August 31, 2011

Achieving the Dream at PCCC

Today was scheduled to be the college convocation, but Hurricane Irene and a record flood stage on the Passaic River and the Great Falls here in Paterson has cancelled that.

One of the main topics for convocation was to be discussion on our participation in Achieving the Dream. Achieving the Dream is a national nonprofit dedicated to helping more community college students succeed, particularly students of color and low-income students. 

Achieving the Dream advances community college student success through work on four fronts: 

  1. Transforming community colleges 
  2. Influencing policy 
  3. Developing new knowledge 
  4. Engaging the public  

Passaic County Community College (PCCC) opened in 1971 with a few hundred students. Today, PCCC enrolls more than 8,000 students a year in over 60 associate degree, certificate, and diploma programs. The college is also home to an extensive program of ESL, continuing education, and customized training. The college operates four campus locations including the main campus in Paterson, academic centers in Passaic and Wanaque, and a public safety academy in Wayne, New Jersey. 

PCCC is federally-defined as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, one of approximately 230 such colleges and universities nationwide, and is among the most diverse colleges in the state and the nation. The Writing Initiative grant which we work on here is a Title V federal grant for Hispanic-Serving Institutions. 

The most recent graduating class of PCCC included students from 54 different nations. Serving a largely at-risk, disadvantaged student population, PCCC has students attending the college at varying levels of academic, social, and financial need. The total student enrollment for Fall 2009 was comprised of 48% Hispanic and Latino students and 17% were African American students. 

Improving student success is a goal of the college’s Strategic Plan, which is linked to PCCC's seven institutional goals. Passaic County also envisions the improvement of teaching and learning for diverse students, and the re-engineering of tutorial laboratory services for ESL and developmental students.

With the help and guidance of Achieving the Dream, the college seeks to:
  • Provide a learner-centered environment focused on student success
  • Make higher education accessible to the community they serve
  • Develop interventions targeting specific groups of at-risk students
Within the past seven years, PCCC has undertaken a comprehensive effort to improve student writing skills. In 2004, the college gathered data that indicated that poor student writing was prevalent throughout the institution and was therefore eroding the quality of academic programs. The college has since been able to establish a College Writing Center on its main campus, therefore providing students enrolled in writing intensive courses with access to writing support from trained tutors. PCCC leaders hope that Achieving the Dream will assist them in reallocating resources for their initiatives as well as help them to expand more promising programs and services.

August 25, 2011

PCCC Poetry Center Receives NEA Grant

The Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College (PCCC) has been awarded a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

The Poetry Center will use the funding to provide free poetry workshops to seniors in Passaic County and publish an anthology of their work.

The Poetry Center was founded in 1980 by Executive Director Maria Mazziotti Gillan. For over 30 years, it has organized quality programs that have brought it to national attention, such as the Paterson Literary Review, four poetry contests, and a cable TV show.

The Center reaches more than one million people annually, and is unique not only because of the number and variety of services it offers, but because of its connection with an urban, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic community. It brings national attention to our college.

The Poetry Center at PCCC is one of 1,145 not-for-profit national, regional, state, and local organizations recommended for a grant as part of the federal agency's second round of fiscal year 2011 grants. In total, the NEA will distribute more than $88 million to support projects nationwide.

Maria Gillan with then U.S.Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz
at a Poetry Center reading in 2001.

August 23, 2011

Research and Information Literacy

The headline "Students Lack Basic Research Skills, Study Finds" in a Wired Campus post had caught my attention last year and I printed it to use in a workshop.

Information literacy is one of the components in the writing intensive courses that are part of our grant project here at PCCC and we know that students still struggle with the process.

Using information from the Project Information Literacy Progress Report, the post cited several findings that we deal with in all our classes.
  1. 84% of students say that when it comes to course-based research, getting started is their biggest challenge. 
  2. The three sources cited most often by students were course readings, search engines like Google, and scholarly research databases. 
  3. Only 30% asked a librarian for research help. 
As an example from our WI courses, while a traditional research paper addresses all of the broadly defined information literacy (IL) competencies, we don't see that as the only - or always the best - means of assessing information literacy.

We actually encourage faculty to differentiate with students Research versus information literacy. Many of our students see research as only something that leads to a research paper.

We also encourage instructors to create assignments that may address only one or several of the IL competencies. For instance, a bibliography covers two of our stated competencies, while an annotated bibliography covers three others.

A two-part assignment from the one Western Civilization course demonstrates how our IL rubric can be used to assess competencies. Part 1 of the assignment asks the question "Does this website have an apparent bias?" for each website used. This can be assessed under the "Evaluation of Sources" criterion in the rubric, with some slight revisions tailored to the assignment. In this example, an answer on the "Beginner" level would demonstrate little or no recognition of the bias (or lack thereof) in the Web site. A "Developing" answer may demonstrate the recognition of bias but difficulty in articulating just what the bias is. A "Competent" answer would recognize the existence and the nature of the bias, and an "Accomplished" answer would demonstrate a recognition and explanation of the bias that is highly nuanced.

In the essay portion (Part 2) of the assignment, students have to compare their personal opinions (stated in a previous essay) with the opinion of others as found in the aforementioned Web sites. In this case, the students' essays can be evaluated under the "Uses information effectively in their writing assignments" criterion in the rubric. An essay on the "Beginner" level would use little or no information from the outside sources. A "Developing" essay would attempt to incorporate information from outside sources, and perhaps be off-topic at times. A "Competent" essay would use information from outside sources to support the topic and demonstrate some synthesis with their own ideas. An "Accomplished" essay would contain highly refined and articulated use of information from outside sources, as well as synthesis of this information with their own ideas.

Alison J. Head, a co-principal investigator for, feels that our students "feel overwhelmed, and they’re developing a strategy for not drowning in all information out there. They’re basically taking how they learned to research in high school with them to college, since it’s worked for them in the past.”

From my own classes, I know that students do see "research" as more of a quest for the "right answer" than as a process of evaluating different arguments and coming up with their own interpretation. That aspect is also something we deal with directly in the critical thinking component of the WI course sections. Unfortunately, we also find that many instructors actually discourage looking at different arguments or including the students' interpretations in their assignments. Although encouraging those two things in all assignments wouldn't be practical, in redesigning GenEd courses as WI sections, we found there was almost no opportunities for that kind of diversity of thought in the existing assignments.

“Not being aware of the diverse resources that exist or the different ways knowledge is created and shared is dangerous,” says Ms. Head. “College is a time to find information and learn about multiple arguments, and exploring gets sacrificed if you conduct research in this way.”

August 22, 2011

August Faculty Institute

This week, August 24 and 25, the Writing Initiative is holding a training institute for faculty taking over new sections of a developed Writing Intensive Course.
This Institute is designed to introduce faculty to the Initiative and WI course requirements, support services for both faculty and students, and handing over of materials previously developed by the original faculty member to teach the course. Developing new materials and tools and resources are also covered.

Participants are asked to bring a copy of the course textbook and any syllabus and writing assignments they already use in their version of the course.

Below are some of the topics covered over the 2 days.
  • Writing Initiative goals and requirements
  • Formal and informal writing
  • Creating new WI assignments  - examples & using  templates
  • Student portfolios: objectives, hands-on use of the eFolio product, sample student portfolios, grading strategies
  • Critical thinking assignments – template, rubrics
  • Information literacy assignments – template, rubrics
  • Responding to and grading student writing  - for content vs. for writing 
  • Using the Writing Center and online resources for online & face-to-face course sections
  • Hands-on session using LibGuides as an editor and adding links, resources, media objects etc.

August 9, 2011

Math Writing Intensive

This fall, College Math I will join Basic Statistics as the second WI course from the Math Department.

College Math is the first WI course to be simultaneously developed by multiple faculty members. Professors Fillmore Corpus, Kristina Oriente, and Kavita Patel collaborated to create the WI components of this course.

Three sections will pilot in the fall: one on the Paterson campus, one on the Wanaque campus, and one online. The hope is that it will eventually expand and be offered on the Passaic campus as well.

MA 101 offers a  broad introduction to the mathematical concepts of symbolic logic, sets, finite and infinite mathematical systems, as well as some history behind these concepts.

August 8, 2011

The PCCC Writing Center on the Road

During year 3 of the Initiative, the PCCC Writing Center provided services at the main campus in Paterson and also on our Wanaque (WAC) and Passaic (PAC) locations. Unfortunately, there is no permanent location for these services on either of the satellite campuses. We have used the tutoring/computer lab area at WAC and a computer lab at PAC during the past year.

As we compile our year 4 statistics on Center usage on all campuses, here are some stats and information on usage by students.

In all we met for 722 appointments and workshop attendees in Paterson in year 3. Unfortunately, use on both satellite campuses has been poor.At Wanaque, for example, Fall 2009 had only 10 reservations and Spring 2010 had 14 reservations.

It is difficult for us to justify budgeting the current tutor budget (or any increase in hours) for those other campuses with the low numbers we have experienced.

There have been some student requests for workshops on our other campuses, so we started scheduling workshops in Wanaque and Passaic starting in Oct. 2010.

No-shows continue to be an issue on all campuses with the number hovering at around 25% in Paterson and at WAC. ("No-shows" are appointments not kept and without prior contact by the student that they were unable to attend.) Weather has sometimes been a factor in this, as are the busy lives of our students. We hope that with some new approaches to reminding students of their appointments and with more students being able to schedule and cancel their own appointments online, no-shows will decrease.

The Writing Center in Paterson has been open during the summer the past two years although there are no writing intensive courses offered during the summer. The focus for summer has been supporting students preparing to retake the College Writing Exam.

August 4, 2011

Shakespeare in the State Park

The public is invited to the annual performance of Shakespeare in the State Park. This year's production will be The Tempest, presented by the Hudson Shakespeare Company, a nonprofit theater troupe that "utilizes the best young and experienced actors, directors and crew from around the tri-state area." The production will be presented in front of an 18th Century building within the Long Pond Ironworks Historic District.  For more information on this and other events there see

Shakespeare in the State Park is free and open to the public; the performance will begin at 5:00 p.m. Attendees are asked to bring lawn chairs and bug spray. The performance is ADA accessible. The Friends of Long Pond Ironworks will be offering cold water. Rain date is August 7. 

This project is funded, in part, by the Passaic County Cultural and Heritage Council at Passaic County Community College, made possible, in part, by funds from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts.