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The Common Thread of “The Underdog”

As I finished reading through each article that was assigned for this week, I noticed that there was a common thread pulling each piece together- the underdog. In The Language of Exclusion: Writing Instruction at the University, Mike Rose describes college level writing courses, and that many consider such instruction (and essentially their instructors) to be “second class”.  He connects this to the popular feeling that students entering college should have already mastered a general basic level of composition skills in order to be accepted at the college/university. This “second class” view of both coursework and students elicits the idea that such work is essentially “remedial”.  While the view of college composition coursework as remedial, for it should have been previously accomplished, can be more debatable, the notion that unskilled writers (regardless of the level of study) are remedial is deeply examined by Rose. I found the historical background on the study of composition rather interesting, and in particular, Rose brings up writing and the term remedial to be historically trenched in medical and physiological waters. He writes, ” to be remedial is to be substantial, inadequate, and because of the origins of the term, the  inadequacy is metaphorically connected to disease and mental defect”(349). While the medical field and the educational system has evolved to provide improved understanding and services, it seems that regardless of the label, students who are not perfect , whether when of average intelligence entering college or when in need of services of some kind, are immediately labeled “remedial”.  This remedial label is damaging of the learning process and hinders students from greater development.

Sondra Pearl echoes this as she reminds us that we should not punish students for making mistakes, after all, isn’t it said that the only way to learn is to make mistakes? Through her research, she again takes into account the writing process as a whole and attempts to capture it. A “felt sense” is somewhat seen as well as she discusses the case of Tony. For example, she writes of Tony, “consistently voiced complete sentences when composing aloud but only transcribed partial sentences” (29). It seems that there can be a disconnect between what is known and what is applied to the composition.

In addition, she says of teachers, that we should not “assume that students have already been taught to write”. Although this assumption is what is made at the college level as discussed by Rose and what helps to make composition courses “second class”, when taking into account other levels/classes, whether HS, JHS, college, etc. one should never assume when teaching that  students already know something regardless of what topic or course is being taught. We all know what happens when we assume…

While it appears that many assume students should hold prior knowledge of composition – and this creates the remedial feeling- In a similar vein, Suresh Canagarajah writes students of bilingual backgrounds should not be cast as second-class underdogs among their peers due to what is assumed they do not know. Canagarajah pushes for educators to remember what the students already know. As we saw in Tony’s case, what is understood by the students may not necessarily be transcribed to writing. While these students too may experience difficulties, their unique language learning backgrounds may be used to their advantage and should not be ignored or cast aside in the classroom environment.  These students are also in a sense, “remedial” underdogs who are not given the proper “label” based on outside appearances, biases, or true understanding of what they are capable of.

As a sort of side note -One thing that I did wonder about was the differences among such students. Canagarajah states that in the terms of applied linguists he may be described as “a balanced bilingual who has acquired simultaneous bilingualism in a case of childhood bilinguality”(589). He has grown up learning two languages. This might make him if not at the same level, a similar level to that of his native English-speaking counterparts when concerning English (and perhaps at a much stronger overall linguistic talent as he speaks two languages). He determines to keep it simple and just use terms novice and expert, which does not truly take into account such specific differences. Yet, perhaps this might also be a strong indicator of something? I am not by any means denying the intelligence of students who happen to speak English as a second language and I applaud the idea that the special construction of their language and of “____ English” should not be dismissed or overlooked in the classroom.

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10 Responses

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  1. mobrien says

    The bilinugual student is one of the most challenging that I have faced in my few years as a teacher. My school has a large population of students who are learning English as a second language, and this presents some difficulties in the classroom. I can understand the frustration of professors who are teaching classes that become labeled as “remedial” for students who have still not mastered the art of the English language, whether in the verbal or written capacity. Although these are new faces and relatively new challenges for the professor, the students who are in these class have been struggling with this learning process their whole lives. My ESL students are some of the quietest in the room. They are hesitant, self-conscious, and intimidated. They also know how to manipulate a system that will give them credit for simply showing up and trying. I feel as though these students get passed along with the hope that whomever is their teacher/professor for the next term will be able to help them be successful. Most of the time, students are given support classes (ESL, ELA support classes, etc) where components of language are broken down into fundamentals and skills are practiced in more isolated lessons. Students are given one-on-one attention in these classes with others who share the same struggles. Then, they move on to a mainstream classroom where lessons are covering larger topics, discussing figurative language, and asking students to use deductive reasoning and make inferences based on stated information. There is an extreme disconnect between what is assumed these students can accomplish and what they are actually capable of in the moment we are teaching them. I agree with the support that these students are given, but as with any other component of learning, if there is not consistency in the teaching, the student will not learn — regardless if he/she is “remedial” or not. This assumption that students show up with a certain amount of prior knowledge that has been perfected is unfair to both the student and the teacher, as both will inevitably end up frustrated and disappointed. Any new skill needs to be fostered in an environment that promotes risk-taking, questioning, and working through mistakes. This needs to be the instruction that remains consistent across grade levels and subject areas in order to see progress and make sure that students are leaving the current grade level ready to LEARN, not be masterful, in the next.

    • Dana Choit says

      I agree with you wholeheartedly in the need to be consistent with education without which the student will be unable to learn, “remedial” or not. I think this would able to apply to both the teacher’s pace as well as steady expectations for the student. I particularly like your closing line- students leave ready to learn (also perhaps with new and additional knowledge/experiences in tow) but not necessarily to be “masterful”, whether at the college, high school, jhs or elementary level. We are all constantly learning and growing as children and as adults. When it comes to college composition courses as well as others seen as “remedial” this very fact needs to apparently serve as a reminder.

  2. Victoria Fontana says

    As Dana mentioned, Canagarajah advocates for an educational environment that utilizes what students already know. There might be some benefit to accepting the Platonic belief that knowledge is “recollection.” In Perl’s essay, Tony recalled applied knowledge to the examined writing task based on recollection of personal experiences. His writing process became “smoother and more fluent.” An education that engages in prior knowledge is one that embraces a student’s already acquired creative power and habitual thinking process. Perl promotes the idea of “going back to the sense of one’s meaning in order to go forward” (39) because, as her findings and our past readings suggest, students often utilize retrospective structuring in their writing. It’s crucial not to ignore these existing abilities just to instill completely new skills. Students should not be constantly corrected and treated as receptacles to be filled with standard, proper knowledge. Like Perl concludes, “teaching composing, then means paying attention not only to the forms or products but also to the explicative process through which they arise” (39).

  3. Johanna Sanchez says

    I encountered a teacher in the school I work in that is teaching ELL students for the first time. He says it has been very difficult but that he is trying his best. I also believe that those ELL students are trying their best to learn. As you mentioned Dana, the underlying common thread in these articles was the “underdog”, the bilingual student. These students can be quiet, shy and insecure because of the language barrier and not their smarts. Many times these are the students who are stuck with something in particular because they cannot communicate it. I have noticed some teachers, where I have observed and worked in, see ELL students as a burden to them. How can an ELL student succeed in college when in Junior High Schools and/or High Schools are not doing enough to help them?

  4. Travis Lamprecht says

    Love the underdog take on this. Concerning ELL students, I always remember them being mostly segregated from the rest of the student body when I was a student at my zoned junior high school in Queens. I believe this hinders their development in learning English and as a whole, feeling comfortable and confident in school. I’m not sure if this separation still happens from students whom English is their first language but I remember viewing those students as if they didn’t even attend my school. I think if they were ingratiated with English speaking students their English would improve because they would be conversing in it and hearing it from their peers.

    • Rachel Duso says

      I agree with you on the fact that ELL students should be integrated into classrooms with their peers. Only by using and practicing the new language will they acquire it better. I have a friend who just started this year as an ELL teacher and said that she mostly sees her students during their English classes which she feels is the best time for them to be in class, especially at the junior high school level. She feels that they’re at an age when being with their peers and having the material in front of them, working with another student, and being in the room helps them. Pull out seem to work best if a student does not know English at all.

  5. Guadalupe Bueno says

    As a former ELL student, I can say that immersing into the American classroom was not easy. However, I found receptiveness from the teachers, and this aided a lot. The very difficulty of the acquisition of the language was an inspiration. I agree with what Travis says about possible uncomfortable feelings, and separation, because I was separated; however, the classes I took were bilingual and so helped tremendously because the material was in two languages. From personal experience, I believe that the best pedagogical approach is to incorporate the native language and use it as a reinforcement and base from which to add the new language.

  6. Safaarah Williamson says

    The categorization of “underdog” is quite relevant to the educational disservice that is being done to many students who are ELL. The student who is titled an “ELL” is often even more marginalized than the other estranged bodies that try to navigate successfully in a failing public school system. They are often treated as second-class citizens and as Mo stated, many of them understand that in a flawed system, all they must do is show up, in order to be passed. Many educators are frustrated with the lack of resources that are available to help these students prosper and even if there is an ELL teacher available, there is often a ridiculous ratio of 1: 100. In my school, the ELL teacher works as hard as she can to service all of the students. I am proud to say that there has been great success with some of the students who are ELL, but I believe that it is because the students are not isolated into a category of “other.” Many of the teachers within my school consider every student that walks into their classroom to be “our” students. A student who is learning English is no different from any other student who has the desire to learn; the titles are often stigmatizing and detrimental. Educators must stop putting the students who are learning English into an imprisoning box and view them as students who need their instruction to differentiated accordingly.

    • johnjparente says

      Safaarah, when you say “the ELL teacher works,” do yo mean that there is only one? Just interested..
      As for the rest of your comment, I agree that they should not be treated second class in any way. I couldn’t be happier with the way our school addresses the ELL student situation. We have at least two full ELL classes in each grade and it makes it comfortable for the students. You can tell that their middle school experience is very pleasant. Often, when I walk into an all ELL classroom, I see many happy faces and vibrant discussion or boisterous group work going on. They might be the “underdog” in today’s DOE system, but you cannot tell them that in my school.
      At our school, the ELL teachers are a force. There are ELL teachers teaching the all ELL students ELA 10 periods per week. There are a few “pullout” teachers for ELL instruction in small (3-4 students) groups. These teachers pull gen. ed. ELL and SETSS ELL students out of either minor subjects or weekly auditorium sessions. We have SETSS classes which contain special ed., ELL students, and students with disabilities that work at the general education pace.

      The ELL student is just part of our world here. I also recognize that our best teachers of ELA in the all ELL classroom cannot teach writing as a “unilateral and monolingual acquisition of literate competence,” as Canagarajah so eloquently proposes. Those teachers must work hardest at breaking the mold and being progressive and forward-thinking in their instruction.

  7. mfox2012 says

    ELL students are usually categorized and placed in a group labelled “other.” Many of these students are misplaced in the educational system and as a result, do not receive the adequate support or pivotal resources that they need. They are viewed as a challenge to many educators and this is a huge problem because them being labelled often leads to them being over looked. As Safaarah rightfully states, educators MUST stop putting students who are learning English into a box! All students need to be viewed as exactly that, students. Some teachers refuse to individualize and tailor instruction to the needs of each student because in the eyes of that educator that process would “require” too much work especially when concerned about time and teaching to the State exams. Therefore, they do not attempt to explore/apply differentiated instruction within their classroom and the students in turn suffers.