Teaching Amidst the Digital Explosion

Part Two:  Reflections From the Fallout Shelter– On Teaching      Print Literacy During the Digital Media Explosion


It is a long way from the previous chapter, written in the zone between fashionable media theory and “Wild West” of Silicon Valley, to the poorly-lit classrooms of Basic English, sometimes hopeful, sometimes melancholic. The reader will have to forgive the paucity of citations and the more personal tone here, for I aim to reflect critically on the classrooms where I have worked in for the past fourteen years, in the context of the larger world of urban education.  And propose a thesis– that at the same historical moment when the digital communication has flooded through the world, reshaping print literacy, political pressures in the United States have led to the narrowing of literacy and math instruction in “under-performing schools” (thereby more rigidly defining literacy), as educators in poorly funded urban school systems seek to cover the basics more thoroughly, within a narrowed general education curriculum.  City College has been affected by this narrowing: closed reading modules called “case studies” and  highly structured writing assignments based on those modules to engender student success in essay writing.   These pressures have created a less hospitable environment for media literacy education in the English department at least.  Since 2005, positive initiatives have emerged: a growing emphasis on reading whole texts, on cognitive strategies and meta-cognitive awareness, and on the larger learning environment, especially the underrated dimension of affect.  Openness to a wider range of readings (as opposed to the closed modules) can easily be extended to Internet reading, and consideration of non-linguistic decoding of images and sounds in the digital environment.


The American community college has a special place in the public education system, where students who have not gone through the accepted stations in the meritocratic maze are given a second chance.  It has a double mission.  First it is supposed to be “democracy’s open door,” teaching students what they did not learn in the K-12 system (basic skills), and teaching new skills and knowledge to transfer into a four year college or a more skilled profession.  Second, it is also supposed to certify to employers and four-year colleges that its graduates have the skills and abilities that are required.  This is sometimes called “gate-keeping”, and at City College of San Francisco the English department, taken generally, has historically identified with that role. On the other hand, faculty in other departments, more identified with the “open door” side of the school, have resented the role of the English department, considering it traditionalist, or even racist.  After many years at City College, choosing between these two extremes still makes no sense to me.


What Did You Learn in School Today?


When I began at City College in 1996, the proudest claim of the traditionalists who ruled the department was that our English 1A class correlated closely to the requirements of first year English at U.C. Berkeley, and that it surpassed the requirements of San Francisco State’s English 1A equivalent course.  As a San Francisco State graduate, and a new teacher, I did not argue openly with such views, but instead learned the ropes, happy to teach at the school where I had first gone to college. Seeking common work with other City College faculty, and aware that media studies was considered a marginal, even esoteric field of study, by 1999 I had put my theoretical work and research on media literacy aside.


At CCSF, and in the other community colleges where I’d taught, senior faculty in English taught most of the 1A and above classes, while the basic, or developmental classes went to part-timers, many of whom had no academic preparation to teach these students*. The problem of how to teach increasing numbers of students with weakened literacy skills entering City College had been handled by the invention of lower and lower levels of English composition and reading, without considering any theory and research on basic writing being discussed in universities. But I was not inclined to protest either the gate-keeping mentality, or the absence of media literacy curriculum in English. I looked for opportunities to address these concerns while learning about the system from the inside.  I can recall visiting the English chair around 1997, reporting that there seemed to be a high fail rate in English 94, compared to equivalent classes at another school.  I was told that this was very common in large urban community colleges, and no one knew what could be done about it.  On the other hand, the English department at CCSF in particular, valued teachers’ academic freedom to select a wide range of texts and teach in a variety of ways, making for some experimentation, but often leading to inconsistent teaching in relation to course levels and evaluation.


It was left to Jim Sauve, a recent full time English hire with a PhD., to shift the English department away from its customary indifference to or punitive attitude towardin regards to developmental education. In about 1998, he agitated for and then organized a common writing exam in English 94 (now Eng. 93), an effort I joined.  English 94 (two levels below Eng. 1A, and another two levels above the lowest level composition course), was the composition course with the largest population and the lowest pass rate. While this Common Exam may have appeared to be more gate-keeping, it created a positive conversation about a course that clearly did not function well, and the reading and writing curriculum in general. Another major pressure on the English department came from the new Chancellor Phillip Day, who was both an ambitious builder/ organizer and an authoritative voice in the field of developmental education (McCabe and Day).  Sauve did not directly criticize the traditionalist distaste for the basic courses or ally with Day; rather he pointed to English 94’s dysfunctional state.  He warned that the department had to put its own house in order, and pointed to the activist Chancellor, who was said to be considering the cure of dismemberment, taking the basic level courses out of the department entirely, and housing them in a separate basic skills department.


About the same time, Linda Legaspi and Susan Zimmerman (both trained at San Francisco State) taught the first linked reading and writing classes (English 90, the bottom level composition class and English 9, a reading/ study skills class) through a Learning Communities program, taking their cue from a CCSF Research Office study that concluded that intensifying study in basic skills classes led to student success.  Their innovative work might have languished in obscurity, but in 2003 it became the model for a program of experimental English classes, created by a private foundation grant (Koret) to improve instruction in basic math and English. Despite the fact that the “Koret program” was a departure from some traditionalist views, the earlier 94 Common Exam discussions had led to acknowledgement of the larger problem, and the support of a new department chair, John Batty-Sylvan and Dean Bruce Smith lent the program institutional legitimacy.


The “Koret program” became a center of innovation in the English Department, including not just integrated reading-writing instruction in English 90/91, but also providing more integrated services in tutoring and counseling, as well as community building amongst students and powerful collaboration between faculty.  I  became an enthusiastic participant, and focused my professional development on learning to teach developmental reading.  The Koret faculty’s early discussions focused on the quasi-official adoption of  highly structured writing assignments from Bill Robinson’s Integrations textbook (a professor for many of us from San Francisco State).  We also discussed  how this focus would correspond to the work of the reading teachers, whose work had no comparable theoretical or curricular focus.


Drawn to this collaborative experimentation, I worked with the Integrations English 90 assignments, but occasionally spoke about their narrowness.  This structure tended to close off possibilities for multi-media curriculum. Organized as problem-solution case studies, the early Integrations assignments provide the student with carefully balanced sets of data to engender genuine inquiry and problem solving, where no one correct answer could be drawn.  Analysis and evaluation had to be done using the data provided.  Even weak writers, with very basic topic knowledge and little schemata for essay development could work with the structured steps of reading and writing and produce a well-structured essay.  Creating a framework for successful essay writing was a major accomplishment; however these early case studies worked in a hermetically sealed environment, yielding essays that leave little room for the larger world of discourse evoked by other media discourses, or even other print texts.  The “Koret” teachers discussed whether these case studies prepared students to write compositions based on real-world readings, but the structure was in place, and the work was challenging.


Meanwhile, The Explosion is Felt, Even in the Fallout Shelter


Perhaps this is what makes basic writing basic, but the structured focus meant that I confined my work to teaching with visual texts to English 93 or 1A.  At those levels, there was no collectively applied coursework or assessment, and I continued to teach visually-oriented advertising analysis (often using a collection of video-taped commercials I’d made in the mid-nineties), as well as teaching Postman and Powers’ How To Watch TV News, an excellent book of close criticism from a “protectionist” perspective*.  But, as my focus had shifted to the Koret program, other multicultural and popular culture coursework, and the teaching of reading, my work on these more visual assignments became only occasional.  Nor did I, in the years when e-mail, net-based discussion groups, and children’s on-line games, and Google became a normal part of my life, connect my abiding interest in visual communication to the burgeoning Internet.


Back in the late nineties, City College was awash in state funds from the economic boom, providing new computers and software to faculty, opening new computer labs, starting a Multi-Media studies program, and launching its on-line education program using Web CT*.  Both academic (a new major in digital networking) and vocational programs (graphic communications) grew up in order to teach newly digitized skills, but they remained separate from the general education mainstream.  Among English teachers there were few discussions of how networked computers would change teaching, learning and literacy, certainly no awareness that the Internet was a powerful new medium in itself*.  I was skeptical about the pedagogical benefits of  computers in the classroom. I had taught Business English at San Francisco State in a computerized classroom ill-suited to the group work that I favored, in a department that was uninterested in part-time faculty input (not even in my written proposal)  about how to use the computer lab more collaboratively.  And I thought of on-line classes as completely inappropriate to the majority of the community college population, which above all needed the immediate feedback of a sociable classroom.  When the English department opened its own computer lab around 2005, with a special mission assisting the work of basic skills students, I did not dive in enthusiastically.  I integrated the plethora of English web sites and activities into my basic skills classes at a measured pace.


Like most English teachers who have not had the time to think through the rapid changes in communication and discourse happening right under our noses (and our clicking, typing fingers), much of my attitude toward my students’ use of digital technology was shaped by its distracting qualities.  First it was cell phone calls during class; later it became the silent gaze of students onto their laps, reading and writing their instant messages.  If I was overseeing work at a computer lab, I had to contend with students checking their e-mail or car rental rates.  More disturbingly, when I first taught the better educated and more tech-savvy students in an English 1B (literature) class, I encountered massive plagiarism, and discovered the Internet’s plagiarism industry. I understand why teachers’ unfamiliarity with the latest digital crazes can mix with these irritating, disturbing encounters to produce a  skeptical attitude among teachers toward the new digital discourse that can leads to a damaging generation gap.


The spread of Media Studies across four year colleges and universities during these years (see the next chapter), has left the community colleges largely untouched.  With the exception of BCST 101 Media Literacy (which articulates with a similar G.E. credit course at San Francisco State, but has not been offered in over five years), and some Cinema classes with G.E. credit, the study of visual media at City College happens in vocational and major-focused classes in departments like Art, Broadcast, Cinema, Graphic Communication, Journalism and Multi-Media.  The particular codes of these fields are being taught to student practitioners, but students in general are not learning basic interpretation for comprehending and communicating on the multi-media Internet, at least not from faculty.


Reading Apprenticeship and the Meta-Cognitive Turn


While the early Koret discussions could be difficult, they were faculty-driven and actively supported by administration: researchers hired by the college’s Research Office studied our early work, and Dean Bruce Smith gave us sustained attention, facilitating work with the Carnegie Foundation, and later with the state-wide Basic Skills Initiative.  By 2005, it was clear that this initiative was part of broader initiatives at state and national levels.  Elements of a program began to fit together: the reading and writing teachers worked out a more coherent balance in their respective instruction, and English 91 became a normal, not an experimental course. The Basic Skills program began to hire and train its own professional tutors, attached them more closely to each class, and launched end of semester portfolio readings to clarify assessment standards and course level issues.


The English 90/91 common portfolio assignment was first seen as an assessment tool. But soon it changed our teaching:  we began to teach students to gather portfolio materials to demonstrate their learning processes.  This encouraged faculty’s growing awareness of meta-cognition (awareness of one’s own thinking and learning processes, a concept more familiar to reading and study skills instructors than composition and literature teachers). Basic skills teachers began to integrate meta-cognitive activities not only into the final portfolio assignment, but throughout the semester, particularly the reflective cover letter attached to the portfolio or essay.  This development has broadened the focus of English basic skills instructors toward reflective learning, which I see as potentially more open and applicable to media literacy education than the cognitively-focused, closed module problem solving of the case studies.



Around the same time, reading theory and curriculum from the Reading Apprenticeship (RA) program, with a strong meta-cognitive dimension, have been applied at the English 91 level, and promoted not only among language teachers, but to all CCSF teachers struggling to teach course content to students that don’t read well. RA as a teaching model emerged from work between literacy researchers and high school English teachers and students in San Francisco.  Despite the fact that it was first tested with high school and middle school students, the approach seems transferable to the community college because the cognitive zone of developmental reading (as opposed to the emotional development) is roughly the same as urban high school English.  For example, most English 91 students test between a sixth to eighth grade reading level, and most English 93 students come in reading at seventh to ninth grade levels. The RA approach has not been formalized in textbook adoption or curriculum, but many English teachers and some faculty in non-English disciplines, have taken RA workshops, taught by trained CCSF reading faculty.  The RA approach was given a notable, ringing endorsement in the influential report titled Basic Skills as a Foundation for Student Success in California Community Colleges (Center for Student Success).


The “apprenticeship” metaphor reflects the work of social constructivist educators  (Tyner 173-175)   to create a more active and social process of learning, in which reading strategies are made visible, taught explicitly and then practiced by students in the classroom.  Direct teaching– introducing, modeling and guiding–is not disregarded, but subordinated to the more subtle process of acquisition, where learning occurs within a highly social collaborative process.  The apprenticeship metaphor has ambiguities; an old style manual skill promised a largely direct route to employment that a college education does not provide.  Learning the skill led to immediate practical results (a useable pair of shoes or not), whereas cognitive constructions are not always tested so directly.  The value of the metaphor is that, (at least in the version from John Paul Gee qtd in Tyner 173-175) connecting apprenticeship to acquiring a discourse), it suggests the general shift in social identity involved with successful learning.  But clearly, there is no recognized          “cognitive apprenticeship” in a high school or college yet—it remains a theory that some of us are trying to put into practice.


Because I find this approach to teaching reading congenial, and applicable to media literacy teaching, which also teaches a kind of multi-modal “reading,” I would like to examine Reading for Understanding: A Guide to Improving Reading in Middle and High School Classrooms (Schoenbach, Greenleaf, Cziko, and Hurwitz) very closely. The text introduces both a theoretical model,  and a description of practical application in a high school class.  The model is presented in a diagram, four rectangles overlapping like a Venn diagram:  “Social, Personal, Cognitive, and Knowledge- Building,” with the superimposed words at the rectangles’ intersecting center, “Metacognitive Conversation” (see Appendix A). The authors explain how these processes were introduced in phases, focusing first on the “Social” and “Personal” in the first quarter of the class, and slowly shifting into a greater focus on the “Cognitive,” that is the practice of several reading comprehension strategies, including self-analysis of  which strategies are most useful.  Finally during the “Knowledge Building” phase, the class focused on activating appropriate background knowledge to assist reading comprehension, and learning new concepts to comprehend challenging readings.  The model closely follows the reading comprehension theories that I learned in graduate classes.  What is most interesting and the furthest outside my training as an English composition teacher, is their emphasis on the psychological level, the cultivation of self-motivation early in the class to propel students through the difficult work of higher level reading.


At first the most crucial dimension is social: the creation of a safe classroom atmosphere that makes it not merely acceptable but “cool” to admit to confusion in reading.  Students do readings by both heroes and peers about how reading affects their sense of self and place in society; they interview different kinds of readers, and write letters to struggling readers.  This is where the key role of “metacognitive conversation” comes in.  From beginning to end, students are required to stop and reflect, first on the personal relevance of others’ struggles to overcome social stigma and individual powerlessness, and later, on their own small steps of learning in class.  The semester always begins with the teacher convening a community, where all can discuss the metacognitive questions of “How did this task go?  How did it feel?  Where was it easy?  Where was it hard?” into a predictable routine.  In the early RA classroom, meta-cognitive reflection on reading processes is given higher priority than the correct comprehension of content.  The middle part of the class covers a wider range of readings, several comprehension strategies, and enough meta-cognitive reflection so that students can begin to make informed choices about which strategies are most helpful to keep on their individual “mental toolbelts.”  The final third of the class focuses on schema building and schema activation related to more challenging reading.  Clearly, near the end of the class, the importance of content knowledge and comprehension grows, because the knowledge and skills learned are supposed to transfer to any class with reading. (116).


Uncertainty and Change


What I have outlined above is one emerging practice in the teaching of reading that is congenial to media conscious education, not a dominant practice in English, or one that is directly multi-modal.  Changes in literacy, its practice and theory, will continue to happen faster than faculty can respond. But the responses come from many directions, and do not spring from a planned curriculum invented by one brilliant professor or administrator.  In English there are many teachers using the Internet for various purposes, most of them in the department’s Cyberia computer lab.  Many others are using Internet topics and controversies for assignments, providing students with  digital, visual, popular culture as the focuses of readings and illustrations.  Some enterprising instructors are assigning students to write on classroom blogs.  Others are using graphic novels as reading material, and discussing it with colleagues, as Craig Kleinman did about Art Speigleman’s  Maus.   Some are video taping their students’ life narratives, so that future students can gain from their experiences.  Speech instructors are using laptops to project Internet pages onto the large screen.  This is not my ideal media conscious education, but each move toward the digital medium, and reflection upon it, is an important step, even if teachers don’t always foresee what they are getting into.  Not to forget my main point: there remains an enormous gap between how we teach about communication, and what kinds of communication our students (and we ourselves!) are actually doing on the Internet.


Clearly the larger cultural, economic and linguistic changes will continue to outpace the efforts of City College faculty to understand, respond, and change direction.  And as literacy scholars remind us (Tyner 36-40), literacy is not a social practice that any teacher, school or government controls.  It is complex and changing, subject to all the social contradictions that make a community college such an exciting and exhausting place to work.  We have been painfully reminded of these contradictions by the recent arguments over the Equity Resolution by City College’s Board of Trustees, who recommended a rapid compression of the math and English course sequences, and the Academic Senate’s sharp defense of faculty’s autonomy in altering curriculum.


Major changes in course sequence and curriculum are certain.  But whether these changes have any coherence or resolve the problems that sparked the recent debate remains to be seen.  It may be that the changes will open up a new round of curricular experimentation that will allow the integration of a more conscious approach to digital discourse.  On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the anxiety to obtain successful learning outcomes will lead to tighter control of curriculum, and a narrower definition of literacy, further marginalizing media conscious education.

* I had taken graduate classes & attended conferences about “basic writing”  but was also ill-equipped to deal with the psychological and behavioral realities in the classroom.

* “Protectionist” is a term among some media literacy educators for those who see the medium itself as the problem, and suggest an antidote of some kind, usually from the print medium, to protect students from the televisual medium (pollutant).

* I may be missing some important developments.  I was not involved at the time, and have not studied the institutional documents or interviewed the relevant people.

* I had taken a graduate class in 1995 on computers and composition, and was familiar with the research on the positive effects of word processing and we talked in the class about new opportunities to teach research with search engines (pre-Google).

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