My last blog was on two books passed along to me while I was learning about Stretch composition: Anne Beaufort’s College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction and Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do. These helpful studies and surveys prove useful in the service of thinking about our composition work and our teaching craft. In reading these thoughtful and innovative approaches to effective pedagogy, I was excited to see how their new composition framework and best teaching practices aligned with our developing Stretch-Acceleration Composition Program’s structure, approach, and goals.
As we create a new program, of course it is instructive to look at existing models. Arizona State University’s Stretch program, first piloted in 1993, is the primary model for such composition programs. Gregory R. Glau, Director of Writing Programs at A.S.U., offers a researched, evaluative, self-reflective, and certainly informative article: “Stretch at 10: A Progress Report on Arizona State University’s Stretch Program” (Journal of Basic Writing, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2007).
In the article, Glau rehearses the history of building and instituting the program that aimed to incorporate “basic writers,” who were then in classes outside the university, into the university curriculum and move them beyond the “remedial” writing classes (30-31). At the time, this was a radical notion encompassing a shift in the way the classes were conceived and students were labeled, and how the profession addressed issues of error and writing competency. Institutionally, an important shift was to construct Stretch classes that were part of first year composition; this moves beyond previous constructions of classes outside or lower, and marked as simply lesser than, traditional English 101 courses. Stretch makes all the composition students part of the first-year writing component.
There are many findings within the article that can light our path and reinforce our work. For example, according to Glau and the students, the writing students kept together over the terms report “building a successful writing community” (33). The students come together, take responsibility for the group, and build an important learning space; this is a key goal of the Stretch Acceleration cohort. Additionally, A.S.U.’s Stretch students also “feel the sequence improved their writing (about 90% say so)” (43). These notes are certainly encouraging.
In addition to such valuable qualitative aspects, there are key findings within the quantifiable results. (I leave out the data sets and statistics here as the article details the effective numbers and offer charts and graphs). In Glau’s work with Arizona’s diverse student population, he has found that the Stretch program works for particular “at-risk” student populations. In fact, A.S.U.’s implementation of Stretch also immediately improved retention rates (38). This is encouraging in terms of our situation at PCC. The STACC program can work with our many students belonging to historically under-represented groups. The article shows that these students can pass at a higher rate (than in the standard courses) and also go on to succeed in their next English and Composition courses.
Of course, it is affirming to hear that “most of the data indicates that the Stretch concept actually works and that thousands of students have benefited from the extra time and guided writing experience…” (34). However, Glau also usefully points out possibilities for improvement. And we can address these as we conceive our project and implement the program.
The study shows that smaller class size has increased retention (43). Nevertheless, even A.S.U.’s award-winning and proven program struggles with enrollment pressures and increased class sizes. While small classes are ideal, within the current budget crisis and demand for college education, I’m not sure that such classes (with less than 20 students, per the article) can be a viable possibility. I wonder what, if anything, could be done on this account.
Also, Glau regretfully notes that A.S.U. lacks any form of Directed Self-Placement or mandatory orientation (36). This is something the STACC team is addressing. We’re currently working on Directed Self-Placement for our PCC students. This system of placement for motivated and self-selected students can positively impact the Stretch student experience and may also lead to stronger success rates.
Stretch Composition, formed out of an examination and reworking of basic composition teaching, is premised on ways that students can best learn to read and write. Within the Stretch program, the class extension, the spacing, the scaffolding of assignments, and the student cohort are the means through which we have students do university level work and take responsibility for their own education. As the A.S.U. program demonstrates, the Stretch composition course model has proven to be successful. Yet, does Stretch still appear as a challenging and perhaps radical idea?