Karen Keller & Tina Margolis
A History/English Learning Community at Westchester Community College
Karen Keller, MA, MBA & Tina Margolis, Ph.D.
Westchester Community College, Adjunct Faculty
In 2010, Professor Barbara Connolly, Chair of the History Department at Westchester Community College (New York), initiated an interdisciplinary Learning Community pilot project. Motivated by her realization that some students did not possess the requisite skills to produce a college-level history research paper, and a belief in the value of collaborative teaching and learning, Connolly and her counterpart in the English Department, Professor Frank Madden, gave the green light to a linked 20th Century United States History course and a Composition and Literature I course (freshman English). The objectives were to modify the curriculums of both classes in order to emphasize the analysis of historical texts and primary sources. Both classes, as well, were to concentrate on writing skills such as composing analytical summaries, developing thesis statements, and using MLA format. Focused writing opportunities throughout the semester were presented in both courses.
WRITING TO LEARN*
The Learning Community employs a "writing to learn" strategy in order to improve students' skill sets. Within the context of the Learning Community, writing to learn means that students write research papers throughout the semester rather than just produce one research paper at the end of the semester. They also have the opportunity to write papers in stages and revise each stage to improve their grade. The Learning Community identified five basic areas comprising the writing to learn strategy: Content, Theme, Bias, Research and Documentation.
Based upon practice and repeated emphasis in the five areas listed above, we would anticipate the outcomes of the Learning Community to include:
• Extended and enhanced knowledge of 20th Century U.S. History topics through fiction, art and film.
•Improved ability to read for argument
•Improved and more advanced techniques for historical research
•Greater understanding of appropriate sources for historical research
•Improved Proficiency in MLA citation/documentation format
STANDARD CURRICULUM VS. LEARNING COMMUNITY CURRICULUM:
20TH CENTURY UNITED STATES HISTORY COURSE
The curriculum offered in a standard 20th Century U.S. History course includes a textbook, secondary sources (primarily articles in scholarly journals) and primary sources. The format of the course is primarily lecture/discussion covering textbook topics and additional assigned primary source material. Students also attend two mandatory library classes with a College research librarian, who, along with the history instructor teaches MLA format and research techniques. Assessments in the standard curriculum include weekly short answer quizzes, a short answer and short essay in-class mid term exam, a short answer and short essay in-class final exam and a 7 to 9 page research paper due on last day of class that required students to choose from 2 to three topics and undertake primary and secondary source research for the paper.
The Learning Community curriculum for the 20th Century U.S. History is designed to Improve students’ history writing by modifying and expanding the standard course curriculum in significant ways. Employing the writing to learn strategy, students begin to write immediately in a variety of genres throughout the semester to obtain improvement through practice over time. Included in these writing genres are:
Summarization: Students search for, analyze and summarize NYTimes
newspaper articles on
a bi-weekly basis.
Write and Revise: Students write two history research papers in stages with opportunities to revise each stage, thus building experience and competency in the following areas: Research, Thesis, Outline, First Draft, Final Draft.
In-class essay: Students write an in-class 500-word essay as part of the final exam.
Independent writing: Students write one history research paper completely independently, with no revision, due on the last day of class.
The Learning Community also provides students with double the number of library classes taught by the English and History faculty and a Research Librarian.
ASSIGNMENT EXAMPLE: “STAGED” HISTORY RESEARCH PAPER ON THE PROGRESSIVE ERA
For this paper, students were assigned and then asked to use an excerpt from 20 Years at Hull House by Jane Addams (1910) and the speech "Hyphenated Americanism" by Theodore Roosevelt (1915). They were also asked to conduct a JSTOR search for two articles, "Tinkerers, Tipplers, and Traitors: Ethnicity and Democratic Reform in Nebraska during the Progressive Era" by Burton Folsom, and "Urban Liberalism and the Age of Reform" by J. Joseph Huthmacher. Subsequently, students were required to write a 5-page "agree-disagree" paper on the claim "Progressive Era ideology did not actually benefit immigrants and minority groups, rather, Progressives merely sought to better control these groups." Students were required to read, analyze and cite all four sources in the paper.
Students received instruction on how to develop a thesis, how write an outline, and how to do a JSTOR search in Comp & Lit I and the library classes. Each stage of the paper was reviewed and graded by the history instructor. Students had the opportunity to revise each stage for additional points.
STANDARD CURRICULUM VS. LEARNING COMMUNITY CURRICULUM
COMPOSITION AND LITERATURE I
The English Department standard curriculum for Comp and Lit I requires that the readings for this class comprise at least 55% nonfiction and at most 45% fiction. These proportions were maintained. What changed significantly in the modified Learning Community curriculum was the content.
Visual Literacy was the first unit covered. The specific points for analyzing images were assigned and discussed. Students were then assigned a short paper whose topic involved the analysis of an advertisement. After students presented their short papers in class and received comments, a research paper on an image of the U.S. (a painting, photograph, poster, etc.) dating from 1860 to 1929 was assigned. This time period coincided with the first units of the material covered in the 20th Century U.S. History course.
The purpose of focusing on visual literacy first was to bring historical periods to life and help students understand bias, have more evidence to help form a thesis statement and understand and use primary sources. Every unit after this incorporated visual documentation and discussion as part of our understanding and interpretation of events. A number of skills, such as brainstorming, basic outlining, quoting, and thesis writing, were reviewed in order to facilitate the composition of research papers. Four library sessions (double the usual number) were scheduled to provide students with "hands-on" research experience and immediate feedback on narrowing a topic, determining acceptable sources, constructing a paper in MLA format, and more. As an assessment, part one of an in-class exam included short-answer questions on MLA format, plagiarism, and research. Part two of the exam was a 5-paragraph open-book essay in which students were expected to quote and cite in MLA format from assigned sources.
Furthermore, the standard Comp and Lit I curriculum was modified by assigning three research papers instead of one. For each paper, students were expected to use more sources and write longer essays than the previous one. Coupled with the staged papers in history, this was designed to offer students overlapping skills and practice in academic research and writing.
SAMPLE ASSIGNMENT: COORDINATED LEARNING UNIT
During the classes that Professor Keller was discussing the Progressive Movement, the Comp and Lit I class focused on the events preceding, during, and following the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. Fire (NYC 1911). As with each of the other topics covered, this unit started with visual images. One image in particular was captioned (according to the Cornell University Collection site) "The bodies of seamstresses, who jumped from the factory floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company to avoid being burned alive, lie outside the building." This photograph, attributed to "the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union" prepared the class for the historical written account by verifying and personalizing the subject. It demonstrated how photographs can be used in forming evidence and thesis statements. It also served as a catalyst for further discussions about bias in reporting and photographing.
THE LEARNING COMMUNITY: ACCOMMODATIONS AND INSIGHTS TO DATE
Even though we are only mid-way through the pilot program, we have learned a great deal of useful information. In particular, we have realized that for some of the students, particularly our several international students, more basic work was needed in several components of college work such as summarizing, thesis development, outlining, reading for comprehension, and library usage in order for them to fully benefit from the Learning Community. As a result we have modified the curriculum and added more instruction in these areas during class time in Comp and Lit I and in the library sessions. Also, in the history class students are allowed more time and more opportunities for revisions than had been initially estimated. We will continue to make these kinds of class format modifications as the courses progress.
We have begun to think that perhaps in the future we might modify the parameters of the Learning Community by linking the next level of English class, Composition & Literature II, with the 20th Century U.S. History class. This, we would expect, would allow us to proceed at a faster pace and more in depth with students who already would have more of the basic and necessary skill sets such as narrowing a topic, outlining, and creating a works cited page in correct MLA format. This would probably be more comfortable, beneficial, and realistic in terms of students’ realizing the benefits of the Learning Community.
If we do recommend and proceed with a Comp & Lit II course, the English component, primarily, would change. Specifically, the English texts would be a broad range of fiction genres and works revolving around the history timeline and themes. This change in the English component of the Learning Community would be more interesting for the students and give them a broader exposure to the historical themes.
First and foremost we want to evaluate and compare students’ writing and skills from the beginning to the end of the course. We would hope to see significant improvement in all areas of students’ research and writing. If possible we would also like to compare the final research paper of a standard 20th Century U.S. History course with the final research paper of the Learning Community students. Again we would hope to see a significant difference in quality between the students who had experienced the Learning Community courses and those who had not. We anticipate developing a student questionnaire, distinct from the standard College teacher / class evaluation, to measure students’ reactions and opinions about the benefits of the Learning Community and their thoughts on how to improve the Learning Community. Finally we want to bring into the mix the two research librarians with whom we have worked to determine their reactions to the curriculum, how well students were able to think and write across the curriculum, perceptions of the students’ improvement and suggestions for how to improve the Learning Community in the future.
* Writing to Learn is a pedagogical strategy that is examined thoroughly in Engaging Ideas by John C. Bean.