All posts by Jeffrey Sanger

Effective Assessment and Reflection

I think effective assessment has a lot to do with reflection. Writing instructors often ask students to reflect on work they’ve completed. This helps spark insight about existing strengths and which areas could benefit from further development. It also allows them to consider the amount of time and effort they put into the assignment and how that shaped the outcome. I think assessment can and should be the same way for instructors. Assessments, for me anyway, are tools that are fluid and often change between semesters. I think many of us are always trying to perfect each assignment, so it tests the competencies we want students to demonstrate and also engages them enough to facilitate effective writing. If my students fare poorly on some aspect of an assessment, whether that’s an in class activity, or something more elaborate like a 750 word paper, I typically ask myself what I might have done differently. Should I have covered the concepts invoked in that problematic section more thoroughly in class? Are the assignment directions for that part of the paper confusing? Or is this just a particularly challenging concept that students need multiple exposures to across several assignments before they really perfect it? Sometimes I might even make changes to the assessment itself. Is the thing I’m looking for mission critical in terms of the competencies students need to demonstrate or is it something I do just because I’ve been doing it that way a long time?

I try to ensure my approach to student learning is evidence based. Certainly that means I like to try to keep up with current literature on teaching and learning, but that also means looking at the evidence from the students themselves. My experience with GCC students has been that, on the whole, they are quite hardworking and, if you give them a sufficiently stimulating assignment prompt, they’ll put in substantial work despite the many outside pressures they and most other community college students face (work, family obligations, etc.) — I once had a student that rollerbladed to my 10 am class because his car broke down, but that’s another story. Given that experience, I tend to look for alterations and improvements I can make if a substantial portion of students are struggling with a certain aspect of an assessment. Please don’t read this as “dumbing things down” or “making the assignments easier.” That would be an awfully reductive interpretation of what I’m trying to get at here. The competencies are the competencies. The rubric is the rubric. Effective teaching is about finding ways for as many students as possible to find success in demonstrating those competencies so they can find success here at GCC and beyond.


My Lightbulb Moment

As a faculty member, when I think of cultural relevance, I tend to try to think about what I can do in my classroom to help achieve this, whether that is by identifying approaches to assignments that allow students to choose a topic that is meaningful to them or working to identify readings from authors who better mirror our culturally diverse campus. Recently however, I realized that an important part of developing culturally relevant pedagogy is coming to terms with the depths of what you don’t know.

Spring started and I learned that I had five students classified as deaf and hard of hearing this semester. No problem, I thought. I had worked with a deaf student in the past. I remembered that she had some challenges with grammar because of the differences between American Sign Language (ASL) and English. As the semester progressed, I noticed some trends with these students across ENG 091 and 101: sentences with missing words, sentences with unnecessary words, and profound problems with choosing the correct tense. The missing words made sense to me. After all, words like “a,” and “the” just aren’t that essential to the meaning of sentences when you think about it. They’re added to ensure clarity, but they’re not as crucial as the subject and verb, for example, so it stands to reason ASL would omit articles for the sake of speed. And since ASL communication often occurs synchronously, as opposed to asynchronously like writing, your audience can always stop you and ask for clarification if needed. Not so with writing. But the issues with tense stumped me.

I have the same interpreter across three classes and have gotten to know her a bit in that fleeting time between classes. I’m so impressed by the work our interpreters do and often feel compelled to ask questions (not when students are present of course. It’s important to always address the student, not the interpreter during office hours or any other interaction with deaf and hard of hearing students. You talk to them just like you would anyone else. You just hear their answers coming from somewhere else.) During one of these conversations, the interpreter informed me that there is no present and past tense of verbs in ASL. Instead, sentences are often preceded by a word (“yesterday” for example) that makes the context of the events clear.

“So there’s no word for ran. It’s just run?” I asked, or something along those lines.


Anyone watching could probably have seen the light bulbs going off above my head. No wonder these students had difficulty identifying the correct tense to use in their writing. They had to memorize verb conjugation from scratch, just like anyone how learns a foreign language, only even more challenging than that because they don’t get to hear it spoken. The next time I met with a deaf student to review his paper, we spent some extra time focusing on errors in choosing the right tense. Instead of telling him the correct tense, we discussed the verb itself and each of the conjugations of it: past, present, future, past perfect, etc. The interpreter, of course, spelled out the different conjugations. Some of these he had already memorized; some he hadn’t. I told him that I realized these designations must seem arbitrary, but that I was confident with time and practice he could memorize them. We talked about similar conjugations across some verbs, much like when my Spanish 101 teacher taught us how to conjugate -er verbs 20 years ago.

I left that day feeling more than a little humbled. How could I expect to effectively serve our deaf and hard of hearing students if I knew so little about the unique challenges they face in learning English grammar? How could I ever learn enough to really be as effective as I would like to be? I realized that creating a culturally relevant approach to teaching requires hundreds, perhaps thousands of little “Aha!” moments like the one I had that day. There is no one guidebook that tells you everything you need to know about deaf culture. (I do, however, plan to read more about the differences between English and ASL.) Becoming more culturally responsive is about time and practice. Time means taking the time to get to know each and every student and to understand where they are coming from and what works for them. Practice means not just teaching but reflecting on outcomes. Which approaches are more effective for students? If a student is struggling, what can we do to better facilitate their success? And, perhaps before any of this, we should ask: who are they?






On Writing and Teaching Writing

As I set out on the 6 x 6 challenge, I’m confronted by the same rhetorical considerations as any First Year Composition student and any writer, really. I must ponder who is this piece of writing for? What do I want the writing to do? And, like our students, my composition of this piece was nearly derailed by the obstacles of everyday living. And so, that’s the purpose I’ve happened upon, for this entry anyway: I want to share this odd idea I have that a) our students aren’t that different than we are and b) our students might be trying harder than we think they are. B is going to take more up more than one entry as it relates to a more broader philosophical approach that I call strengths based learning.

When I saw the email from the CTLE about Write 6X6, I was interested in participating but fearful I wouldn’t be able to carve out enough time to submit something every week and a bit intimidated at the idea of a group of quite accomplished professionals being my audience for each entry. Of course, this is exactly how most of our English writing students feel. They want to become scholars, learn, and contribute to our college, but they’re not sure they can keep up the time commitment and, for all too many of them, they’re not sure they belong. I can think of all too many examples to support the latter point. Here’s one: Just two days ago, I did a peer review in my Developmental Writing class. The class seemed quite invested in their discussion of each other’s work, and two were still talking after class ended as I erased the boards and packed up those whiteboard markers that are such a vital part of my English professor ethos. I cleared my throat a little more loudly than I meant to and the students both quickly apologized. Surprised, I realized they thought I was trying to give them some kind of hint to wind up and leave. I told them that far from trying to hurry them, I appreciated their concern for each other’s work and their desire to finish the conversation they were having.

When I left, I thought that perhaps part of the problem is they saw the classroom as mine, when in reality it’s theirs. They are the ones who pay the tuition, and, in turn, we instructors are paid to provide a service to them. Feeling comfortable and safe is a vital foundation for the learning process. While I do consciously cultivate this in the classroom – via learning and using students’ first names quickly, talking with them before and after class, acknowledging the effort they put into every classroom interaction and assignment, etc. – this made me realize we have to do more to make students realize the college belongs to them. They need to feel the same sense of ownership across the entire campus that I feel in my office. They should feel like scholars, integral parts of the educational apparatus, not visitors or worse, intruders. Perhaps this is one of the reasons participation in campus activities is related to completion. If you’re connected to other students, an organization, a building you visit to watch an event, you belong. Continue reading On Writing and Teaching Writing