Playing out the Theme of “Success” in English 03:
An Experiment that Paid Off

Because I want students to be motivated to achieve their own dreams, in the Spring 2005 semester I decided that the focus in my two 03s should be on success and what it takes to be successful as a writer, as well as in all areas of their lives. It worked out even better than I had hoped.    

Telling and Writing Stories of Success
I started by having them read an essay I wrote about a quadriplegic student I had a number of years ago who was able to overcome extraordinary obstacles: "Succeeding Against the Odds."  

For a couple days, we discussed Patrick and how he was able to succeed, and we told stories about people that they knew of who, similarly, had seemingly insurmountable obstacles to overcome, yet did.  We wrote some paragraphs about these folks, which eventually were fleshed out and evolved into their first essay assignments.  As I had hoped, a number of students wrote about themselves as success stories.  Here are examples of some of those stories:

Success in Communication
Their second essay assignment would be developed through a series of short, thematically linked paragraphs.  It was about the communications skills that will be necessary for them to enter and be successful in their professional fields and how these skills are developed. I first assigned them to read at least six essays on this topic which were written by past TNCC English 111 students.  For their projects, the past students had interviewed professionals in the field of their majors, professionals who held the type of job the student would one day wish to have.  The interviews and the essays the students wrote focused specifically on communicating as a professional, and they cover a wide variety of fields: Index #1, Index #2

These readings began our discussion of why writing and speech classes are so important, why so much reading is required in college classes, and I amplified those discussions with my belief that we are all good communicators in some ways; whether through reading body language, listening, casual conversation, writing, or whatever, we all have some good communication skills.  I then assigned the English 03 students to write one or two paragraphs in which they described their own strengths as communicators and to develop the paragraphs with specific examples that prove it.  The purpose was to focus on the ways in which they are already successful communicators.  We were starting to develop their second essay through a series of short, linked assignments of one or two paragraphs in length.  Their next paragraph-length assignment was to outline the communication skills that would be necessary for them to be successful in their chosen professions, using examples from the interview essays they had read and from their own experience of professionals in that field.  Following that, we discussed which of those communications skills each person felt he or she needed to develop in order to be successful, and we talked about specifically how they could go about developing the communication skills that they felt they were deficient in.  I wouldn’t accept answers like, “I’ll take a speech class,” or “I’ll take more writing classes.”  Taking a class does not guarantee that anything will be learned, so specific strategies were developed.  Students began suggesting that they would spend a designated amount of time each week working grammar lessons related to their own weaknesses from handouts in the Writing Center or from the on line Guide to Grammar and Writing.  They suggested that it would help to overcome a fear of public speaking by volunteering to read announcements or tracts at their church services.  They suggested that they would force themselves to participate in class discussions, to get more comfortable at speaking out.  They suggested that they would listen to the NPR talk radio station to get their ears attuned to the spoken grammar and prose patterns of articulate professionals.  Our discussions led to the third part of this series of assignments, which was to map out a plan for overcoming their communication weaknesses or writing deficiencies.  This essay figured prominently in the end-of-term conferences as we discussed how well they had achieved their goals or where they felt they had come up short.  Mostly, it was very realistic and very honest writing.  Some examples follow.

Succeeding as a Student

The third major paper upped the ante a bit, requiring online research and a written product that drew on the researched sources.  It was grounded in Neil Fleming’s VARK learning styles questionnaire and, again, depended on accurate self-assessment and called for appropriate application of the learning strategies Fleming outlines in his handy and educationally sound web site:  VARK, A Guide to Learning Styles The VARK is not a diagnostic assessment or comprehensive learning styles inventory, but rather a set of eighteen questions that Fleming calls “indicative,” in that it indicates information processing preferences and strengths of the learner.  This essay was also developed through a series of short, linked, paragraph-length writings.  The writers read about the VARK, took the quiz themselves, and reviewed Fleming’s excellent web site to ascertain the best strategies for optimizing learning based on their own revealed or indicated learning preferences, whether Visual, Aural, Read/write, Kinesthetic or a combination of learning modalities, which Fleming calls multi-modal learning. Based on his research, Fleming holds that most people are multi-modal in their preferences for learning and processing information in general.

The first paragraph assignment for this essay was to describe what the VARK is, who developed it and why, and how it can be used.  The second paragraph was to discuss the student’s VARK results, and the third was to outline the best strategies for learning based on the individual’s VARK profile.  Fleming’s site is filled with effective tips and techniques for studying, learning, and in a more general sense dealing with others.  This project was enlightening for nearly all of the students and resulted, again, in some surprisingly good papers, samples of which follow.  

The In-Class Final
The final paper was written in class in response to one of six prompts, all having to do in some way with the theme of success, which would bring closure to the series of projects and a sense of unity to the portfolios.  Two of those papers are hot-linked below.

The Outcome
Okay, so it was interesting to base all of the writing and reading assignments on the theme of what it takes to be successful, but did this method have successful outcomes?  Certainly, the papers were not perfect.  Even the papers of students who agreed to their essays being used as models and examples could be edited more thoroughly.  However, the samples included here were good enough for the panel of portfolio readers to recommend that the students go on to curricular English classes, and that was the case for the great majority of the students who finished the semester and turned in a portfolio.  Looking at the results statistically, the conclusion has to be drawn that it was quite successful, on more than one level.  The usual successful grade rate for all classes at all levels throughout the college tends to hover around 56%-59%.  The pass rate in English 03 has never exceeded  40%, however.  In my two English 03 classes that wrote papers about succeeding in life and in college, the successful grade rate was 58%, bringing them up to the norm for all classes. Thirteen of the 41 original registrants did not complete the course, a 32% attrition rate.  While that seems high, it is not high for English 03.  What is more telling is that 24 of the 28 completers (86%) passed the course, making them eligible to take curricular English (Eng. 111) the next semester.  

Reading and writing about themes of success were not the only assignments or projects the students worked on throughout the term.  They also read and worked grammar exercises in the Guide to Grammar and Writing, did editing lessons from the Perfect Copy software, practiced sentence combining in small groups and on their own, and some went to the Writing Center for supplemental grammar and punctuation exercises.

I found that the old adage is true--success breeds success.  What will I do differently, now, to increase the pass rates in my English 03s?  The answer is clear: keep them in the class.  Those who stayed with the course succeeded at an 86% rate, so persistence will be the major emphasis.

Rick Dollieslager, Ass't. Professor of English
Thomas Nelson Community College
P.O. Box 9407, Hampton, Virginia 23670
Phone:  757/825-3543   Fax: 757/825-3842
Chairman, VCCS Tidewater Region Center for Teaching Excellence