“Collaborative learning” is one of those nice “buzzwords” that have been bandied about in pedagogy for the past decade or so. It does come from a good place, I admit; that students should be able to learn from one another while the teacher becomes more of a facilitator than a lecturer. I will admit that I have tried my hand at doing collaborative learning in my own classroom through the usual means of group projects, group presentations, etc. Yet each time I did them, no matter how hard I tried to avoid the usual pitfalls, there is always one or two people that do the bulk of the work while the rest expect to receive the same grade as the rest of the group. This conundrum seems counter to the arguments made by Howard in her article, where she makes a case for grading the entirety of the project instead of simply the individual contributions made by each student.
This got me to thinking about how collaborative writing could be implemented in the classroom, and I came to the conclusion that it would take a massive overhaul of not only how students think about writing, but also how teachers would evaluate said writing. The effort would have to take place at the beginning of a course, as trying to switch models mid-term would just create a massive fecal tornado that nobody wants. Howard repeatedly makes notes of how writing the workplace is almost always collaborative, so that that gave me the idea that one of the best places to possibly try out the practice would be in a business writing course,—such courses do exist at the secondary level since my student teaching experience included working with senior students on the non-college/AP English track having taken it the previous semester—any of the myriad of business-related courses now being offered in high school, or even in any science course—again pointing out that many times people in that field do collaborative writing.
In this hypothetical situation in which collaborative writing is used in the classroom, there need to be standards of conduct and workload set from the onset. The teacher could provide the set procedure of in every group each person has a set role—much like how group work is still practiced in the classroom today—yet that still places some individual ownership within the collaborative process. It should be made clear from the start that the final grade for the project will be decided on the output of all students involved, not just the finished product. This could be a tricky prospect, since despite the best efforts of the teacher it may end up with one or two students doing all the work while the rest hang back and faff about doing as little as possible. There is one prospective way to deal with this issue, let the students grade the work of their collaborators and offer that to the teacher for final approval. While not perfect, it could help to negotiate the imbalances of power that appear in collaborative work, placing the grading power in their own hands. With this arrangement, students would know that if there was anyone shirking their share of work, their peers would see to it that their grade would reflect that. Just an idea, as it turns the self-interests of the individual students towards working towards the common goal.
Before I start in on this reading response, let me clarify one thing about the topic of “Engfish.” As someone who has taught in a composition classroom, I can stay that I have not had the dubious honor of reading such papers like Ken Macrorie. If anything, I feel that Engfish is less a product of a lack of Expressivist writing in the classroom, but is more a product of giving students word limits and their attempts to pad their papers. This is not to say that I feel teachers of composition should not have minimums and maximum lengths for their assignments, but when they break it down an assignment to a quantitative amount of words without giving students the proper instruction on how to use the best words possible to get their point clearly across, the result is the exceedingly verbose language of “Engfish.”
Ok, now that that is out of the way, I can start to address the issues at hand. Drawing upon the example presented in Dead Poets Society, as to whether or not writing should allow an individual a chance at self-realization, I agree that being able to effectively communicate one’s ideas is the finest skill any teacher can instill in their student. Yet do students even have that choice? Again drawing from my own teaching experience—teaching writing in a high school where most students would more-than-likely not go on to higher education or leave their family ranches upon graduation—I can say that this lack of self-determinism is not only an upper-middle class –to-upper-class phenomenon. Even as young as the eighth grade I had students outright tell me that they did not need to know how to write research papers or poetry since they were going to be working on their family’s ranch. While not expressed in such a blunt manner as this student, I knew that many of my students felt the same way when it came to their writing. So while I did not abandon my hopes of fostering the next Hemingway or Woolf, I simply chose to go about teaching writing in a bit more practical a manner. Their writing may not have been stellar in terms of prose, but I could at least feel their voices were clear and their ideas concise.
Expressivism has its uses, do not get me wrong. We, as teachers, should strive to give our students the means to express themselves in any way they can, but in the end we should at least give them the tools they can use to succeed outside the classroom. After reading the examples of “Engfish” presented by Macrorie, I can confidently say that it is not the type of writing employers look for in their employees. Employers who require writing want it short, concise, to the point, using only the words necessary to accomplish the job. Any employer would look at that writing and think, “Who the hell taught you how to write?” That is the issue we have to deal with, so that if the “Engfish” population starts to get out of hand, I propose, we—as a profession—get our hooks ready.
Three weeks into the new term, and might as well start putting something up on this blog. From the pieces that I have read so far, I have to say that my views on composition seem to be in line with those of the Expressionist movement. My philosophy when it came to teaching young adults writing had been, “Young adults write better when they are writing about something about which they are passionate.” Granted, this meant that I had to slog my way through papers about two papers about Justin Beiber, the calving process, and Adam Sandler for every one great paper about government corruption and the importance of keeping agricultural courses a part of the high school curriculum. I saw my place as the teacher to keep them on track and give them the tools they needed in order to express themselves. Hopefully during the course of this term I can refine that approach just a bit.