Today we will continue our discussion in part two of my topic, the “Chain of Blame.” The culprit in my second installment is that old meddler, time. No matter who you are or what you do, there just never seems to be enough time. Boy, does this go double for educators.
The issue of time greatly affects the instruction of writing within high school classrooms. The chain of blame assumes that high school teachers do not care about preparing their students for college because they are too worried about getting them through high school. If only those selfish high school teachers would think about what their students will need for college! While in some respects this second assumption is accurate (teachers are very busy getting students to meet high school standards, pass standardized tests and meet graduation requirements), high school teachers struggle now more than ever to prepare students for the demands that will be placed upon them when entering college. With more students attending college than ever before, college preparation has become an important piece to the already crammed pile of priorities teachers try achieve. In fact, many schools are instituting “college readiness programs” in an attempt to produce students capable of achieving well academically beyond high school. These programs are geared toward preparing ALL students—even those who may not want it—for the college atmosphere. It requires a lot of work on the part of the teacher to facilitate, promote, and teach the various aspects of applying to college and beyond. This means higher demands on teachers who already face a multitude of struggles that college professors often do not take into account (class size, ability range of students, curriculum priorities created by standardized testing, the list goes on and on). While we can agree from the research that pre-service teachers could use more training in composition theory, teacher preparation represents only a small piece of a much bigger problem causing this learning gap between high school and college, and so it is quite unfair (not to mention unproductive) to continue this cycle of blame.
Let us examine this issue of teacher responsibilities further. Perhaps the biggest constraint upon secondary English teachers, and thus a factor at play in the knowledge gap for incoming college students, is this issue of time allotted for evaluative feedback on student writing. Secondary teachers lack the time necessary to provide effective, useful feedback on student essays. As Sommers states in her article, “Responding to Student Writing,” providing feedback on student writing takes up the most of teacher time: “Most teachers estimate that it takes them at least 20 to 40 minutes to comment on an individual paper…” (106). Once you do the math, twenty minutes per student (most high school classrooms hold thirty or more student per section, and most teachers teach about 3 sections a semester) it adds up to a staggering amount of time. All teachers struggle to balance lesson planning, creating materials and preparing them for class, disciplinary issues, contacting parents, department meetings, observations, and last but certainly not least, grading. Secondary English teachers in particular struggle with this because of the writing component. Not only does completing the writing process take up a lot of classroom instruction time, but also the grading of student essays seems nearly impossible. As Enders found in his study, teacher feedback plays a pivotal role in students developing successful writing habits. He states, “Although it would be beneficial to assign and provide feedback on student papers each week, it simply isn’t feasible with the heavy class loads that many high school teachers carry” (64). With sixty plus students, evaluating and commenting on student work in a manner that will markedly improve student writing seems unachievable. There simply is not enough time in the day with all of the duties secondary teachers have.
Thus, most teachers focus on sentence level, grammatical issues which are easy and quick to correct. They may make some comments in the margin of the student paper regarding organization, strength of thesis and supporting points, but because of the lack of time, these comments are often very vague and confuse students: “Often, students found their teachers’ evaluations of their writing unclear or lacking in substance” (Enders 64). The indistinct nature of these comments also does not lend itself to helping students actually revise their papers. As Sommers writes, “The comments are not anchored in the particulars of the students’ texts, but rather are a serious of vague directives that are not text-specific” (111). These comments may be the only real conversations going on between students and their teacher concerning their writing, given that the class period is short, the teacher has much to cover, and there are too many students to help in one class setting. Clearly, the combination of lacking teacher preparation with little time to evaluate student writing in a meaningful way leads to a gap in the knowledge of college composition students.