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CATESOL Book Review: Empowering the Community College First Year Teacher by Meryl Siegal and Betsy Gilliland

Michelle Skowbo

Book Review – Empowering the Community College First-Year Composition Teacher, Pedagogies and Policies

By Meryl Siegal and Betsy Gilliland

Empoering the Community College First-Year Composition Teacher: Pedagogies and Policies / Edited by Meryl Siegal and Betsy Gilliland

By Sonia Estima & Kara Mac Donald

For community college education in California, there was a significant shift permitting students to earn course credit eligible for transfer to a four-year university with the passing of AB 705 in 2017. The objective is to increase graduation rates from community college and transfer to complete a four-year degree, and initial data is suggesting this is so for California. This book is highly relevant within the larger discussion of equity and inclusion across the country, not only within California, as the role of community colleges serve an important access to further education and professional skills.
The first chapter offers an overview of the role of community colleges in the past and how and why the approaches changed and the different models available. Community colleges have primarily served underprivileged students as means to access higher education, but the system was not working and recently the focus has shifted to supporting completion of a degree. It describes the move away from remedial pre-requisite courses in English and math, with a focus on placing students in accelerated courses. The data regarding first-year composition (FYC) courses is not all rosy, but when looked at through data trends it is proving promising. This shift has required teachers to make curriculum adjustments to the current goal and broad student population, and the chapter discusses faculty role in curriculum design against policy on the books. The reasoning for the birth of the book and its outline are shared, highlighting that the chapters are written from a broad group of authors lending it to the dynamic scope of the topic.

Part I: Refining Our Pedagogy

Chapter 1: Negotiating Writing Identities Online and in Person: The Growth of Metacognition and Writing Awareness in FYC, Brenda Refaei and Ruth Benander 
The authors from the biggest community college in their state, describe how they develop young writers among a diverse student population in both online and face-to-face courses among an increasing student population. They share why reflective journals are useful in developing student agency and autonomy. Journal topics are provided that over time build students’ reflection and metacognitive skills, with the final goal of guiding students to develop an identity as a writer, which is needed to then become writers. The authors share how students see themselves as writers and express themselves, and finally how they understand the nature of transferring writing skills learned to other content based subject topics/courses.

Chapter 2: They are Reading from Screens But (How) Are They Reading from Screens?, Michael Larkin
The chapter starts by describing the very familiar reality of the ways students access content in class through various forms of print and digital copies, each with a distinct nature of offering engagement with the text. With this in mind, the author highlights research on the need to develop two distinct cognitive means of interacting with texts, one for print and the other for digital content. Additional understanding from research about the impact of screen reading is shared to highlight how reading culture overall has changed. For example, all readers today, not just students, today strive to get most important information in a moment, which makes electronic devices and the way information is present non-neutral. In the last section of the chapter, the author shares approaches and activities used to allow students to better understand the nature of online reading. He first has students write a reflective piece on their reading history and overall engagement with reading and what type of content. He also sometimes offers an activity to test their content recall by comparing what was retained between print and digital reading experiences. He offers students articles addressing the difficulty of reading online and generational shifts on attention span, accompanied by a guide with basic tips for screen reading he developed. In the process students often share their approaches (i.e. reading hacks) to reading digital content. The final step is a discussion on what content most stuck with students, and a summary of what are their own best practices for screen reading. 

Chapter 3: The Socio-Cognitive Approach in Academic ESL Composition Classes, Barbara A. Auris
Academic first-year composition courses for English Learners (ELs) are made up  of a diverse student population with varying proficiency levels and academic experiences (e.g. recent arrivals, international students and long term residents). This provides numerous challenges to support students to achieve course objectives in a limited amount of time. The chapter addresses these challenges by adopting a socio-cognitive framework, where students learn through observation. To provide students meaningful opportunities to engage in observation, she offers activities where students analyze model paragraphs of texts, and are guided in the practice of writing and examining errors. Through analyzing and discussing model texts, students uncover the norms of academic genres. For example, students are given a text and make a list of characteristics identified in the text. Individual students, together as a group, redraft a whole text in academic register. Students do complete individual writing to prove mastery of the academic conventions, but final course grades are not the only indicator of success. The development of autonomy and confidence for academic writing is part of the course goal, to make students less daunted by taking academic writing courses and writing for content courses.

Chapter 4: Using “Writing about Writing” Pedagogy with L2 and Developmental Readers and Writers at the Community College, Miriam Moore
To counteract the shortcomings of conventional writing classes that do not address different academic writing tasks, the author uses Writing about Writing (WAW) to overcome many of the common struggles new writers encounter. WAW entails reading about writing processes, reflecting on what was read, and writing about what was learning though examining, discussing and writing about writing. Some have argued that developmental learners would be too overwhelmed by reading academic articles about writing. However, the author argues for an approach where the WAW course model is conducted alongside a conventional writing course, which provides students the support and confidence to successfully participate in the WAW course. As applied in the classroom, the WAW course consists of i) content addressing the conceptual aspect of writing ii) reading texts about writing, iii) assignments that develop academic literacy, process of writing, and language style and accuracy. She highlights that author choice at every level from punctuation to text organization impacts the meaning of the message, the reader’s needs guide the author, and different genres require different norms and conventions. Success of the WAW course is visible in the way students engage in the writing process and how they think about applying the course content to their writing. It also assists in students seeing themselves as writers.

Part II: Teaching Toward Acceleration

Chapter 5: Contract Grading as Anti-Racist Praxis in the Community College Context, Sarah Klotz and Carl Whithaus
As a means to offer a more equitable assessment system, a contract grading method from the California Community College system is shared. The contract grading approach departs from a model where all students do the same amount of work and assessments to obtain a grade and offers a negotiation of the amount of work and types of evaluations they will do for a grade. Since community college student populations are often diverse and represent racially marginalized groups, the approach overcomes an inherently biased educational curriculum and structure by offering students the ability to share in the responsibility of their learning from different perspectives and avoid the white racial habitus. The author argues that many contract structures are feasible, but the design of the learning contract is not solely in offering negotiation of assessment. The main value lies in aiding students to understand assessment framework are inherently tilted towards the white racial habitus and academic norms of privileged classes. This critical understanding permits students to better mediate all college classes, not just the first-year writing course. The author provides activities from the first day of class to explore contract grading and plan the semester to a sample syllabus and grading rubric. The chapter closes with a mention of opposition to contract grading and not all forms are universally applicable, but restates the value of them as anti-racist praxis.

Chapter 6: First-Year Composition: Building Relationships to Teach Emerging Writers, Andrew Kranzman and Chandra Howard
 Many students have negative and/or challenging experiences in first-year writing courses and with educational institutions overall, and the diverse student body presents challenges for teachers. However, obtaining a successful foundation in first-year writing courses is an essential component for later success in pursuing their degree. Before addressing pedagogy for writing courses, the authors argue that  it is first important to address how to build positive relationships between student and teacher, and among students as peers. The importance of the affective domain in learning and cognitive development is described in general but is then related specifically to first-year writing courses where students often do not see themselves as good writers and see the process as a burden. To address affective elements, two sample activities are described: Apprenticing through Learning to Read by Malcolm X and ‘Sharing Journeys: The Educational Letter. The second part of the chapter offers fundamental practices for reading and writing in first-year composition courses that are highly accessible (i.e. low-stakes) and are collaborative. Two sample activities are offered: Keywords, Quotations, and Paraphrases and Research Paper Keystone: Source Synthesis. Samples of student writing in both categories (i.e. addressing affective factors and accessible fundamental practices) are provided as applicable.

Chapter 7: Supporting English Learners with Disabilities in College Composition Courses, Caroline Torres
There is a lot of data on ELs, their diversity and success rate. However, there is not much information on EL with disabilities as data collection is not mandated. Also, many ELs with disabilities do not have academic preparation for college courses. Many challenges these learners have may be misunderstood and labeled incorrectly as being poorly organized,  having poor communication skills and others. This mis-labeling places ELs with disabilities at a disadvantage on numerous other levels beyond language. The author highlights that there are various challenges when such students move on from high school to college/community college that make awareness of students’ disabilities and offering the support needed difficult. Students are required to provide documentation of their disability to continue receiving support, but a large majority do not report their disability and remain ineligible for support available. International students with disability may come from countries that did not provide the same level of support students in the U.S. in high school have. For ELs with disabilities, colleges are not required to provide support beyond an ESL designated class. And with a first-year composition course being a challenge for any EL, ELs with disabilities face additional hurdles beyond English language development. To support these learners, the author teaches strategy use through Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) focused on specific genres (i.e persuasive and informative texts) through model texts, writing strategies and self-awareness and regulation. Mnemonics for the key components in persuasive and informative texts are provided with short summaries for each letter/component, as accessible outlines for students to digest and envision the larger overall text. The process begins with deconstructing a sample text to identify the key components explained for each genre. Then, when it is time for students to write the process the teacher begins with teaching them how to plan for the piece they will draft, organize and group ideas (i.e. notes) with respect to the different components of the essay, and outline their ideas based on keywords so they don’t get lost in the process of writing. The idea is that students don’t write full sentences in the outlines, as they may be less inclined to want to revise when the writing process begins. The outline is a guide of sorts to keep them on the track that they developed. The author recommends mini lessons for language instruction as they are focused chunks of time that provide learners in depth examination of a language form. The chapter closes with examples of student success.

 Part III: Considering Programmatic Change

Chapter 8: Teaching Writing in a STEM Learning Community: The Heart and Science of Communication, Gonzalo Arrizon
The chapter explores how community college composition courses can help students prepare academically and psychologically for the transition to four-year universities through the use of learning communities. The author describes her experience with a model that encourages students to move as a cohort through common classes.  Composition assignments were carefully crafted to help students build their critical thinking and the specific writing skills they will need in other STEM classes – using math and science as topics for the writing assignments. 

The model consists of communicating to students the “purpose, task and criteria” for each task – explaining to students the why (purpose), the what (task), and the how (criteria) of a writing assignment.  The chapter describes a series of assignments, the prompts given to students and the criteria used to assess their work. 

The author shares some examples and evidence of student success, as well as challenges encountered, exploring both academic and environmental challenges of financial and psychological nature.  The model proposed here seeks to provide academic and personal support, skills development, and individual self-reflection to help students in their academic success. 

Chapter 9: Motivating Students from Afar: Teaching English in a Live Broadcast Concurrent Enrollment Program, Kellyanne Ure, Kade Parry, and David A. Allred 
The chapter describes the concurrent enrollment (CE) program (also called dual enrollment or dual credit) at Snow College - a two-year college in rural Utah.  This is a program where high school students take college classes for both high school and college credit.  The authors describe three different programs implemented at Snow College: the traditional face-to-face classes taught at the local high schools, a second program taught by high school instructors following the curriculum designed by the college, and a third program taught by the college faculty via an interactive video conferencing online platform. 

The authors focus on their own experience with the latter and discuss the challenges they encountered in trying to engage students using technology.  They look at some of the political, geographical, financial, and cultural factors that influence students’ engagement and outcomes of concurrent enrollment programs.  Starting by analyzing the technology itself and its limitations and then looking at the students, the required criteria for enrolling in the program and the level of maturity of the high school student to attend college classes, the authors address how faculty can best address the challenges and best prepare their CE students.  

Chapter 10: Contextualized FYC Courses for Career Technical Education, Erin B. Jensen, Jennifer Stieger, and Whitney Zulim 
This chapter explores the composition courses at Great Basin College (GBC) a rural community college in Northern Nevada, in particular the technical communications English classes offered in the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program. This program is directly linked to the mining industry that surrounds the college, and students receive both scholarships and have the opportunity to receive a paid internship at the mines.  The authors describe how the composition classes are designed to give students hands-on assignments that allow them to learn and practice the skills they can apply directly in the workplace, such as writing reports, proposals, resumes and business letters. The authors base their approach on Vygotsky’s social constructivist theory, incorporating scaffolding into the assignments to provide students the help they need. They are also influenced by Gardner’s multiple intelligences concepts, inserting visual and kinesthetic activities to try to appeal to different students’ preferences.  The goal of the classes described in this chapter is to provide students with the necessary writing skills they will need to succeed in their jobs.  

Part IV: Considering Curriculum: Research and Policy

Chapter 11: Heterogeneity among Community College English Learners: Who Are Our ELs in FYC and How Do They Compare?, Rebecca M. Callahan, Catherine E. Hartman, and Hongwei 
Chapter 11 analyzes the presence of English Learners (ELs) in community colleges and the fact these learners are not a homogeneous group, but rather represent a wide range of students, from recent immigrants to students who were former English learners in K-12 in the US. While a vast literature and policies exist in the K-12 system, not much has been written about the specific characteristics and needs of the community college ELs (CCELs). The authors use the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) data to try to identify the characteristics of this population and how their level of engagement can be a predictor and tool for success in college. The specific variables of interest in this study were Discursive Engagement (academic and social discourse), Pedagogical Engagement (critical thinking skills development), and Institutional and Interpersonal Support. Their analysis reveals many areas where CCELs differ from the majority population and they question how community college instructors can play an active role to help their CCELs students develop the needed social and academic support they need to succeed in their studies. 

Chapter 12: Avoiding the “Cliffs”: Korean International Community College Students and Rhetorical Flexibility, Justin G. Whitney 
This chapter looks at Korean international students at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC), a large urban college in Utah. The author reviews the Korean education system and the pressure for students to attend university in the US in order to succeed professionally and secure a position at a major corporation, such as Samsung or Hyundai. Typically students from affluent families may attend extra-curricular or paid tutoring to obtain the necessary English fluency to qualify for university admission in the US.  This practice has created a gap for students of less affluent parents, who cannot afford the high cost of private education and have less opportunity to reach greater levels of English fluency needed for university admission. 

The community college has emerged as a possible alternative pathway for Korean students with a more open access and less emphasis on standard tests for acceptance. This allows Korean (and other) international students to begin their education at the community college and gain the necessary credits and credentials to transfer to a four-year university.  

The authors interview eight Korean international students at SLCC to learn more about their specific needs and experiences at the college. They analyze how community college composition instructors can support these international students who wish to transfer to four-year universities. 

Chapter 13: First-Year Composition Faculty in a Changing Community College Policy Landscape: Engagement, Agency, and Leadership in the Midst of Reform, George C. Bunch, Ann Endris, and Kylie Alisa Kenner 
This chapter explores current changes in community college policy and reforms and the involvement of faculty in the process.  The authors consider the two ends of the spectrum with regards to faculty reactions to college reform, from “enthusiastic reformer” to “reform resister.” They suggest, however, a third option for “critical engagement” – where teachers can be at the same time critical and proactive towards creating and promoting the right conditions for change. 

The chapter looks at the successes and challenges faced at one community college on the central coast of California with a large Hispanic population. They review the professional development efforts to encourage collaborative work among faculty, to ensure proper faculty development opportunities, to create collegial and effective faculty collaboration, and to engage instructors as agents of change in the new community college landscape. 

Chapter 14: Combining Developmental Writing and First-Year Composition Classes: Faculty Perspectives on How Co-Requisite Teaching Affects Curriculum and Pedagogy, Heather B. Finn and Sharon Avni 
Community colleges are faced with low retention and graduation rates, which is an even greater challenge for students who are placed in remedial math and reading/writing courses. To address this problem many community colleges have begun to offer co-requisite courses, which allow students to earn credits while fulfilling developmental needs. The chapter evaluates how faculty is addressing curriculum and pedagogy issues brought up by the new model. The authors interview First Year Composition courses faculty at one community college in Northeast to learn the challenges they faced and how they attempted to provide the extra support needed by students who require additional reading and writing scaffolding. While most faculty was supportive of the initiative, they did struggle with the need to work at a slower pace realizing the wide range of student preparedness within each class. Teachers reported questioning their goals, having to reassess their expectations, and struggling with how to maintain academic standards without diminishing student confidence in a short amount of time. To some instructors in this study the need to reflect on their practice was at times empowering, but it was also a struggle, and it raises questions about the goals and expectations for community college composition courses.  

Chapter 15: Valuing Teacher Knowledge, Valuing Local Knowledge: FYC in Hawai‘i Community Colleges, Meryl Siegal 
Chapter 15 also discusses the community college changing landscape and the current reforms aimed at accelerating students through the FYC sequence to reduce the large drop out rates. The author interviews community college English faculty in Hawaii to provide them a space to reflect and share their experiences. A major concern brought up was how community college teachers can support and prepare students who enter the school without the needed knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in FYC courses, how to support weaker students without “dumbing down” the curriculum, and how to address a diverse population of students who may have different goals and expectations of their studies, from transferring to a four-year university or pursuing technical education. They consider the tension between the administration’s pressure to address graduation rates and the faculty’s need for additional professional development and preparation to teach a broader range of students and provide individualized support for their diverse needs. In this light acceleration might be seen as a type of structural violence, with a bigger concern for getting students through rather than focusing on the needs of the students and thus further corroborating the need for faculty engagement in research and reflection. 

Chapter 16: Institutional Research (IR) and Remediation Reform: A Contextualized Exploration for Faculty, Terrence Willett, Mallory Newell, and Craig Hayward
The final chapter provides insight for ways that faculty can work with Institutional Researchers (IR). Starting with a review of the Institutional Research practice in the community college system in California and the formation of offices with the goal of assisting faculty and administrators to increase student outcomes, the authors suggest ways to increase collaboration between faculty and IR. They explore how a partnership between FYC faculty and IR can help influence strategic plans for the college, help secure grants, identify areas of concern, and clarify expectations. The authors promote the need to make sure faculty is engaged and active in the research and discussions to help inform new policies, reforms and programs, where faculty can help inform IR and in turn also benefit from the results.