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Read articles about what works in our colleagues' classrooms.

Yes, I'm a Fan...of my Students

Using Student Essays in the Composition Classroom

Are the Library Databases Too Daunting for Our Students?


Yes, I'm a Fan...of my Students

by Jennie Olaguibel-Lundahl

Mention the word 'Twilight' in any given group of young people, and you'll hear a mix of squeals and groans alike. The conversation quickly reverts to declarations of love for Edward and Jacob with similarly fervent hate for Bella; meanwhile, dissenters simply roll their eyes in distaste of having to hear about these characters again. However, this is nothing compared to the reaction you'll get when you say the phrase 'Teaching Twilight' around any given group of teachers.

This is no surprise. The debate is not new. Which readings are worthy of teaching is in constant flux, depending on whom you ask. From E. D. Hirsch's classical concept of 'cultural literacy' to bell hooks's radical feminist writings, there is never a shortage of literature to which we can expose our students. And along with that, there is never a shortage of arguments.

Just over a year ago, I gave a lot of thought to a course I had taught before, ENC 1101, for which I had often used the typical reader with a series of contemporary topics through newspaper articles, novel excerpts, and short stories. But after a lengthy discussion at a discipline meeting regarding the expectations of students by universities to which they wish to transfer, notably the reading of complete novels, I started to wonder how I could revamp my 1101 course in such a way that it would combine the contemporary with the classic. I had liked the idea of the reader because of its contemporary offerings, intriguing students with what is current and popular at the time. But I also was intrigued by the idea of introducing classic novels into their lives. After all, so much of contemporary writing is influenced by the classics; students just don't often know it.

It wasn't hard to decide on the contemporary novel; one look at any newspaper, internet site, television program, or movie theater for any period of time was bound within a minute or two to flash a reminder of the hot awaited sequel of the time, New Moon, which is the second in the series of Twilight novels. Stephenie Meyer, a graduate from Brigham Young University in English, had created a world of romance and suspense when a la Romeo & Juliet, a vampire and mortal girl fall in love, affecting everyone in their wake. The Twilight book alone sold over 85 million copies and the series together spent over 150 weeks on the NY Times Bestseller List. It has also been published and distributed in Latin America, Spain, Denmark, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Thailand, China, Russia, Korea, Norway, Finland and Indonesia, just to name a few. This was a cultural phenomenon worth studying.

Trying to decide on the classic piece of literature proved more difficult. There were so many excellent pieces of fiction that I felt could connect to the multiple themes of Twilight; I decided to do a little research. It was no secret that Meyer had majored in literature, so I explored some of her favorites, the classics from which she drew inspiration. Her main character in Twilight, Bella, is an avid reader and throughout the four novels in the series, she alludes to them many times in many ways. Pride and Prejudice, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Sense and Sensibility and of course, Romeo and Juliet were all on the list. But the one that caught my attention the most was Wuthering Heights. The heartbreaking connection between Cathy and Heathcliff, the story of their families, their social struggles, and their conflicts in identity were excellent parallels for the story of Bella and Edward. I knew the students would see it. I have not been disappointed.

In my classes, students have not only proven that they can read Twilight and Wuthering Heights (and New Moon as well in the honors classes), totaling 800+ pages a semester, they have also demonstrated an enthusiasm for discussion, writing, analysis, and presentation on various themes across these works. All of our classroom activities, freewrites, quizzes, timed writings, and research projects/presentations center around the novels, and the students surprise themselves and me every time. We cover various rhetorical writing styles such as narration, description, comparison/contrast, cause/effect, and argumentation, all couched in the events and characters of the books. We discuss nuances of writing through the author's word choice, organization, structure, vocabulary and syntax. We research the authors, their influences, and cultural, political, and socioeconomic conditions surrounding the book's release, reception, and impact.

But most exciting of all is watching students analyze these works for their final thematic presentations. They are always allowed to choose the novel they want to work with at the end of the term after both have been read. Their choices may surprise you. While one may think they all gravitate to the contemporary fiction, there is equal love for both. Many students say that the reading of Twilight has only made them further appreciate the themes in Wuthering Heights. I have seen some amazing presentations, complete with short videos, posters, and magnificent PowerPoints created by the students on complex themes such as Patriarchal Relationships, the Role of Grief, Self Acceptance and Identity, the Prophecy of Dreams, the Role of the Supernatural, and Social Status and Relationships. One standout student analyzed elements of Twilight through the lens of Joseph Campbell's mythology. Their imagination is endless, and their work is very gratifying to witness.

The Twilight phenomenon has been credited not only with its own cultural impact, but it has contributed to a return to these classics as well. Sales of Wuthering Heights alone averaged only about 8,000 copies a year; after its re-release shortly into the Twilight whirlwind, Wuthering Heights sold over 2,000 in just one week, and over 34,000 copies that year. A similar pattern has followed for many of the other classics mentioned in her books as well. The debate continues, however, and I imagine it will continue to do so. Some feel it is an insult to these classic works to compare them in any way to Meyer's novels. They feel that Meyer's writing is hardly worthy of notice, let alone the implication it might be a form of literature. Perhaps it is not. Yet I can't help but think on how the Bronte sisters or Austen or Woolf were received once upon a time. And whether or not Meyer ever grows into those shoes is hardly the point. The themes are sound, the analysis is good, and the students are engaged. That's what I want in my classroom every day. Isn't that what we all want? But if you're still in doubt about my ENC 1101, come into my ENC 1102. We're reading Stephenie Meyer's The Host and Sir Thomas More's Utopia, pulling out contemporary social issues reflected in both novels, which we then discuss, write about, debate and research. You may just be surprised.

Jennie Olaguibel-Lundahl has her B.S. and M.S. in English Education from Florida International University. She also has her graduate certificate in Linguistics from FIU and in Women’s Studies from Florida Atlantic University. She is currently earning her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction at Florida Atlantic University, specializing in Latino Families and Multicultural/Global Education. She is an Associate Professor, Senior in the English Department at Miami Dade College, North Campus, where she has taught full-time since 2002.

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Using Student Essays in the Composition Classroom

by Edward Glenn

Students usually write in a vacuum. The only writing they sometimes see during a semester is their own, their friends' during peer editing exercises, and the professionally written essays in the textbooks. Therefore, they often interpret the grades we put on their essays in the context of their own self-esteem. In other words, our grades seem only to reinforce their own self-images. Bad grades may be seen as 'unfair' while good grades may convince them that they are writing at the level of the authors in the composition textbook. Also, because grading compositions is a subjective task (albeit one based on objective criteria), students may believe that their essay grades are a reflection of our opinions of them or of their chosen subject matter rather than a reflection of their mastery of the skills and competencies of the course.

To help deal with some of these issues, at some point early in the semester, I give my students an opportunity to see what passing and failing college writing actually look like. Although the textbook I am using contains sample student essays, these compositions have been thoroughly revised, edited, and proofread before being “fit to print. Therefore, they still don't give the students a chance to see what they and their peers actually produce during one hour timed-writings or one-week take-home assignments, so I have successfully used packets of student essays from past terms to help bridge the gap.

The packet I use most often contains four essays: two passing and two failing. The students read the four essays; then, we discuss them. During the discussion, I tell them which passed and which failed, but I allow the students to ask questions, raise objections, and make comments about them. I read passages of the essays aloud in order to illustrate the differences in the grammar and diction between the successful and unsuccessful essays. I use essays from past terms rather than those of present students because the students are able to see that the quality of writing affects how readers respond to the ideas, but they, themselves, are not being embarrassed by the activity. The discussion is followed in the next class period by an in-class essay, sometimes on the same topics as the essays in the packet.

This activity deals with a variety of outcomes including Outcome #1 as it helps them to read and proofread more effectively while applying these skills to their own writing. By evaluating the essays, they are working on Outcome #3 and Outcome #9 because they must make aesthetic judgments based on their critical analysis of the essays. For example, some of the essays are funny, but unintentionally so. By pointing this out to the students, I am helping them make aesthetic evaluations about the words, structures and supporting details that writers use (whether intentionally or not). During class discussion of the essays, I even touch on Outcomes #6 and #7 because we discuss how writing skills can allow people to fulfill their social responsibilities such as completing a detailed police report, and we discuss the ethical implications of passing students who are unable to communicate effectively in writing.

Overall, it is a simple activity that pays dividends. I don't just want my students to hear about the differences between good and bad writing, I want them to see the difference and apply it to the analysis and evaluation of their own work.

Edward Glenn has his B.A. in English and his M.A. in Linguistics from Florida International University. He is an Associate Professor, Senior in the English Department at the North Campus where he has taught since 1991.

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Are the Library Databases Too Daunting for Our Students?

by Dr. Debbie Keeler

Are you reluctant to ask your students to search for articles in the library databases to support course content? Do you believe the database content is too sophisticated for most of our students? Actually, there is wide variety in the content provided by the library databases. It is true that a multitude of articles in the library databases target professionals in a field and suit the research needs of graduate students. While we want our students to read challenging material relevant to our teaching, we don't want them to be overwhelmed in trying to decipher it. For example, consider the following excerpt from an article in the database Health Reference Center Academic, one of the library databases at MDC. The article resulted from a subject search for "stem cell research — genetic aspects".

"Functional assays (e.g. chimeric mice, embryoid body generation, colony forming potential) or quantitative RT-PCR measurements on known ES cell gene markers are commonly used to determine the timeline for the loss of pluripotency [16]. However, the relationship between gene expression and loss of pluripotency is complex [17]. Two ES cell markers (SSEA-1, Oct-4) have been found to show no unequivocal temporal correlation between the expression of the genes and the loss of pluripotency" [18].

When faculty send their students to find research articles on a recent medical breakthrough, an assignment I've seen recently, this is the type of language the students may find. It may be appropriate for biology or chemistry but daunting for beginning researchers.

Fortunately, there are databases that target the reading levels of undergraduates. Health & Wellness Resource Center, Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center, and SIRS Researcher are three. Health & Wellness offers information from a variety of sources, including reference works with reading levels from 8th to 10th grade like The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Using the same subject search terms used in Health& Wellness Resource Center, an article from Cancer Gene Therapy Week yields language more comprehensible for undergraduate students:

Normal stem cells are "immature" cells that have the potential to become any of several types of cells. Cancer stem cells have the same multi-potent and self-renewing properties, but instead of producing healthy cells, they propagate cancer cells. Theoretically, if these "mother cells" can be destroyed, the tumor will not be able to sustain itself. On the other hand, if these cells are not removed or destroyed, the tumor will continue to return despite the use of existing cancer-killing therapies.

A professor may, however, want students to become familiar with peer-reviewed articles, in preparation for upper level course work. One advantage of searching for peer-reviewed articles for our undergraduates is to help them understand the format of the quantitative article, from abstract to method to conclusion. One option could be to ask the students to read only the abstracts and conclusions to get a sense of the research or to compare research article methods.

Currently a professor at the North Campus, Dr. Debbie Keeler has worked in libraries at Miami Dade College since 1991. She earned her doctorate in 2007 at FIU; her dissertation focused on the organizational culture dimensions of faculty library use. Dr. Keeler teaches credit courses in library science in addition to her reference librarian/faculty responsibilities. She was a primary author of the Collegewide Learning Outcomes assessment, "The Global Citizen".

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References

Mechanism in cells that generate malignant brain tumors may offer target for gene therapy. (November 10, 2008). Cancer Gene Therapy Week, p. 14. Retrieved January 29, 2009, from Health and Wellness Resource Center via galenet.galegroup.com

Yap, D Y, Smith, D K, Zhang, X W, & Hill, J. (July 3, 2007). Using biomarker signature patterns for an mRNA molecular diagnostic of mouse embryonic stem cell differentiation state. (Methodology article).  BMC Genomics, 8, 210. p.210. Retrieved January 29, 2009, from Health Reference Center Academic via Gale via galenet.galegroup.com

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Related Links

Assessing Assessment

CASTL

VFA: Voluntary Framework of Accountability

The Learning College

SACS

MDC Learning Outcomes for EAP

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