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2 Posts authored by: David Starkey Expert

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.’”

 

Just-in-Time Remediation

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.]

Long before California Assembly Bill 705 went into effect, making accelerated composition the de facto first-semester composition course in my state, I was privileged to be part of a group of educators and counselors working for Santa Barbara City College’s Express to Success Program (ESP). 

 

Similar to the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) pioneered by Peter Adams and others at the Community College of Baltimore County, ESP “mainstreamed” a cohort of students who assessed below college-level into our first-semester composition course, English 110. In addition to taking 110, which met twice a week for a total of two hours and forty minutes, students in the cohort also met twice a week in English 89, a 50-minute Pass/No Pass co-requisite. Class size for English 110 was a manageable 24 students, with approximately half the students enrolled in the co-requisite.

 

Under the leadership of Kathy Molloy, ESP received the 2012 Chancellor’s Award for Best Practices in Student Equity and was chosen as a 2014 “Example of Excelencia” by Excelencia in Education, and was presented with the 2018 California Community Colleges Board of Governors Exemplary Program Award. It was a program with which both students and faculty were proud to be associated. (If I write at times in the past tense about the Express to Success Program, that’s because it was dissolved in May of 2019, a few months before AB705 went into effect.)

 

I’ll address the thorny issue of co-requisites and funding in a later post, but for the moment, I’d like to offer ESP’s co-requisite as a model for other colleges. What I found most valuable about English 89 was that it provided extra writing practice, built community, was supported by a peer tutor and counselor, combined full-class and individualized instruction, offered just in time remediation, and allowed for curricular collaboration and flexibility.

 

I’ll discuss the first two of these significant—and replicable—elements of the co-requisite in this post, and address the others next month. In doing so, I will be drawing not only on my own experiences, but also those of my colleagues in what was always a highly collaborative enterprise.

 

Extra Writing Practice

Writing is hard work, even for experienced writers, and growing as a writer requires lots of opportunities to fall flat on your face. Therefore, among the most important benefits of writing in the co-requisite is that students can experiment, take risks, and make mistakes that don’t affect their grades. Meeting twice a week allows for more of this low-stakes writing, and more time for instructors and tutors to talk students through different ways to best approach the assignment they are working on.

 

Sandra Starkey, my wife and ESP colleague, was always keen to make sure students generated at least some text during the fifty minutes they were in class. “The co-requisite,” she says, “gives students a chance to actually engage in writing. I tell them they’re like journalists: they have a deadline—the end of class—and they’re going to have to turn in a draft of a paragraph for the essay they’re working on. It may not be perfect, but it’s something they’ll be able to take home and work on further.”

 

As a writer myself, I loved the frenzy of drafting and revision that went on when the co-requisite was humming along. Students looked more closely at their texts than they were used to doing; they argued with one another—sometimes passionately—about the best way to express an idea. At its best, with everyone fully engaged in the complexities of the composition process, English 89 sometimes reminded me of a graduate writing workshop.

 

Building Community

Peter Adams and others are right to laud the benefits of the “cohort effect.” When students spend time together in the same small group over the course of a semester, they can’t help but come to cheer each other on. Bonny Bryan, now SBCC’s director of composition, found that what she most appreciated about English 89 “was the quick sense of community that emerged. Given its size and the fact that it was located in a computer lab, students quickly moved between working as a group of twelve to collaborating as triads and pairs.”

 

The small size of a co-requisite makes faculty members more accessible—and less threatening—to students, and provides instructors with opportunities to get to know their students as three-dimensional human beings. Jennifer Baxton, who took over coordinating English courses in ESP’s final semester, valued the way “the co-requisite workshop served as a way to further strengthen the connection between faculty and students, as well as students with their peers. As a group, the [co-req students] were invested in their success, working together toward the refinement of the skills taught in the composition class.”

 

Indeed, Kathy Molloy notes that the co-requisite students were often so enthusiastic about “the advantages of the support class…many of the students who weren’t assigned to the co-req asked to come as well—they clearly saw how helpful the extra support could be.”

 

Appropriately, it’s that growing sense of dedication to the act of writing that seems to create a sense of community. Enthusiasm is contagious, and with everyone in the room working towards a common goal, students begin sharing with one another their too-often untapped wisdom and kindness.

 

[More details on a successful model for the accelerated composition co-requisite are forthcoming in David Starkey’s next post.]