The purpose of the IRW Network is to provide opportunities for educators to communicate information associated with IRW pedagogy, connect with other practitioners whose goals include using reading and writing strategies to support and inform one another in both theory and practice, make explicit to students and one another the connections between reading and writing, collaborate with educators and administrators in exploring the ways in which IRW can benefit students across disciplines, and promote student success by sharing both tested best practices and emerging strategies in IRW.

The IRW Network welcomes insights from, and collaboration with, members from across other NOSS Committees and Networks as we continue to delve into and discover the benefits of embedding IRW strategies into a variety of academic and student support contexts.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller


Useful Technology in an IRW Classroom

By Michelle Kaschak

As we ventured into the unknown these many months of the pandemic, we have been inundated with new online teaching tools and aids to help make things easier.  Some are great; some are not.  I am sharing some tools that I have found helpful in my online IRW class.

Google Jamboard is essentially an online white board or bulletin board where students can easily manipulate images and text.  The nice part is that Jamboard is part of the Google suite of apps, and it is very user-friendly.  In my classes this fall, I used Jamboard as a place for students to create Venn diagrams comparing and contrasting two different readings.  In another instance, we read poems, and the students needed to add a word or an image to a shared class Jamboard that shows how they saw the poem or what was most important to them from the poem.  For a short story assignment, students had to add images that told the story of how they viewed one of the main characters. 

Jamboard would be great to add an image or text where students can add virtual sticky notes, highlight important points, add images, change the font, add shapes, use a laser pointer, and more. 

Example of JamBoard Venn Diagram:

Another winner for online classes is Flipgrid.  Flipgrid is a free app (can access on a computer or a phone/ tablet) where students can verbally respond to a discussion question or give feedback to a peer.  In the online environment, I used it as a way for students to introduce themselves to me and their peers, a place where students could comment on a reading, and a place where they could present a project.  The pros of Flipgrid are that you can see your students’ faces and hear their voices without learning new video or editing skills, which makes it less stressful on all. Another pro is that students do not have to buy any software for this, and they can access it on their phones.  It is very easy to set up from the instructor side, and you can share a link or a QR code with students. The con is that it is much more cumbersome to grade than a traditional discussion board.  I would not use a FlipGrid every week because of this.  Flipgrid changes up the traditional online discussion enough to make it interesting.

Whenever this pandemic ends, I am sure that we will all keep using the technology tips and tricks that we learned during this time to enhance our classroom practices.  Both the Jamboard and Flipgrid software will continue to be helpful in my classroom whether we be face-to-face, hybrid, or completely online because of their ease of use.

Michelle Kaschak is an Assistant Teaching Professor of English at Penn State Lehigh Valley, Center Valley, PA. You can contact Michelle at mlk21@psu.edu

Taking CoReqs Online

By Tina Shanahan

As colleges and universities across the United States close in response to the Coronavirus pandemic, instructors are scrambling to convert their previously face-to-face classes to an online format. This sudden transition has left everyone feeling uncertain about how to proceed, especially those of us teaching developmental education in a co-requisite format.

There is an abundance of advice circulating on Twitter, Inside Higher Ed, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Most of the suggestions in these discussions and articles are based on veteran online instructors’ expertise, but there is no precedence for taking co-reqs online.

When people say, “online classes aren’t for everyone,” they’re talking about students like the ones in our co-req classes – students who, for varied and complex reasons, may have low confidence in their academic abilities, struggle with executive functioning skills, suffer from test anxiety, etc. But, I’m convinced that our students CAN be successful through this transition to an online environment and you are capable of helping your students end the semester strong during this stressful time.

Teaching a co-req requires an individualized approach in any format. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to moving co-reqs online, but here are some tips you might consider:

  • If you teach both the college-level class and the support class, focus on transitioning the college-level class first. Getting your head around the changes to the college-level class will help you identify parts of the transition that will likely be most challenging for your co-req students. Then, you can adapt your co-req to offer support in those areas.
  • If you teach a co-req with another instructor, do your best to collaborate. However, communication might not be easy with all of us scrambling to put classes online, take care of kids, stay healthy, etc. If you can’t closely coordinate your support with the other instructor’s online model, use your best judgement to continue working on the skills your students need to practice most.
  • Keep things low tech as much as possible. Publishers’ offers to provide free access to online courseware are generous, but now is not the time for you and your students to learn a new Learning Management System or conferencing tool with all the bells and whistles. Use the technology that you and your students know best, like email and the basic features of your school’s LMS.
  • Be flexible with your typical requirements in the co-requisite.  You might not get to all the activities and assessments you had planned.  Your school may have their own grading policies, but the grade in the co-req should mostly reflect how prepared students are for more advanced academic work rather than their performance on individual co-req assignments. Put a lot of stock in what you have seen your students prove themselves capable of already.
  • Support students’ technology use, time management, and motivation.  Remember, the purpose of co-requisite courses is to help students develop the underlying skills they need to be successful in their academic work.  Basic writing skills are important, of course, but during this transition, they might need different types of support. Make or find quick videos to demonstrate any technology you’re using. Provide timelines or checklists to help students keep track of the remaining work. Find something to celebrate in each piece of work that students are able to complete under these stressful circumstances.
  • Conduct individual check-ins with co-req students.  Depending on the size of your co-req, you may be able to reach out to each student during the time that you would have been in class.  Instead of waiting for students to come to you with questions, check in with them weekly to ask what they’re finding most helpful and most confusing about the week’s materials. Consider giving students the option of communicating with you via email, phone, text, or webcam to make check-ins most convenient for them. 
  • Find ways to personalize communication and connect with students. Leverage the relationships you have already built with your students.  If you joked around with certain students, try to keep things light by using memes or emojis in your communications with them.  If you know certain students struggle with anxiety, check in with them about their stress levels.  Ask your parent-students about their kids and how they’re managing the workload while schools are closed. Remind your students that you know and care about them – not just as students but as people trying to get through this tense time.

Some of these suggestions will be effective for you, and some won’t make sense in your context.  As co-req instructors, we’re familiar with flexibility and personalization.  All we can do is trust what feels right to us as we support our students through the end of the semester.

If you have any other suggestions for co-requisite instructors transitioning to an online format, please share in the comments!


Dr. Tina Shanahan is a reading and writing instructor at Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Her work focuses specifically on teaching and learning in co-requisite models of developmental education and the integration of reading and writing. She lurks on academic Twitter as @TinaTeachesEngl.



Text Mining in the IRW Classroom

By Amy Doty

text mining

“What happens when readers are also writers?

And how does reading inform writing?”

Text mining is a metaphor used by Stuart Greene, in Mining Texts in Reading to Write, to describe how writers read with purpose and intention to gather and develop knowledge they can use to accomplish their writing goals. It is composed of three mining strategies: constructing context, inferring or imposing structure, and seeing choices in language. Writers use these strategies to “excavate” what is needed from texts in order for them to develop their own set of tools to employ when composing across a variety of situations and disciplines.

Greene emphasizes the distinction between mining texts and traditional ‘reading like a writer’ or close reading strategies by pointing out that this process encourages students to move beyond observation and imitation to critically analyzing the choices and decisions made by authors across different social situations, thus empowering them to make their own authorial decisions. Greene assumes that our ultimate goal as educators is to help students take control over their own learning and suggests that we can do this by “helping students develop a knowledge of what mining texts means, when to employ these strategies, and how to manage these strategies in order to direct their own reading-writing process.”

3 Strategies for Mining the Text

Reconstructing Context

Students develop a set of tools to help them locate the context or situation that shapes the production of a text.

  • Analyze discourse features to show how writers in a discipline invoke context by establishing the importance of an issue
  • Use comparative analysis of multiple texts to promote the ongoing process of reading, analyzing, and authoring that recognizes the social nature of discourse across a variety of disciplines
  • Encourage students to make judgements about the most appropriate way to make their own contribution in writing, using different strategies in different contextual situations
  • Writers should provide a rationale for their context choices (ex: why I chose to introduce background information when writing my argument)

Inferring or Imposing Structure

Students identify the rhetorical structure that influences the way readers interpret a text.

  • Analyze structure by linking it to the ways of knowing in a particular discipline (ex: the report form structured after the scientific method for science writing)
  • Structure has a fluid nature whereby both readers and writers construct meaning, so students should analyze how a writer structures their ideas and the relationship between ordering principles and rhetorical purpose
  • Readers actively construct meaning and create structure in light of their goals as readers and the prior knowledge they bring to a text which provides a framework for comprehending discourse
  • Students should describe the organizational pattern of essays to demonstrate an awareness of why they approached issues the way that they did and evaluate their patterns of development based on their purposes for writing

Seeing Choices in Language

Students determine the kind of language that is appropriate to a given rhetorical situation.

  • Focus on choices about language and why certain words or phrases might be appropriate or not in both source texts and student’s texts
  • Students can reconstruct the choices and decisions made about language and content in light of the author’s goals and their own
  • Emphasize the importance of developing an awareness of knowing both what students want to say and why certain details and ideas may or may not be appropriate for their goals

text miner

Practical Application in the Classroom

  • Annotation helps students attend to the specific features of the texts they read, selecting, organizing, and connecting ideas for the purpose of writing
  • Reading Logs that include information about how authors in different fields invoke context, structure meaning, and situate themselves linguistically
  • Discussions within their reading/writing community give students the additional purpose during reading of knowing that they will be entering a conversation to demonstrate their knowledge of issues and to add a novel perspective
  • Think Aloud activities go beyond critically observing other authors’ texts to taking on an authorial stance by challenging the text, consulting their own experience, and reflecting on students’ own goals as a writer (moving from a spectator to a participant role)
  • Creating Purpose and Goals for text mining can be encouraged by informing students of the kind of writing they will be asked to do before they read texts, so they can draw upon their reading of other texts and evaluate contextual, structural, and linguistic choices while reading
  • Writing Plans give students an opportunity to shift their focus from the rhetorical plans of other authors to developing their own plans for writing by evaluating information from the source text or prior experiences and reflecting on their different options as they compose a reading in their role as authors
  • Reflective Writing after students re-read their own texts to consider the choices they made and the goals they set as writers and their effectiveness

Amy Doty is a Developmental English instructor at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her current research interests include best practices in online developmental pedagogy and the benefits of embedding executive function/non-cognitive and success coaching into classroom teaching to impact student retention and success. She enjoys building themed courses for first-year students that provide opportunities for them to engage in inquiry and project-based learning with a focus on exploring social issues and civil discourse to promote change through writing.

You can contact Amy at adoty@southeast.edu

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Engage and Change Students through IRW

By Tina Shanahan

I held a human brain in my hands once. A colleague in my college’s nursing program invited me on a field trip to a human cadaver lab, and I am not one to turn down a learning experience like that! As a human, I was fascinated by he body and its organs; it’s awe-inspiring and a bit terrifying to see all the parts that make us work lined up on a table. As a teacher, I couldn’t wait to see the human brain up close. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I work on the human brain every day.

Learning Changes the Brain

Learning is the result of physical changes in the brain. Let’s say a student is sitting in English class and hears the instructor explain genre. While the instructor is showing examples of scenes from various genres of movies and various genres of writing, the neurons in the student’s brain are growing and making connections. At the 2019 NOSS conference, Janet Zadina, an educational neuroscientist, explained that neurons start to physically change within five minutes of learning something new. After twenty minutes of learning, dendrites start to branch out and make synaptic connections with related neurons. The English lesson on genre has laid the groundwork in the student’s brain for what neuroscientists call LTP, long-term potentiation, the strengthening of connections between the neurons. LTP is the physical result of learning.


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Neurons begin to grow and make connections quickly when we encounter new information, but these changes are not necessarily permanent. Zadina warns that dendrite growth will be re-absorbed if the new connections are not used. Our English student must reinforce the concept of genre from our lesson in order to maintain and strengthen neuronal growth. Each time the student remembers the genre lesson, related neurons fire signals to each other, strengthening synaptic connections and consolidating learning.

brain structure

When we understand the basic physiological elements of learning, we can help students grow their neuronal networks.  In Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, James Lang emphasizes that the work required to wire neuronal networks during learning must be done by the student: “You can’t fire the synapses in your students’ brains.”  However, you still play a vital role.  According to Lang, “Your task is to create an environment that facilitates the formation of those connections.”  What does that environment look like in an integrated reading and writing class?

Engage the Whole Brain

In The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, James Zull identifies four main sections of the brain, which each play a specific role in learning.  These sections and their functions include: the sensory cortex to process concrete experience, the back integrative cortex to engage in reflective observation, the front integrative cortex to form abstract hypotheses, and the motor cortex to actively test knowledge.  Zull counsels teachers to engage all four sections of the brain.

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The sensory cortex processes what is seen, heard, and felt through concrete experience.  According to Zull, understanding starts in the sensory cortex.  For example, children first hear language, then understand it, and then begin to speak.  Similarly, children often recognize the shape of common words and read them by sight before they are able to decode based on alphabetic principles.  The sensory cortex remains essential in college classrooms.  To incorporate the sensory cortex in class, Zull suggests that instructors give students concrete experiences before developing abstract concepts.

In reading and writing classes, for example, we often start with the rule when teaching grammar, but rules are abstractions.  To first engage the sensory cortex, we could show students sentences with punctuation in different places and read the sentences aloud.  As we discuss which ones look and sound better and why that may be the case, we move naturally to the level of abstraction.  Another way to engage the sensory cortex during editing is using Microsoft Word’s Speak feature.  Students can highlight one sentence at a time and read along as the computer reads the sentence aloud.  When something doesn’t “sound right,” the other brain regions help make sense of it.

The back integrative cortex helps us connect what we’re currently seeing, hearing, or experiencing with what we already know.  In the example above about searching for grammar patterns based on what is seen and heard, you probably recognized that an element of previous experience with spoken and written language is required for that exercise to work effectively.  That’s where the back integrative cortex comes in.

Building on existing knowledge is “the single most important factor in learning,” according to Zadina.  Reading instructors already know the value of building from prior knowledge and often engage this part of the brain through reading aids like anticipation guides and K-W-L charts.  These strategies prime the brain to make connections to new input.  Zull promotes writing activities as a particularly effective way for students to activate prior knowledge and give teachers an idea of individuals’ current understanding of a course concept.  IRW instructors identified using the same topic for reading and writing as a best practice in a 2016 survey.  Themed reading and writing activities help students write to discover prior knowledge and build knowledge through reading.  Typically, then, students also re-construct what they know based on the addition of new knowledge, which requires engaging another section of the brain.

The front integrative cortex generates abstract ideas and explanations.  This is where construction of knowledge happens.  Students use the front integrative cortex when they incorporate information from readings with their own experience to express their own ideas about a topic.

According to Zull, reflection is a pedagogical strategy to engage the front integrative cortex.  Many writing instructors ask students to reflect on their writing experiences and processes.  Students construct their own understanding when they apply concepts from class to their own experience.  Metaphors are a tool to help students reflect on new learning.  Zull recommends asking students to create their own metaphors for course concepts.  In an IRW class, we might have students create a metaphor for the reading and writing processes.  Scarborough’s Reading Rope, for example, is a metaphor for skilled reading.  Having students both draw and explain their metaphor further integrates information in the brain.  Translating between language and image requires further integration that occurs across brain regions.

The motor cortex carries out active testing of ideas.  The motor cortex is involved when students act on or demonstrate their learning.  Zadina suggests giving students options for how to demonstrate learning.  She recommends writing a summary, writing an argument, making a poster, creating a PowerPoint, drawing a cartoon, curating a Pinterest board, completing a service learning project, etc.

IRW students engage the motor cortex as they practice reading and writing.  In reading, a student uses the motor cortex to annotate while reading.  Annotating also requires the other brain areas, of course, but adding a motor function to the cognitive processing of the text means that the student’s brain is making more connections to the material.  Similarly, students are engaging the areas of the brain that process information while writing, but writing also calls on the motor cortex to carry out the activity.

When learning involves the whole brain, students connect to what they learn in multiple ways.  Students gain new concrete experience, build on prior knowledge, construct new ideas, and take action.

Repeat, Rehearse, Remember

Students who engage their whole brain in learning will have a strong foundation for learning, but new knowledge doesn’t always stick.  Some neuronal connections weaken over time while others become firmly wired together.  Repetition and rehearsal initiate neurons to fire together and strengthen learning.  Zadina says students need to “fire it to wire it” by repeating concepts in various ways throughout a course.  Lang calls this technique interleaving.

IRW, by principle, is a course built on interleaving.   For example, although many textbooks discuss main ideas and supporting details in separate chapters, we integrate the concepts repeatedly.  In explaining main ideas, we show students how to check the main idea against the details in the reading.  We distinguish major and minor details by how directly they support the main idea.  Interleaving also occurs naturally when moving between reading and writing activities.  We again discuss main ideas when students write thesis statements and topic sentences.  We talk about the importance of both major and minor details as students write their own paragraphs and essays.  The connections students make to IRW course concepts are more likely to stick when we treat principles of reading and writing recursively.

Teachers can also enhance memory through practice.  Again, the idea of rehearsal is a natural part of IRW as students practice reading and writing in multiple assignments during a course.  The tricky part of practice in IRW is making sure that practice is guided enough that students are making the right kinds of connections.  Lang recommends frequent and focused practice sessions to make the most of in-class practice.  For example, giving students a full class session to read a text or write an essay is less effective than short, focused activities.  A more focused practice session in IRW might involve having students write a sentence for their next essay that mimics the sentence structure of a sentence from a class reading.

Practice needs to be focused on the most important principles for students to remember.  Every assignment reinforces students’ connections to our course and our discipline, which students carry with them in other reading and writing situations.  Have you encountered students who struggle to break the narrative mold because the majority of their previous reading and writing assignments were in a narrative structure?  Or the students who struggle to engage with complex ideas in college writing because the five-paragraph essay model has been become hardwired in their brains?  We influence what students remember through assignment sheets, lessons, rubrics, and feedback.  Use assignments and course materials to reinforce the skills students need most for school and life.

As students practice reading and writing during class and in their assignments, it is important to correct misunderstandings, but according to Zull, “Don’t stress mistakes.  Don’t reinforce neuronal networks that aren’t useful.”  Zull recommends building on what students get right and adding to their understanding instead of drawing unnecessary attention to incorrect information.  In IRW, we can apply this principle by reframing error-correction feedback as additive advice.  For example, we may accidentally reinforce the wrong information if we tell a student, “The thesis statement shouldn’t be the first sentence of your essay.”  Instead, we can build on what students did right and add to their understanding with a comment like, “This thesis statement clearly states your main idea, but in academic essays, the thesis is usually at the end of the introduction.”

Repeating and rehearsing lead to remembering.  If we want students to maintain the neuronal growth that occurs during our class, connections need to be reinforced through practice.  Align opportunities for practice with the reading and writing skills that are most essential for students to remember in college and beyond.

The Brain at Its Best

As I stood in a cadaver lab with my hands cupped around an actual human brain, I was a little disappointed.  The little grey ball of tissue belied human complexity and our potential for learning.  In the classroom, however, I see the brain at its best.  Students process sensory input, integrate what they’re learning with what they already know to create new knowledge, and put that knowledge into action.  Through practice, they get better at reading and writing.  As students become more effective readers and writers, their brains change, which means their understanding of the world changes and they experience personal growth.  And, despite all the value in understanding academic texts and analyzing rhetorical appeals, at the end of the day, isn’t personal growth what reading and writing are all about?

Tina Shanahan

Dr. Tina Shanahan is a reading and writing instructor at Gateway Technical College n Kenosha, WI. Her work focuses specifically on teaching and learning in co-requisite models of developmental education and the integration of reading and writing. She lurks on academic Twitter as @TinaTeachesEngl.

Creating Authentic Bonds Between Speaker and Listener


by Mary Birdsall

            Recently I read an article that discussed how to ask better questions, particularly when establishing relationships. The author, Lila MacLellan, cited research by Harvard professors Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie John that emphasized the importance of asking follow-up questions. I gave this a try today as I met my first two classes of our summer term at SCC. I learned a lot about the students. One young man had just returned from touring California and Arizona with his ska band of three years. Another student was excited for her soon-to-be-born nephew, particularly because her sister has had three miscarriages. Another student had visited Las Vegas for the first time, another Chicago, and another was hosting her sister visiting from Alaska who hates it there and wants to move. As they all mentioned things about their lives, I was impressed by the expressions on their faces. Rather than seeing that glazed-over look that so often occurs on the first day (and sometimes afterwards), their faces appeared relaxed, open, and interested. When we finally got around to saying names (yes, we managed this whole conversation without actually mentioning names—my bad), each of the students had something interesting to remember about the others (and I found that their names were much easier to remember, too, when we got to that point).

The feeling of unity is often simultaneously subtle and remarkable. It seems to be characterized be a sense of well-being and pleasant expectation. After a class gets going, I know unity is developing when I walk to class with a smile inside at the prospect of spending an hour or two with that group; it is even more notable when I return to my office with that same internal smile. During class, I can see it in my students’ faces and body language: they’re relaxed but alert. They make eye contact with each other and with me. They smile more often. The inflection in their voices range from cheerful and joking to sincerely commenting or questioning. Their engagement, in turn, enhances the thoughtfulness of their comments. We still have down days as a class when people are tired, overburdened, or discouraged—or just plain out to lunch—but there are more good days than bad. The effects of the spirit of unity in the classroom are so pleasant that I’ve pondered its presence (and its absence). How is it created? How is it maintained? How much influence do I have over its presence—or is it just a matter of luck?

Although to some extent unity might be “luck of the draw,” I believe that unity is deeply connected to listening—and that teachers can therefore influence the growth of unity in the classroom. It begins with our modeling asking active questions and listening to understand before (or instead of?) listening to respond. As I interacted with these students, for example, I noticed that they opened up as I expressed genuine interest in them. I tried to listen carefully and ask follow-up questions, first to one and then to others; as I did so, everyone in the room seemed to be increasingly cheerful and interested in what was happening. I wasn’t faking it, either; as I paid attention, listened sincerely, and asked relevant follow-up questions, I was interested in them and their responses. This demonstrates two important principles: first, unity comes when people feel listened to. If students feel that my listening is sincere, they are willing to share more, and they are also willing to listen more attentively in return. Second, as I am sincere in my listening, I ask better follow-up questions, and I am more and more interested in both them and what they have to share. This listening and responding promotes that unified feeling I described above.

Listening has many purposes particularly in classroom settings; however, attentive in-the-moment listening can be a difficult habit to cultivate—particularly if we’re trying to help our students become good listeners, too. Many students seem programmed with “necessity” listening as an autopilot: they expect to listen just well enough to accomplish their perceived objective. They might think, for example, that they are only required to listen to the teacher, not to classmates. If it’s not directly related to course content, maybe the information or conversation is less important. Others might want to simply get to the point and then think about something else more interesting (the latest celebrity tweet, the latest text from a friend . . .). Unfortunately, this superficial listening often detracts from the whole purpose of listening in the first place. Rather than achieving comprehensive understanding, students who listen only out of necessity settle for a one- or two-dimensional understanding (or if their listening was even more fragmented, a distorted or incomplete understanding).

This is not to say that “necessity” listening, as autopilot, is entirely the students’ fault. I think, to some degree, we instructors might unwittingly foster disengaging listening habits. For example, we might be so preoccupied with communicating the content we have prepared that we talk too much, and the students will not stop us. They will submissively allow us to ramble on and on. In addition, we are used to being listened to, and so we might not catch that we are talking too much and listening too little. But this is a red flag, evidence that we are not listening to our students in ways that inspire real attentiveness, and thus lose the opportunity to model for students the behaviors we would otherwise encourage them to adopt. We do our students a disservice to set up as the norm the teacher-talks-students-listen dynamic, letting classroom time play out without challenging ourselves and our students to do better.

Another pitfall teachers might encounter in striving to create a culture of active listening is pseudo-listening, where we behave as if we are listening attentively, but we are not being sincere. Since this happened to me just yesterday, let me use an example to explain. In this same class I have mentioned in this post, we read a chapter in our text that examined successful teams and the group norms that foster team effectiveness (see Charles Duhigg’ s book Smarter Faster Better). I had gleaned from the book a particular point that I thought was valuable, and I wanted to share it with the class. However, rather than just tell the students what my insight was and ask for responses, I asked instead a series of leading questions, trying to pull the students around to the point I wanted to share. This dynamic was tricky because it made me feel like I was encouraging dialogue and discourse, but it was not sincere because I did not truly want to know what they thought. I wanted to bring them around to what I thought. As such, I wasn’t really asking follow-up questions that would allow them to synthesize and discover. I instead was contrived to dress up my soap-boxing as an authentic learning moment; afterward, I did not feel good about that conversation. Was I passionate about the concept? Yes. But I did not leave class with that feeling of contentment that signals mutual understanding and edification. However valuable my insight may have been, pseudo-listening and soap-boxing left me feeling dissatisfied.

In contrast, if we create authentic opportunities, invite our students to speak, and then really listen to them, the important points will appear more naturally. Students will be more interested and the feeling of sincerity and authenticity will still be there. Too, they will many times say those important things for us, not needing our leading questions, which is even better. Let me give an example: On this first day, I saved time at the end of class to start teaching the students about annotating, which was the first homework assignment I gave. Many students have no idea what annotating is or how to use it effectively, but I wanted to discover what they already knew and make the instruction more memorable and interesting. So I put up the picture of a fingerprint and asked them to tell me everything they knew about a fingerprint. Because we had already broken the ice by conversing about the students’ summer activities, they were much more prompt in volunteering various bits of information. They seemed interested in the question, even though they had no idea why I was asking it (perhaps that stoked their curiosity; after all, it seems like a random thing to talk about in a reading/writing class). I made sure to write their responses on the board and asked follow-up questions again to elicit further explanations of each point. When I put up a picture of an annotated page and asked them to make connections between the fingerprint responses and the annotation, they made creative and interesting connections—I didn’t have to tell them what was important; I could just add my suggestions and ideas next to theirs. Indeed, they said most of the important things for me; I just had to ask the follow-up questions and emphasize where their insights were vivid, relevant, and helpful in understanding what annotating is and why it is important. In this manner, I was able to model behavior that I hoped they would exhibit: sincere interest, good follow-up questions, attentive body language. So far, it seemed to work.

It won’t be easy to maintain this every day. Listening takes energy, and some days both we and the students will be tired. However, if we establish attentive listening and responding as classroom norms, I believe that the spirit of unity will be present more often than not. Some of the best experiences I’ve had in education come when a group of different people create a sense of belonging, of listening, of liking, of contributing. We do not need to have the same opinion about every issue. But even if people are going to disagree with each other, the sense of being really listened to creates a bond between speaker and listener. It recognizes shared humanity and good will, fostering a belief in each other’s sincerity. Listening in this way is powerful because, when given, all participants are uplifted in the exchange.

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Mary Birdsall is an instructor of developmental English at Southeast Community College. She is interested in learning theory, as well as the impact of collaboration, discussion, and connection in classroom settings.


IRW Update from California: New Law Transforms the Remedial Landscape

By Alison Kuehner

This is the first in a series of blogs for the NADE IRW network designed to keep folks informed about integrated reading and writing developments across the country.

This kick off blog focuses on a mini-conference held on Oct. 15, 2018 at San Francisco State University in coordination with the Northern California Community College Reading Association to discuss the implications of California’s newest legislation—AB 705—that mandates changes to developmental English and math.

AB 705 Background

Katie Hern, co-founder of the California Acceleration Project and member of the AB705 Implementation Committee, opened the conference with background about California’s newest legislation, AB 705.

Here are the highlights . . .
AB 705 addresses systemic problems:
Too many students deemed unprepared: 75% of students in California Community Colleges are placed into remedial classes.

Placement is destiny: Odds of completing transfer-level composition are low if students start in remediation, even if students place only one level below transfer.

Inequity: Students of color are disproportionately placed into remedial classes.

The slide below from Katie Hern’s presentation shows that students who place below transfer English have little chance to pass transfer English—and students of color are overrepresented in remedial classes.

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AB705 mandates:
Proper Placement: Use high school grades, not high stakes standardized tests, to place students

Start in Transfer: Unless students are “highly unlikely to succeed,” they should start in transfer-level English, with co-requisite support if needed

One-Year to Complete Transfer: Colleges must “maximize probability” that students complete transfer-level English in one year

mouse(Another slide from Katie’s presentation: how some faculty are feeling about AB 705)

OK, granted—these changes are making some California faculty nervous! AB 705 basically requires that all students start in transfer level composition, with co-requisite support if needed. That means no remedial reading, writing, or even IRW classes.

Implementing AB 705: Successes

Next up: A panel of faculty from five SF Bay area colleges reported on changes made to their English sequences in anticipation of AB 705.


Some colleges that have reformed placement and eliminated remedial classes have seen the following results:

• More students have immediate access to transfer level classes

• Success rates in transfer composition are holding steady

• Significant improvements in success rates for students of color

The graph below shows students starting in transfer level (yellow) have higher completion rates in transfer English than those in a co-req class (blue) or those who begin 1 level below transfer (brown) regardless of their ethnicity.


Conclusion: Co-requisite courses are more effective than accelerated courses one-level below transfer for student success in transfer English within one year.

Implementing AB 705: Issues

Other colleges are in the midst of eliminating remedial classes and creating co-requisite courses. Here are some of their concerns:

International Students: Second language learners may not have the requisite language skills to succeed in transfer level English

Classroom Reality: Challenging to teach students of varying skill ranges and abilities

Scheduling and Registration: Difficult to find rooms for large unit classes and for students to register into linked classes

Beyond English and Math: AB 705 focuses only on English and math, but faculty in other disciplines need to reinforce students’ reading, writing, thinking, and computational skills

The Fate of Reading Classes

Final Panel: Five faculty teaching at colleges with reading departments spoke about the fate of stand-alone reading classes at community colleges.


This panel mentioned various themes:

A Reading Degree Matters: Special training is needed to teach reading; this is a valuable skill and many reading faculty were hired on the strength of their expertise

Teaching Reading Matters: College students need to be proficient readers; writing is only part of the package

Reading Departments Feel Isolated: Some reading departments have not been able to successfully collaborate with English faculty or to be included in IRW reforms

Reading Departments May Disappear: Some reading departments may be “absorbed” into English or may disappear altogether

Reading Departments Can Reinvent Themselves: Reading faculty spoke of creative ways to reimagine reading classes, from transfer-level reading courses to reading across the disciplines to digital literacy

–Alison Kuehner is Professor of English & Gender and Women’s Studies, Student Equity Co-Chair at Ohlone College, and a Member of NADE and the NADE IRW Network.