Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints

One of the courses that I come back to in January will be the spring section of First-Year Experience that's scheduled for students who were "gearing-up" last semester for college-level work, a few late starting true freshmen and one or two students who failed FYE in the fall. 

Recently I had a chance conversation with the instructor who taught this section last spring and she said, "Scaffold the hell out of that course and then--when you think you've got it right--scaffold some more."

By scaffolding she meant breaking the cognitive and skill-level requirements into a graduated sequence that stretches from the first day to the last. In other words, I should assume nothing about the readiness of students to perform at what I think should be a "given" college standard.  Instead, I'll need to walk them slowly to that level.  This is a good design philosophy in any course, but it's especially necessary with under-prepared students.

Indeed, the readiness levels on reading for incoming freshmen have been tanking over the last four years.  In 2014, for example, just 52% of incoming first-year students in my state were rated as "ready" by ACT.  That number was 61% four years earlier.  Moreover, the median composite ACT score on reading in 2014 was 22.  The median score for my class is nearly five clicks lower.

So they're not ready for serious college-level reading.  But what does 'not ready' mean?  It certainly doesn't mean they can't read.  They can.  They may not, however, be fully fluent readers, ones capable of distilling key ideas or articulating patterns of evidence in the material.  And many, if not most, will never have experienced "deep reading," what Sven Birkerts calls in The Gutenberg Elegies "the slow and meditative possession of a book."

It may be hyperbole to say we are now teaching in a post-literate world, but we are certainly slouching in that direction.

Over the years I've accepted the need to fuse teaching academic skills into my material. It was a  real breakthrough for me when I figured how to teach writing in a way that enhanced rather than diminished my content (the composition and rhetoric folks call this teaching with writing rather than teaching writing).  I've even found ways to help students develop their critical abilities and analytical skills.  But I'm not sure I have the chops for the deep neurological rewiring it takes to move a kid from "not a reader" to "reader."

Next semester promises to be challenging, to say the least.  I've scaffolded the hell out of the course and I intend to work like mad for these students, and maybe--just maybe--we will have built something of wall when the scaffolding comes down.  That's the hope anyway.


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