specific agenda, beyond a general interest in testing claims.

One such challenge arose in Garcia’s examples of families whose children had ceased to speak their parents’ language.  One such example involved a Korean family; another family was Latino.  In both cases, this parent-child noncommunication somehow managed to continue for several years before the parents noticed.  To me, the point of such examples was that the parents, not the schools, were doing something wrong.  In the case of the Latino family, Garcia inadvertently made the further point that the parents had been in the U.S. for 20 years without learning enough English to speak to their children.  This suggested something resembling actual antipathy toward the culture of their host country.  Evidently that attitude yielded an unexpected penalty for the parents:  they paid a price for refusing to think in terms of what their children would need in order to thrive in this country.

As my own remarks illustrate, a white American who perceives someone like Garcia as an adversary may quickly gravitate toward a preoccupation with seemingly objectionable emphases in the advocate’s message, at the expense of what may be more crucial points that could be conveyed more effectively without that baggage.  Yet this may simply mirror Garcia’s own predilection toward some degree of preaching as distinct from reasoning – where the latter, truly indulged, could sometimes derogate from his personal preferences.  A more analytical writer, I think, might reflect upon the seeming inconsistency between the assertion that anthropologists “tend to ignore individual variations” and the later acknowledgment that many anthropologists with a psychological orientation do use an individual-oriented concept of culture.

Topic 7:  Boys and Books

Classmate Reaction Paper

For especially an early education teacher or a librarian, the “Boys and Books” packet would be very helpful. I know that while I was growing up, we were on the Accelerated Reader program, which a student would read books to accumulate points and a student would be assigned a reading level, and boys would like to read. Through this program, students were allowed to essentially pick their books that they wanted to read if it was on their reading level. This provided some freedom of choice. On the other hand, I could see teachers trying to force certain books or topics that may be more gender specific towards girls and boys just giving up. I know that my teachers also allowed students to read magazines and other types of text that interested boys. I believe that it comes down to how much effort the teacher wants to put forth to make the class and situation as comfortable as possible.

[This classmate also included a few sentences on García’s chapter 6.  Possibly she felt that “Boys and Books” by itself did not contain enough meat to support a reaction paper, or perhaps she thought that the instructor wanted the paper to cover both of these texts.]

My Reaction Paper

At the Arkansas Library Association Conference in 2006, Jenine Lillian, Youth Services Librarian at the Fayetteville Public Library, presented a document titled “Boys and Books: Encouraging Boys Ages 9-13 to Read.”  We are to provide responses to that document in this week’s reaction paper.

The title of Ms. Lillian’s presentation prompted me to devote a half-hour to the investigation and reading of articles related to boys and reading.  My inquiry began with what proved to be my mistaken sense that not many people were looking at Lillian’s topic circa 2006, and migrated somewhat to the question of whether male teachers beneficially affected boys’ perceptions of reading.  The introduction of the Lillian piece thus provoked some collateral learning for me.

Lillian’s presentation reached me in the form of what appears to be her handout and, at its rear, her PowerPoint.  The latter evidently began with a brief quiz to test audience knowledge of her subject.  To illustrate its contents, a “correct” answer to question 4 requires a belief that “Boys tend to be better at information retrieval and work-related literacy tasks than girls.”  After the quiz, she evidently proceeded into nine slides oriented toward the question of what boys like to read.  The handout contains several lists of materials:  books (and also a list of online articles, and a list of “helpful websites”) for adults about boys (or about children generally) and reading; nonfiction books for boys; “series for boys” (e.g., Harry Potter); and online (presumably boy-oriented) book lists.

Ms. Lillian’s résumé suggests that she visited Fayetteville for just 18 months before returning to Seattle in 2007. That document further indicates that her M.S. in library science was preceded by a B.S. in sociology with a women’s studies minor.  Judging from the résumé, within her 20-year career, her professional focus on boys was largely limited to her Fayetteville period.  My curiosity about that arose after reading her PowerPoint’s claims that “I am often mistaken for a teenage boy” (presumably offered in a jesting spirit, along with “my friends will tell you I am a teenage boy”) and “Boys are . . . right-brained . . . tough . . . .”  The PowerPoint further claims that “what counts as reading” includes not only comic books but also optical illusions.  The PowerPoint closes with yet another list (of “authors to know”) and an offer of inter alia a “packet” that apparently included or consisted of the handout described above.

In my impression, Ms. Lillian’s presentation was that of a librarian, trained to guide people toward lists of potentially useful materials – as distinct from that of an educator, who would ideally know what those materials said, would discriminate among them in terms of usefulness, and would hesitate to offer grand, unqualified generalizations about major groups within his/her clientele.  At this point – given the age of her lists of materials, the relative awkwardness of manually typing her URLs into a web browser, the absence of evidence that her views were based upon research into boys’ learning, and the prospect that her lists were slanted by beliefs like those cited above – I would tend to find her handout and PowerPoint equally useless, and for purposes of learning about boys and reading would begin from scratch with my own web search.

Topic 8:  García Chapter 3

Classmate Reaction Paper

After reading the first three chapters of Garcia, I do not think I have particularly gained the knowledge of how to teach students of other cultures.  I feel like the majority of this book is a history lesson with a lot of outdated information being that the diversity in schools has changed so much so quickly.  With all this, I find this text difficult to read and follow.

One part of the chapter that did actually resonate with me was when Americanization was being discussed.  Under this approach it was believed that some children were culturally flaws and have an undesirable cultural attributes, which should cause them to be eliminated or “fixed.”  This was done to a large number of Native American children, and it truly breaks my heart to read this.

Everyone believes they come from the greatest culture of all with their ethnocentric mentality.  People can believe this all want, but that does not mean they have the right to push their beliefs on other cultures.  I am so thankful that I never had to witness a child be considered flawed based on their culture first hand.  I am glad that when I start my career as an educator, it will be in a time where people are more culturally accepting.  I do not want to see educator’s forcing students to lose their culture to an “American.” America is the melting pot for a reason.

My Reaction Paper

Garcia’s chapter 3 begins with the interesting topic of the melting pot (i.e., Americanization).  I realize that that antique concept is not fashionable in academia.  On the other hand, Garcia’s own phrasing is not always astute.  For example, he claims, as a general principle, that this approach to immigrants “actually preserved [their] political and economic subordination” when, as he then admits, “Americanization did not evenly affect all immigrant groups” (p. 101).  It seems he is not sure why not.  His reference to the continuing segregation of what he oddly lumps together as “the non-European community” implies, without evidence, that such segregation is not desired by or beneficial to any Asian or Hispanic groups.  It seems strange, moreover, that Garcia purports to refute a 1921 publication by Thomas and Park by citing 1990s research by Gonzalez, when Garcia’s own tacit admission is that the melting pot did substantially work for European immigrants of the 19th and early 20th century.  Generally, such misstatements contributed to this reader’s prior sense that Garcia approached the topic with a protuberant and possibly uninformed agenda.  For instance, Leonhardt (2013) finds, in the data, indications that Hispanics themselves, presumably the group with which Garcia is most familiar, tend in fact to be following the traditional melting-pot progression.

Garcia often treats minority groups as monoliths distinct from mainstream American culture. For example, he suggests that “a multicultural curriculum . . . would . . . reaffirm the significance of the minority group” and speaks of “children with different cultures and languages” (p. 107).  Later, though, he remembers “the axiom implicitly understood by social scientists who study culture:  there is as much heterogeneity within any cultural group as there is among cultural groups” (p. 114).  But then he lapses back into tired generalizations about “the lack of fit between the culturally diverse student and the school experience” (p. 119).  Garcia’s perspective appears firmly rooted in a street-level “us vs. them” mentality in which one starts with, essentially, the assumption that poor white kids are inevitably more privileged than middle-class Hispanic kids – because the former supposedly benefit from an enduring Americanization mentality that has somehow disadvantaged the latter.  I do think that views like those promoted by Garcia would have been valuable in the 1960s.  My impression is, however, that research has moved on from what one might term the gross “movement mentality” evident in these pages.

Topic 9:  García Chapter 4

Classmate Reaction Paper

Chapter 4 discusses the impact of family, home, and school on multicultural self-identity.  I found the studies on self-image using dolls very interesting.  In the study Native American children and African American children were given the choice of dolls.  Some looked like Anglo American children some like either Native American or African American, depending on the group being studied.  In most cases the children all chose the Anglo American looking dolls.  This study was conducted before the civil rights movement and it was determined that the social perception of a race affected the self-image of children in that ethnic group.  I found it very interesting that in later studies, after desegregation and civil rights, more children chose dolls that more closely represented their ethnicity.  Many still chose the Anglo American doll but the children from families that encouraged holding onto their cultural values and identity were more likely to have a stronger self-image.  This helps explain why children of some other cultures struggle in the school setting.  If they do not feel valued and competent because of the messages society is feeding them, they will not be as motivated and feel capable of success in school.  The author makes the point that they will start to believe those negative images and take them on.  I really enjoyed this part of the chapter as well as the idea that attitudes depend on whether the person is considered a voluntary or involuntary immigrant.  It only makes sense that people who feel they had a choice to be here will have a stronger desire to be successful.

I also liked the way Ogbu defined minority.  It is not just a matter of which population has the largest number of people but which population is being subordinate to another dominant group.  This explains why countries that have been taken over by other nations can still have their large population of people identifying with the problems and concerns of minority populations.

My Reaction Paper

Garcia’s chapter 4 addresses inter alia the cultural systems approach to education, which “suggests that members of minority groups become convinced . . . that their ‘place’ in society is distinctively disadvantaged” (p. 147).  (Apparently he means that they become convinced that they are expected to occupy a disadvantaged place in society.)  Here, as before, Garcia imposes upon every minority (e.g., Asians, Jews) hackneyed assumptions that were more relevant in the era of Jackie Robinson.  For example, he enlists the concept of involuntary vs. voluntary minority status.  Involuntary minorities, he says, are those which, among other things, “did not choose to emigrate” to the U.S. (p. 148).  This, he says, is an apt description of Hispanics (p. 147).  And it is, for some – but not for many of those who face the strongest culture-based discrimination today.

Although the title of chapter 4 refers to “family, home, and school,” the chapter seems to be oriented toward a simpler binary of family/home vs. school.  In that binary, Garcia does offer some useful if diffident remarks on behalf of family and home.  For example, he criticizes “conditions of injustice that are fundamentally and systematically structured into schooling” (p. 157).  Yet as that quote suggests, his analysis goes only partway.  He does recognize that schools are not politically neutral, yet he treats their political content as though it were handed down to, and transmitted transparently through, the schools – as though educators did not variously use or ignore elements of the national political culture in furtherance of their own potentially incompatible agendas.  Garcia’s preoccupation with gross ethnic categorizations apparently prevents him from developing his own recognition of “political, economic, and racial conflicts that are deeply embedded in the educational system” (p. 157) into a clear awareness that his favored solutions (such as those on p. 158) affirm the leading role of the school, not the home, in such education.

It apparently does not occur to Garcia that, to mention one possibility, educators could renounce their power over families, choosing instead to take a supporting role in which they would function as consultants to families, seeking primarily to assist in families’ own internal attempts at education.  If preserving multidimensional cultural diversity truly is Garcia’s objective, then it seems he must conclude that schools, with their unavoidable homogenizing tendencies, are not the appropriate vehicles for education.  Garcia’s multicultural emphasis seems to require, rather, that the mass-production model evident in today’s teaching profession would be converted to a client-based model, as in law or medicine, wherein the practitioner treats every child’s learning situation as unique, and tends to position him/herself as a mere assistant in the individual’s growth project.

Topic 10:  García Chapter 7

Classmate Reaction Paper

One of the first opening sentences of this chapter talked about having “effective” instruction for different cultural children and learning how to teach with diversity.  One thing I have noticed is that there are so many methods and ways to teach and be successful for ELL learners and more.  The one thing I find that is missing is how to implement real practices that match these theories and ideas in the actual classroom.  We can read all day about the latest trends and teaching methods but without training and learning how to correctly apply it becomes head knowledge and nothing seen in the classroom.  I found this very frustrating for myself and students in the classroom.

The next topic I had an issue with was the sentence that follow:  “ By changing the values and language of the group, we will have the solution to the educational under achievement of students who represent these [culturally different] groups”.  We talk about inclusion in the classroom and adapting our teaching to meet the needs of the students in our classroom.  You can never teach the same thing the exact same way each year because your students change and so do learning styles.  Yet this quote from the text says that we try to change these groups of people to conform to the types of traits and characteristics that are “normal” to American culture and that are easier to teach in a whole group instruction situation.  I don’t know if it is the extra work to teach a culturally diverse class, fear of not knowing how to teach them or a lack of understanding; but it is completely disheartening to hear that cultural groups and people with values and beliefs are losing them to just survive.  Instead of accepting the differences and embracing them in the classroom we are making those people and beliefs become inferior and less worthy of our time and understanding.  There is a lot to be learned from people around us and different cultures.  Students in your class are capable of sharing those things about themselves and being proud of who they are and where they come from.  If you were the kid in the class that was different, how would you feel if you had to change who you were just to be able to learn in the classroom “the right way”?  It just makes me sad and frustrated to know that people are suffering and not getting an education in a way that they can understand and apply.

There will always be new theories and better ways to do things to keep up with the times and the changes in the world.  And that is great because learning and education is ever changing.  But all these theories will be useless to learning if teachers cannot accept other cultural students into their teaching styles and then learn how to implement procedures and policies to create success.  I know for myself I do not have a good grasp on any of this and have a long way to go until I could teach all different types of students but it is something any kind of teacher should strive to want to accomplish I think.

My Reaction Paper

Among the many topics broached in Garcia’s chapter 7, one provides an especially fitting capstone in this final reaction paper.  That topic is teacher education.  Garcia observes that, as of his writing (relying on research from the early 1990s, and apparently not updated in his 2002 edition), “the recent trend has been to withdraw many of the training activities from the standard ‘college of education’ framework” in favor of training teachers “in the school site itself” (pp. 293-294).

One need not identify with conservatives generally in order to perceive that higher education is plagued by substantial failures in its core mission (e.g., Arum & Roksa, 2011).  It should perhaps not be surprising that such failures appear most ironically and obtrusively in schools of education.  If higher education were profoundly committed to learning, such schools would both inspire and distill the best of that commitment.

Garcia’s chapter 7 provides numerous illustrations of such failures.  In response to burnout, for example, he observes that “only those [teachers] with ongoing professional development support” (p. 295) – those whose own education continues well beyond their years in teacher college – tend to stay in the profession.  On that same page, he recognizes the substantial failure of “typical teacher-preparation pathways or state credentialing standards” to meet “immediate needs” for teachers in many districts.  He notes, further, that effective teachers serving culturally diverse populations had tended to pursue relevant educational opportunities that they seek out and finance on their own (p. 298); that they had “abandoned a strictly skills-oriented approach to instruction” (p. 300) and, in some cases, had likewise abandoned “conventional testing” (p. 302); that they have pursued experimental innovations suggested by their own study and experience, as distinct from leadership that might have been provided by schools of education on the basis of research expertise (p. 303); and that the success of such teachers is linked with their considerable experience (p. 307) – suggesting that the very concept of a school of education may be inferior to that of an apprenticeship-based approach to teach training.

Bonus:  Annotated Bibliography

As described in the accompanying post, the professor for whom we wrote the foregoing reaction papers also required us to write something she called an “annotated bibliography” covering three books.  This paper was supposed to be a group project.  In our case, at least, it was – to a limited extent.  It involved me sitting down with input from two of the three other members of my group – the third one did not submit anything – and writing up a brief discussion.  I don’t know what processes led to other groups’ papers.  It did seem, though, that it might be interesting to compare another group’s paper against the one I wrote for our group.  Note that this comparison involves only two of the three books discussed in the annotated bibliography.  These were the only books our groups had in common:  the third book varied from one group to another.

Another Group’s Annotated Bibliography

Alexie, S. (2007). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. (1st ed.). New York: Hachette Book Group, Inc. Print.

In his book, Sherman Alexie depicts the hardships a young boy named Arnold faces due to not only belonging to a minority group and being poor, but also the struggles of being a student with multiple disabilities. After throwing his book at his instructor due to the anger he felt when he realized that his mother used the book that he is currently learning from, Arnold is suspended from the school on the reservation. When his principal, Mr. P, visits him at home, he advises Arnold to find something more than his school has to offer. Arnold then transfers a nearby school, 22 miles away, and becomes the only Indian in the school; that is if you do not count the school’s mascot. Arnold soon proves his smarts and toughness to the other students which earns him a spot on the basketball team and, in turn, relieves him of the fear of being beat up by the jocks. Even though his new life at Reardan High seems to be an improvement, back on the reservation he is the enemy. The others on the “rez” believe that Arnold is turning his back on his heritage, not that he was accepted much in the beginning. Even his best friend is outraged by his decision. However, the culmination of their hate for Arnold is not displayed fully until the basketball game between the two schools when they turn their backs on him. Arnold’s team wins the match and he feels guilty like he is on the side of Goliath. After several losses, including his father’s best friend, his grandmother and his sister, Arnold and his best friend, Rowdy, reconcile. Rowdy labels Arnold as a nomadic Indian. However, Arnold sees himself as not necessarily an Indian and not necessarily white, but instead he is multi-tribal.

In the end, we are shown that it does not matter where you come from, only where you are going. Arnold’s act of embracing who he is is a wonderful lesson that many students struggle to learn today, especially ESL students. One cannot let others force labels on them; we must create our own (or abandon them completely) and learn to be happy with ourselves. Alexie’s book, or at least excerpts from the book, should be used in classrooms today to help students understand this concept. After reading, we think it would be most appropriate for students in middle school or above.

Mortenson, Greg and David Relin.Three Cups of Tea.Vol.1.New Yiork.Penguin, 2006. 1-368. 1 vols.Print

Three Cups of Tea, is man’s search for self-realization, his quest for education in remote regions of Pakistan combined with a mountain climbing guide. Greg Mortenson, a mountaineer who loses his way while climbing K2 in Pakistan comes to know the community of his rescuer and realizes that there is no school in the community to educate its children. He promises to return to build a school. The rest of the plot, narrated in third person by David Relin, consists of Mortenson’s experiences endeavoring to raise funds for this school and subsequently the establishment of many others throughout rural areas of Pakistan.

Although mountaineering adventures and accounts from great mountaineers were a bit tedious, the vivid description of the Pakistani culture and countryside blended with the warmth and trustworthiness of its people is enjoyable. Mortienson’s point of view and brotherhood experience with Pakistanis is a refreshing and eye-opening contrast to the American media.

I would recommend this book for grades 6+ because of its length and because of its sometimes long and drawn-out mountaineering references. I think it will be a bit tedious for younger or reluctant readers. I do consider this book to be important to show a side of the Pakistani people that is rarely seen in the United States. I recommend the use of excerpts for younger grades.

It is important to note that there are various controversies about the veracity of the book’s account of Mortenson’s travels and actions from misuse of funds, inaccurate accounts of imprisonments to exaggeration of the number of schools that were built.

Our Group’s Annotated Bibliography

This Annotated Bibliography provides content summaries as well as cursory guidance regarding the suitability of several books reviewed by members of our literature circle.  Suitability is evaluated in terms of several criteria, including reading level, general suitability, and recommendations for use in student assignments.  The guidance provided here reflects disagreements among circle members, to convey an accurate picture of members’ thoughts on such criteria.

Alexie, S., & Forney, E. (Illustrator). (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian. New York: Little, Brown (230 pp.).

Alexie’s paperback is centered around the transition of Junior, the first-person protagonist, from a high school on an Indian reservation in Washington State to a white high school off-reservation.  Struggles within this transition – meeting girls, for example, and participating in sometimes violent sports – afford many contrasts between the two cultures.  Through a variety of credibly awkward and wrenching vignettes, Junior relates hardships on multiple levels (including peers, family, and neighborhood), in terms that will be familiar to any present or former high schooler.  Those hardships are amplified, in his case, by a physical disability and by an acute awareness that his path has led into a sociocultural no man’s land.  He navigates obstacles with an undertone of regret, a sense of humor that is more wry than sharp, and a resilient tendency toward constructive outcomes.

Scholastic (n.d.a.) places this book at the 9-12 grade interest level and the 3.4 grade level equivalent (on a scale from 1.0 to 12.9).  Members of our literature circle voiced no concerns regarding its readability for a high school audience.  Moreover, as one might expect from receipt of a National Book Award (2007), the book garnered an average rating of 4.14 (out of 5) from nearly 56,000 voters at Goodreads (n.d.a.).  Among several scholars and other writers consulted, views varied.  For instance, on one hand, Lapp and Fisher (2009) reported positive results in independent and group reading, particularly in discussions connected with race.  On the other hand, the American Library Association (2010) indicates that this book was one of the ten most frequently challenged books (in terms of attempts “to remove or restrict materials” from libraries) of 2010.  According to Fuller (2009), a rationale for such challenges, emerging also in our own literature circle’s discussion, was that parents found the language “shocking” and “vulgar” – inappropriate, in other words, for readers as young as 13, and also not academically oriented – while educators felt the book would be especially likely to appeal to otherwise reluctant young male readers and would also convey a persuasive anti-alcohol message.

Our discussion concluded that such controversies would likely degrade the book’s welcome in many communities.  This was not necessarily a conclusion that teachers should not take the risk; on that, members of our circle were divided.  Some of us recommended it across the board; some felt, more cautiously, that its use should be feasible at least with favorably inclined students (and parents), and perhaps also with others after suitable briefing on the pros and cons.  Feasibility aside, for reasons presented above, we remained divided on the merits of this book vis-à-vis other material that high schoolers could be reading instead.

Mortenson, G., & Relin, D. O. (2006). Three cups of tea: One man’s mission to promote peace . . . One school at a time. New York: Penguin (349 pp.).

Mortenson and Relin – or more accurately, as one may infer from the book’s use of the third person, Mortenson as told to Relin – present the story of Greg Mortenson’s quest to build schools for isolated villages in rural Pakistan.  That story, expressed in this New York Times nonfiction bestseller, begins with Mortenson getting lost and nearly dying during a descent from K2.  In gratitude to the villagers who nurtured him back to health, the book describes how Mortenson promised to build a school, raised funding, saw the building materials diverted, raised more funds – this time for a bridge – and so forth.  Along the way, Mortenson experienced kidnapping and other threats, frustrations, and sundry interactions with terrorists, counter-terrorists, and third-party bystanders of East and West, but persevered in a bid to build numerous schools under the auspices of his Central Asia Institute.

Three Cups comes in two different editions.  Both have Goodreads ratings somewhat below 3.7 (from about 152,000 voters, in the case of the adult as distinct from the young reader’s edition).  It is not clear which edition Scholastic (n.d.b.) has in mind for its grade level equivalent rating of 10.5, but Relin certainly did bring a remarkably broad vocabulary to the task.  Members of our literature circle tended to agree that the book would have benefited from earnest editing.  By the midpoint it had begun to drag; finishing required an act of will.  The larger problem, however, was the existence of controversy arising from allegations that stories (including some cited in the preceding paragraph) were fabricated and funds were diverted.  These allegations, arising in lawsuits against Mortenson and Relin, have been cited as factors leading to the latter’s recent suicide (Haq, 2012).

While members of our circle were not enthusiastic about the prospect of assigning the book verbatim, we did think that vetted excerpts, at least, might be useful for their portrayal of a culture very different from that familiar to American teenagers. It also appeared possible, though by no means certain, that controversy itself might provide a basis for discussion of efforts to construe and report upon alien cultures, and upon one’s interactions therewith.

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