On Tuesday I went to a “Leadership Symposium” for the Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC) at the L.A. Crowne Plaza hotel near LAX. I chaired the California State University task force that developed this course, so I was delighted to see the amazing things that so many high school teachers and CSU faculty were doing with it.
Back in 2002, CSU had developed something called the “Early Assessment Program,” which involved giving a subset of our placement tests in English and math to students in the eleventh grade. CSU trustees were strongly interested in “reducing the need for remediation,” and David Spence, the Vice-Chancellor at the time, argued that “If they do it in high school it is not remedial.” The idea was that if student in the eleventh grade knew that they would probably not pass our placement tests and thus end up in remedial courses, they would do something to improve themselves. But what would they do?
I was on the Executive Committee of CSU English Council at the time. We went to the Chancellor’s Office twice to argue, “Early assessment without intervention is useless.” Finally David Spence said, “What do you mean by intervention?”
We told them that they needed a year-long course. They told us to develop the course. We told them that we couldn’t because it would be a high school course, and we didn’t have any credibility with high school teachers and administrators. They said fine, create a task force, work with high school teachers.
After that meeting, as I was driving one of my colleagues to the airport, we were thinking that we couldn’t turn this opportunity down because it had the potential to change the way English was taught in the whole state. It turned out to do exactly that, and more.
I wrote a proposal, they funded it, and we had our first meeting in August, 2003. At that meeting, I described my plan. I said that we would take the best writing assignments from all of the developmental English courses in the CSU system and package them for high school teachers to teach. I thought we would be done in nine months. The high school teachers immediately said, “No, that won’t work. First, the problem is more about reading than writing. And second, we can’t touch anything unless it is aligned with the California English Language Arts Standards.”
When we started, the CSU folks and the high school folks were miles apart. We quickly got a real education in what high school teachers were facing. One of the most important factors in the success of this project has been extensive dialogue and collaboration between CSU and high school faculty. We are now much closer together, and have a great deal of respect for one another.
In the first year the task force created an assignment template and nine teaching modules. The template includes pre-reading, reading, and post-reading activities, a discussion of integrating material from sources into student writing and documenting it in MLA style, and writing activities that could culminate in a college essay, a letter to the editor, a book review, or a research paper. This template can be used to create lesson plans for teaching almost any appropriate text.
In subsequent years, more modules were written for a total of 14. The course received approval from the University of California system to count as senior English. Thousands of teachers were trained to teach it, in hundreds of schools throughout the state. The program is still growing.
The assignment template and a list of the modules can be seen on the Chancellor’s Office ERWC website.
Why is the ERWC so popular? In part, I think it has to do with the following principles that we derived from it after we had created it:
- The integration of interactive reading and writing processes;
- A rhetorical approach to texts that fosters critical thinking;
- Materials and themes that engage student interest and provide a foundation for principled debate and argument;
- Classroom activities designed to model and foster successful practices of fluent readers and writers;
- Research-based methodologies with a consistent relationship between theory and practice;
- Built-in flexibility to allow teachers to respond to varied students’ needs and instructional contexts; and
- Alignment with English-Language Arts Content Standards.
Another factor is unprecedented collaboration between CSU, the California Department of Education (CDE), County Offices of Education, local school districts, and many others. Still another is the way the original task force worked together, and the talent and energy of subsequent members. However, the biggest factor of all is that teachers and students like the materials. Teachers like the flexibility, and the balance between structure and choice; students like the topics, the discussions, the opportunity to disagree with assigned texts, and the rhetorical and analytical strategies they learn. There is a lot of grassroots buy-in.
Now we are six years down this road. The leadership conference had sessions on adopting the course at a school site, using the materials in pre-service education courses, online materials and activities to be integrated with the course, and orientation sessions for new workshop leaders. However, the most interesting to me was a session put on by teachers who had gotten a California Academic Partnership Program (CAPP) grant to develop materials and assessments at their particular schools. They were not only teaching the course, but they were developing pre and post tests, mid-course assessments, new assignments and ancillary materials. The most amazing thing, however, was that they were gathering statistical data from many sources and using their assessments to analyze the needs of their students and designing activities to meet those needs. They were teacher-researcher-curriculum designers, working in environments where the official effort often demands absolute fidelity to some mass produced teacher-proof curriculum that doesn’t excite or engage anybody. And they could prove that the ERWC with their adjustments was more effective than the expensive curricular tome from the huge publishing conglomerate.
This made my heart sing. Of course, no one knows if any of this will survive the current budget mess. However, in many districts the expensive tomes are due for replacement and the ERWC is way cheaper. Perhaps there is hope.