Reflections on Assessment and the Acquisition of Writing Skill in French 123
During my time as the department representative of World Languages and Cultures on the Bronx Community College Assessment Council, 2015-2017, I developed a rubric for assessing compositions that were part of the French 111 (introductory course) final examination. Students had access to the rubric in advance of the assignment so that they could familiarize themselves with the parameters of evaluation. A typical writing component of the final exam consisted of one paragraph of at least 8 to 10 complete sentences, and students could choose between two topics. This section was worth 20% of the total points on the examination, and the examination itself was worth 20% of the student’s final grade. It should be noted that students had opportunities to see results of compositions that were part of previous assignments and tests before having to construct their own on the final examination. However, the topics were not the same on the final examination as they were for prior assignments and evaluations for a couple of reasons. Chief among them is that as students acquire more vocabulary, they need to reinforce it. Secondly, to avoid the possibility of a student memorizing a composition, or at least significant parts of it. In preparing the compositions to be assessed across all sections of FRN 111, the department utilized uniform standards. Students readily accepted the idea of a writing requirement constituting one of the four skills upon which their performance would be based: listening, speaking, reading and writing. However, they were not accustomed to a systematized method of evaluation of their writing. I am pleased to state that for the most part, once they were able to incorporate the concept of clear and unclear writing, even at an elementary stage of the language, they were also motivated by the idea that intelligible, grammatically accurate and well-linked sentences would result in better communication skills and a higher score.
After having taught many sections of introductory and intermediate French classes, I was eager to see student writing in our upper level classes. In the fall of 2017, I taught the inaugural section of French 123, Francophone Caribbean Culture, a Pathways Bucket A course I designed that students can apply as a language credit or an elective. The course is for native or advanced level speakers of French. Although language is the vehicle, FRN 123 combines elements of literature, history, anthropology and cultural studies. It explores in depth the connection between language and identity in ways that other language courses do not. After having taught the course twice, I chose to teach it as a Writing Intensive (WI) course in the spring of 2019. There are certain aspects of teaching a course of this nature that require modifications in the pedagogical approach and strategy. For example, in FRN 123 WI, some students met with me before the class began and expressed their concerns about their writing skills as well as their insecurities about their ability to improve them. The final research paper is worth 20% of the grade in my WI section. It must be a minimum of five pages exclusive of references and works cited. Therefore, setting them at ease was paramount, and consequently I adopted the following measures: I distributed the rubric for writing assignments that I had constructed on the first day of class together with thorough instructions about the topic for the final paper. It bears mention that the focus for the final paper allowed for some student agency. In that section, students were responsible for a critical analysis of certain aspects of the book-length emblematic poem by Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), one of the founding members of the Négritude movement: Cahier d’un retour au pays natal.
For the next step, I sought permission from previous students to present their work anonymously, and together with my new students, we went over the final papers. With the rubric in hand, I asked the students to assign a grade. I did this to encourage discussion about the basis for evaluation in a relevant and productive manner. I also wanted the students to have the opportunity to be active participants in the process of determining and carrying out a shared goal of writing excellence. After the discussion, students were assigned a paper that they had to submit for a baseline grade. This was done so that both the students and I could determine their starting point of skill level. Throughout the course, it became increasingly evident that the first assignment served as a scaffolding to the second one, and the second served as a scaffolding to the final one.
Comparing the students’ overall mastery of writing skills between the baseline writing assignment and the final paper, I am pleased to report that I noticed that throughout the course, as a result of a more thorough understanding of writing practices and how they are evaluated in this context, students asked more sophisticated questions. Although in teaching and learning the paradigm of reading improving writing is often cited, in FRN 123 WI I found that increased writing and repeated exposure to salient characteristics of exceptional writing increased the students’ reading comprehension. This in turn made them superior providers of a context when needed in their writing. The structure of the students’ essays also showed substantial progress over the course of a semester. In general, I am quite proud of how the students were able to achieve more nuanced arguments in their writing assignments.
It bears mention that in order to avoid any suggestion of plagiarism, I taught students how to quote and cite sources. Moreover, all writing assignments had a required bibliographical component. In addition to showing students how to cite properly, I demonstrated cases of digital plagiarism. In fact, we also conducted a spontaneous plagiarism exercise by writing a sentence and seeing the kinds of results that it produced. Students found the activity quite curious, and it served as a way to teach a serious point in a reassuring manner. My experience teaching native speakers of French a WI section was, I believe, promising and mutually enriching. I look forward to continuing to instruct students about Francophone Caribbean Culture and writing in future classes.
Wedsly Turenne Guerrier is an Associate Professor, French Language Coordinator, and Deputy Chair for the Department of World Languages and Cultures at Bronx Community College, CUNY.
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