In my previous post I began discussing English 89, the accelerated composition co-requisite course originally developed for Santa Barbara City College’s Express to Success Program. I noted that while the course is still offered in a diminished form, ESP itself has been discontinued. Therefore, this post, like its predecessor, toggles between past and present tense as I document—with the help of my colleagues—those elements of our co-requisite that I believe are most worthy of emulation.
Support from Peer Tutors and Academic Counselors
In an ideal co-requisite, the instructor is not alone in supporting students. SBCC is fortunate to have a robust peer tutoring program, with student tutors normally attending class and holding additional tutoring hours outside of class. As a result, peer tutors are an integral part of the course. They not only know the writing assignments, they also know which students are engaged, and who seems to be checking out. ESP tutors were nearly always former accelerated composition students, which gave them an additional insight into the material and, frequently, the instructor.
My previous post emphasized the importance of building community, and peer tutors are instrumental in that process. Form ESP instructor Bonny Bryan, who now directs SBCC’s composition program, recalls: “When the tutor and I worked with students individually, students nearby would often lean in and participate. That cohesion resulted in an unusual efficiency.”
Reflecting on the strengths of the co-requisite during its Express to Success incarnation, one of my tutors, Matthew Garcia, commended the “mellow and low-pressure environment for students to work on their assignments,” which “made students feel comfortable about interacting with the professor and [the tutor] whenever they had questions or needed help.” Tutor Anna Kaavik offered similar comments, describing the ideal co-requisite as an “additional resource” that provided students “more time, in a smaller class with more concentrated attention on writing from both the professor and the tutor.” According to Anna, “Having that extra time boosts their confidence in writing, and in a smaller class, they feel more comfortable asking for help, which is something most students are scared to do.”
To ensure that students saw their composition course in the context of their long-term college goals, ESP also assigned an academic counselor to each section. Counselors visited the larger class twice a semester, and they were particularly “intrusive” and proactive with the “accelerating” students in the co-requisite. All Express to Success students were required to plan their next semester’s work with a counselor, and ESP counselors were on campus throughout the week so students could drop in with last-minute questions and concerns. Too often, meeting with an academic counselor feels optional to students; ESP insisted that it was not.
A Combination of Full-Class and Individualized Instruction
The small size of the co-requisite makes it perfect for reinforcing instruction in the college-level class that didn’t quite take. Often, for instance, as I read through student drafts, I would find that their thesis statements were not adequately responding to the prompt. In these cases, I would pause individual work and use the computer projector to review not just the basics of composing a thesis, but how those basics applied to the current assignment. Then full class instruction would end, and the tutor and I could briefly meet with each student to discuss their revised theses.
Indeed, to my mind, the single most useful function of the co-requisite is that it ensures instructors have extra time to spend with students and their writing. This is particularly helpful during the revision process, when the gap between what an instructor is looking for and what the student believes needs doing can be tremendous. As Sandy Starkey points out: “Many times, students don’t know how to prioritize your comments. Naturally, they’d rather correct that one wrong word you circled instead of addressing the issue of a lack of analysis in the essay. But when you’re working one-on-one, you’re able to tell them, ‘Yes, it’s important to correct that small error, but it’s much more important to address the global issue.’”
When the co-requisite is humming along smoothly, much of the classroom time will focus on just-in-time remediation, with instructors teaching specific skills that students need right then, when they are practicing them. As its name suggests, just-in-time remediation requires instructors to be open to their students’ needs and willing to change plans on a dime. Say, for instance, that the college-level class finished with a heated discussion of what constitutes a credible secondary source, with many students still unclear about how to locate and assess the sources needed for their essays. It would make sense that the focus of that day’s co-requisite—even if it was supposed to be a pithy lesson on argument—would instead concentrate on research.
In ESP, scheduling itself emphasized the close connection between what was happening in the college-level class and what would take place in the co-requisite: English 89 classes were generally held 10-15 minutes after English 110. ESP director Kathy Molloy believed moving almost directly from one class to the other meant “students were able to start on their essays immediately after class and get individual help from their teacher, the class tutor, or their classmates.”
Curricular Collaboration and Flexibility
Clearly, it’s important for co-requisite instructors to have common goals that reflect those of their composition program. In ESP, we met monthly to discuss how successfully our classes were meshing with these larger goals. It was also a time to share what Stephen North calls “practitioner lore,” talk about the nitty-gritty of what was working well in our classrooms, and what wasn’t. Like my colleagues, I found this lively back and forth nearly always improved my next day’s teaching.
While it is vital to ensure that every co-requisite is serving departmental goals, it’s equally essential that instructors have control over what happens in their own co-requisites. As indicated throughout this post, curricular flexibility is necessary to serve the actual—as opposed to the ideal—students in our classrooms. Their lives are complex, and the co-requisite can be an important tool helping to accommodate that complexity.
[In his next post, David Starkey will reflect on some of the challenges in enacting a model co-requisite.]