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CHAPTER VII

TEACHER-PRACTITIONER SUPPORT FOR PERSON-BASED RESPONSE

 

Overview

What happens when person-based response is actively practiced in a classroom? In this chapter, I trade the role of a scholar-researcher for that of a teacher-practitioner to tell my story of how one group of beginning composition students reacted to the strategies. In addition, I identify what may be the greatest collective strength of person-based response, a phenomenon I call "group consubstanciality."

 

Student Stories

During the second summer session of 1997, just prior to beginning the writing of this dissertation, I taught Essentials of College Rhetoric 1301, which is the beginning composition course at Texas Tech University. Students in the class were asked to write four essays: a narrative, descriptive, evaluative and persuasive paper. They also were required to communicate twice weekly by e-mail to a class distribution list; the first of these communiqués was an analysis of a published article; the second was response to a classmate's version of the first. In addition, students kept journals where they wrote four one-page entries per week on subjects of their own choosing (Nicole's journal entry cited in chapter one came from this class). Finally, students consistently worked in groups to evaluate and comment on the drafts of their peers, comments I hoped would model my own person-based response. I also structured the group work to prompt these kinds of responses, as students were instructed to first, read the essay as a genuine reader and respond to its content by writing a few sentences at the end; second, write three positive comments about the strengths of the essay (I asked for specificity and gave examples at the board), and three, conclude by writing one suggestion for improvement. Students could (and did) also circle mechanical errors as they noticed them, but I emphasized that this should not become the sole focus of their evaluation. Of the 23 students enrolled for the course, 13 were male and 10 female. At the end of the summer session, the class had earned 8 A's, 9 B's, and 2 C's. One student withdrew while passing; one received a D, and two (because they stopped coming to class) received F's.

From an exit survey I gave each student in which they were to analyze their progress as writers in the class, I have selected eight examples to document classroom reaction to my own person-based responding. Following I will present a brief description of each student, a representative response that I wrote on one of their essays, and sample comments they made to me, but first I offer three qualifying observations:

 

Angela

Angela was an 18-year-old pre-physical therapy major who said that high school writing was "nothing but a chore. My papers never flowed and it was just not catchy enough." Nevertheless, Angela's writing did seem to flow in this class, especially in her journal entries and in her descriptive and narrative essays. My sample response to Angela comes from her narrative essay where she told of her mother, a nurse who injured herself chronically while helping a patient. "What a sad and moving story," I wrote. "Your mom is a real-life hero." Angela told me that my words made her feel like "a real person, not just another unrecognizable face in class," yet her most enthusiastic endorsement came in reaction to my words of praise for her writing. After telling how relieved she was upon receiving back her first essay, she wrote,

When I returned to my room to find my roommate crying on the phone with her mother, her paper full of corrections and the last page told the whole story, a D-, I looked at her paper and instead of words of encouragement the paper was full of negative comments. It was then I realized I really liked my English class. If your paper had mistakes, Mr. Bellah found the perfect words to tell you his suggestions without destroying your confidence. Instead of telling you everything that was wrong with your paper, he told you what you had done right.

 

And Angela did do many things right. She made A's on most of her essays, but, because of a lack of weekly e-mail assignments and journal entries, received a B in the class.

 

Stacy

Also 18, Stacy was an art major, who began her exit survey on a philosophical note: "This summer started a journey of self-exploration . . . I'm starting to evolve into the person I want to become." My sample response to Stacy comes from her descriptive essay about Hawaii. "I like this personification," I told her when she described "worrying and playful" birds. And at the end of her piece I wrote, "Stacy, You've convinced me. When does the ship leave?" On her part Stacy seemed to like best the encouragement of student voice in my responses. "We were free to speak our minds and express our deepest thoughts, contrary to high school," she wrote. "In high school they were so concerned with rules and regulations that we never got a chance to write about what we really felt." Stacy did write about the things that were important to her, and she wrote them well. She make consistent B's on her essays, and received a B in the class.

 

Matt

Matt was an undecided arts and sciences major who "had heard horror stories about college English courses," but decided that this class was "more enjoyable than I expected." Matt appreciated most the concern with content in my response. "When I turned them [essays] in, you weren't nit picky (sic) about the little details. I like that because I always believed it's not the little things that count; it is the content that matters most." Actually, the little things did affect Matt's work, something I let him know in my comments: "Matt, Watch all the run-ons. You have excellent things to say here; don't lose your audience." I also complimented Matt for his detail, as in this response to his descriptive essay: "Matt, You have good detailed descriptions that help paint pictures of your cousins and friends. Since this thesis is sort of unique, you need to tie it in more often." Matt made two C's and two B's; with revisions and process work, he received a B in the class.

 

Crystal

At 19, Crystal was a technical communication major and a talented, though sometimes unorthodox, writer. Her descriptive essay, for example, was not about a literal place, but "The Iron Road to Eden," a personification of the many paths in life. Not surprisingly, Crystal appreciated the freedom to express her own voice in her work. "Thank you for the words of encouragement," she wrote. "They, I'm sure, meant more to us than grades. I have realized my innate gift for writing since I was a small child. However, others have tried to take my talents and develop them into their own assertions. You, on the other hand, have allowed me to grow, discover, and learn from my writing." A sample of my comments to Crystal comes from her evaluative essay where she discusses "The Art of Necromancy in the Scarlet Letter." "Crystal," an artful, engaging, and insightful analysis of an important theme in Hawthorne," I wrote. Crystal made an A on all of her essays and an A in the class.

 

Brian

Brian was an 18-year-old African-American student who had not yet selected a major. "Writing has always been easy for me," he wrote in his analysis, "but I have never liked it." Brian said that the class helped him "regain an interest for writing." At the end of Brian's narrative essay where he described his Aunt Patrice, I wrote, "Brian, Sounds like a really gifted and valuable person. You have written a nice tribute to Patrice. Your paper is well organized. The sentence level mistakes hurt your clarity and your grade. Talk with me about them before the next essay is due." Like Crystal and Stacy, Brian appreciated the freedom of voice encouraged by person-based strategies. "In high school I always had to write about what the teacher wanted me to write about," he wrote. "I had no freedom to be creative or a chance to write about things that were important to me. The things that we wrote about in this class allowed me to do both of these things." Brian received an A, two B's, and a C on his essays, and a B in the class.

 

 

Jason

A 24-year-old telecommunication major, Jason was taking English 1301 for the third time. Because of his obvious ability to write well, I assumed that he failed on the earlier attempts because he did not attend class and do the required work. Even in this class, which he seemed to enjoy, he did not do his daily e-mail assignments and journal entries, which lowered his grade from an A to a C. My sample response to Jason is actually a series of comments on his narrative essay about a golf pro named Phil Mickelson. Each of these phrases was written in the margin next to the portion it addressed. "Good implied thesis. Keeps us guessing . . . An important point. Well made. . . Good detail . . . Good transition . . . Jason, Your enthusiasm for Mickelson is contagious. Well written, but watch the commas after long introductory phrases." Jason most appreciated my vote of confidence in his work. "In the past I could not care less about English 1301," he wrote. "but in this class I wanted to do well. You made me feel as if I could do well and this made me write phenomenal essays. For years I have written essays, but never have I been more proud of my work."

 

Ted

An 18-year-old business major, Ted's test scores were too low for unconditional acceptance to the university, and so he attended that summer on academic probation. "English writing is not for me at all," he wrote. "I can write good stories, but I definitely can not get my grammar and mechanics down." Ted was right. His excessive sentence fragments, tense errors, and comma splices preempted his content. At the conclusion of his narrative essay, I wrote, "Ted, your great grandmother's life is truly remarkable, and you were wise to pick her to write about. However, there are way too many mistakes here which interfere with your story. Many of these seem careless (words left out). You will need to spend more time to succeed in this class. I'll be glad to help you with anything you don't understand." Yet even with a couple of individual conferences, Ted was not able to master enough basic grammar to write college-level essays. "I just think there are to (sic) many rules," he wrote. "I'm just one of those people who does'nt (sic) like rules and I am just going to have to learn to accept them." Ted received three F's and one D on his essays, and, with perfect process work, was able to make a low D in the class; however, since he was on academic probation, the grade meant he would not be able to return to the university for the fall semester. "I wish I could say that [I] learned more, but I guess my grade shows what I learned," he wrote. Ted's story is a sad one for me, for I realize that even good responding strategies cannot make up for years of writing failures. And despite my best efforts, Ted's writing attitude is not going to improve until his performance (grades) can confirm at least a portion of the positive things a teacher might say to him. This could happen in a remedial course; it probably will not in a regular first-year composition class.

 

Renee

If Ted was a classic underachiever (his own words), 18-year-old Renee modeled the classic overachiever. Instead of one-page journal entries, she would produce multiple pages. Instead of answering one classmate's e-mail analysis per week, she would respond to four or five. In addition, she visited the writing center on several occasions for more individual help. At 96.1, her grade was the highest in the class. A review of my comments on Renee's essays reveals that most were fairly short (I wrote more in her journals but did not save them), as when I responded to her narrative essay about her friend Alicia. "Renee, A moving story. Well told. Watch the little things," I wrote. A product of a broken home, Renee seemed to respond to me as a father substitute, something which, probably because of my age, has happened before. In her exit survey, she wrote,

Mr. Bellah has taught me so much this summer session. Not only did he help me to improve my writing, but he also helped me learn about myself. In our journals Mr. Bellah would respond giving support or input on the subject we would write about. He didn't care much about grades, he cared that we would improve our writing abilities. Mr. Bellah gave everyone hope and inspired them to do good.

True to her nature, Renee added an addendum to her assignment, an informal note to me in which she assured me that some of my less successful students also appreciated the class, and in which she extended well wishes for my own qualifying exams:

I'm not sure if Matt and Ted will say anything but I want to say thank you. You gave them another chance; it was their choice to take it. I think a lot of good came out of that because I remember when Matt was correcting his paper, I sat down with him one night and listened to him explain what he did wrong. I think that is the important thing, that he learned it . . . Good luck with everything; I hope you did good on your test. If for some reason I don't see you, just know that you have really touched my life.

 

The reality is that Renee touched my life as much as I did hers, but that, in essence, is what consubstanciality is all about. When one allows themselves to be touched by the words of others, responding as a genuine, human reader, the act cannot help but be reciprocated. It is the golden rule of person-based response: Person-based response begets person-based response.

Renee and Ted represent the high and low of my experience as a person-based responder. Connecting with a student like Ted on a personal level makes it that much harder when one realizes that even successful pedagogies cannot overcome in a few weeks what has taken years to develop. When Ted sees himself as a failure, it is hard not to feel the same as a teacher. On the other hand, Renee is the kind of student that can keep a teacher motivated for years to come. Burke was right. Consubstanciality (really connecting with another human being) is the key to persuasion. More than anything else, this is what keeps me both communicating and teaching.

 

Assessment and Group Consubstanciality

Each tenet of person-based response is evident in the comments of these eight students. Like the students in the major empirical project, my own students seem to appreciate it when I respond to them as a genuine reader (or a genuine person), when I focus on their successes rather than their failures, when I encourage their own voice and style, and when I show confidence in their progress as writers. Yet these responses show something else that I did not notice until analyzing them. All of these students mention their classmates and the part they played in making the class both instructive and enjoyable. "One thing the class did is restore my faith in my peers," wrote Brian. "I have never been in a class where the students are as close to each other as they are the teacher," added Jason. "Letting other students critique my work really opened my eyes," wrote Angela. "Group work is not only enjoyable but enlightening. I enjoyed meeting people in your class," wrote Matt, after which he described in detail those he "hung out with" both in and out of the classroom. Crystal liked the fact that her peers were concerned with more than formal mistakes (perhaps this is evidence that both teaching and modeling person-based response results in the same among students). "This class was remarkable in that we weren't criticizing and analyzing each other's work to death, but sharing it with one another," she wrote. And, finally, Renee wrote, "You helped us build friendships because of the friendly class atmosphere. Nobody felt like a nobody; everybody was somebody."

Communication scholars, Berger and Calabrese, probably would view this class's friendships in terms of similarities. "Most social psychological theories concerned with friendship formation have employed the notion of similarity of some sort as an antecedent to liking," write Berger and Calabrese. In their sixth and seventh axioms of "uncertainty reduction theory" these scholars deal with the interrelatedness of similarity, liking, and uncertainty reduction (which is itself a theory for the formation of friendships; people become friends as uncertainty is reduced).

Axiom 6: Similarities between persons reduce uncertainty, while dissimilarities produce increases in uncertainty.

Axiom 7: Increases in uncertainty level produce decreases in liking; decreases in uncertainty level produce increases in liking. (106, 107)

 

Thus, according to Berger and Calabrese, friends are friends partly because they share a particular commonality, a principle that sounds remarkably like Burke's concept of consubstanciality.

Perhaps what happens in person-based response is that when teachers connect with students on a human level, students in turn connect with each other. And the class, as it were, participates in a group consubstanciality, commonalities that reduce uncertainty creating a "friendly class." What is more, since Chapter VI suggests that teacher consubstanciality (the teacher as genuine reader) correlates positively with individual student motivation (students want to write), it is also likely that group consubstanciality correlates positively with group motivation (students enjoy coming to class and sharing with one another). At any rate, this group consubstanciality would be a good variable to operationalize and study in future surveys. This and other possibilities for further study of person-based response are the subjects of the next chapter.

On to Chapter VIII

Respond or view responses to my dissertation.