Friday, May 11, 2007

at the point of need

Recently I reread an old favorite:

Nelson, M. W. (1991). At the Point of Need: Teaching basic and ESL writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

It came out in the heyday of process writing, in the Krashen years. Not that those years are over, but at that time, when I had just finished graduate school and started teaching, the Krashen philosophies seemed like a 100% sauna- everyone was all warm about them. I have mixed feelings about some of them, namely the "language learning device"- but there were some things that rung true for every veteran teacher (this did not include me at the time)- and that was obvious. This book is remarkable in that it doesn't take anything for granted, although it is directly from that era. She makes her conclusions directly from the experiences of the tutors in her writing lab. I have included some of the more interesting ones below:

"Dependence is the legacy of negative evaluation." Our systems have managed to teach and promote dependence when in fact they should be teaching independence. In fact her total focus is on the mind of the writer (where it should be)- and the key, transferring responsibility for a writers' progress to the writer. "Dependence gives way to collaboration, and independence germinates in that soil." DEPENDENCE -> INTERDEPENDENCE -> INDEPENDENCE.

An interesting corollary of this idea is that the student's classmates are a key in the learning process. The student must see and know others who are going through the same process: this weans them from total dependence on the teacher and the guided word.

How to encourage risk-taking: Make sure students are writing about what they care about; make sure they choose it themselves.

Contrary to what Center visitors sometimes assumed, the personal topics students so often chose were not required. In fact, tutors found no quicker way to inspire resistance than to suggest that students "ought to" write more personally. More successful tutors never pressed for personal writing. Instead...they leaned over backwards to prevent students from thinking they expected it. Our goal was to help student writing improve quickly, however, so tutors supported decisions likely to further that end. And because the logs showed that when writers cared more, their work improved faster, tutors encouraged students to write to please themselves, maintained sanctuary conditions so risk taking would feel safe, and demonstrated writing attitudes and writing behaviors that most frequently led to breakthrough levels of success. (p. 174)

Resistance and the blocks it produced were complex and individual. Nor were they easily remedied by direct instruction. (p. 177) both tutor and student surprise, the awareness that triggered growth almost always emerged incidentally, from experience, in the process of looking at something else (178). This, it appears, is one reason whole language instruction proved more effective than preventive/corrective drill- it offered multiple lessons simultaneously, and students could connect with whichever ones held meaning for them.

This last paragraph is clearly where "point of need" comes from, though apparently the term was coined by Britton et al.:

Britton, J., Burgess, T., Martin, N., McLeod, A. & Rosen, M. (1975). The Development of Writing Abilities (11-18). London: Macmillan Education.

Her curricular recommendation: Don't worry about showing students every kind of writing (cause-effect, descriptive, etc.). Teach independence and the process of going toward things you want to talk about, correcting the grammar, etc.

It was impressive that the tutors saw enough student writing to recognize "breakthrough" pieces when they saw them. These were pieces in which students tried new things- and, students often felt ambivalent about them, not knowing how new things would work. But improvement came from breakthrough pieces, and these came from risk-taking, and this came from writing about things they cared about.




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