~ By Jefferson Beavers, communications specialist, Department of English

The Fresno State faculty who are teaching in the Rhetoric & Writing Studies program in the Department of English are working to change the conversation about writing on campus, in the community, and beyond. This fall, we will introduce you to these professors and tell you about the ways in which their research, teaching, and service to both the university and to the discipline intersect.

In our third installment, meet Dr. Virginia Crisco, an associate professor of English who came to Fresno State in 2005.

Question: What is your area of focus within Rhetoric & Writing Studies, and how does that inform your teaching of writing?

Answer: The majority of my work is in teacher development. As the co-director of the First-Year Writing Program, I manage and update the template curriculum (the model that the teachers use), and professionalize new teaching associates (TAs) through orientations, observations and coursework. I also teach classes for our English Education Program, in particular English 131, Literacy Studies, which is an undergraduate course for students who want to be secondary teachers. And I conduct professional learning workshops with secondary teachers throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

As far as my research areas, I am currently working on some new scholarship focusing on the implementation of Universal Design for Learning. UDL is a theory and a pedagogy (or, teaching approach) to address the variety of learners in a classroom, including students with disabilities, English learners, high-performing students, low-performing students, and average students. UDL uses multiple means of representation, action and expression, and motivation to cultivate expert learners. In other words, teachers create options for reading, writing, and motivation to address the needs of students in order to cultivate their abilities to, for example, set goals, persist through difficult tasks, find motivation, keep track of progress, and reflect on what they have learned and what they are able to do.

UDL uses multiple means of representation, action and expression, and motivation to cultivate expert learners. In other words, teachers create options for reading, writing, and motivation to address the needs of students in order to cultivate their abilities to, for example, set goals, persist through difficult tasks, find motivation, keep track of progress, and reflect on what they have learned and what they are able to do.

The research on UDL shows that diverse students, in particular, can outperform their more high-performing peers through this focus on both developing expert learners and learning content. Currently, this research is being sponsored by a $12 million federal Investing in Innovation (i3) Validation Grant, so I am applying what I’ve learned to support teachers and teacher leaders to implement UDL practices in 11th and 12th grade English Language Arts classrooms in California and Washington, forthcoming in 2018.

Q: How does your research and work as a teacher/scholar engage the campus, community, and the discipline as a whole, on the conversation about how and why we write?

A: My research and work as a teacher and administrator focus on the connection between high school and college writing. Our First-Year Writing Program is at the center of this work. We use a Directed Self-Placement approach – instead of a standardized test, which research shows places students correctly only about 50% to 60% of the time. Directed Self-Placement is a process for students to choose which first-year writing class or set of classes they want to take to complete the first-year writing requirement.

We give students an inventory for them to consider their experiences with writing as well as their confidence as readers and writers to support them in choosing their class or set of classes. We have found that 80% to 90% of students feel that they made the right choice in classes at the end of their course or courses. Additionally, the curriculum in first-year writing focuses, as much as possible, on the kinds of writing that

Additionally, the curriculum in first-year writing focuses, as much as possible, on the kinds of writing that exist in the world and supports students in taking up those real-world writing tasks for purposes that matter to them. We challenge ideas that one kind of writing, for example, the five-paragraph essay, is the only kind of writing students need.

We also want to make writing relevant to students, and a key way to do this is to show how real writing works in the world. So the message we send to teachers and to students is that anyone can be a writer, that writing is necessary for a productive civic and professional (and personal) life, and that there are ways to analyze writing to take up those writing practices and use them in new contexts.

Additionally, I coordinate summer writing programs on campus such as Early Start English and Summer Bridge, so I work in those spaces to make sure that students have a good bridge to their college experience. Because I conduct professional learning with high school teachers on the Expository Reading and Writing Curriculum, and because that curriculum is taught throughout the Central Valley, I am able to better imagine what information students come into college with and build from that knowledge in the summer courses, which then leads them into college writing.

Finally, I conduct workshops with secondary teachers in the community through the Expository Reading and Writing Course Professional Learning as well as with the National Writing Project. For these professional learning opportunities, I have several research-informed ideas that I try to spread to English Language Arts teachers including:

  • Teach writing rather than assign writing.
  • Give students real contexts and real audiences for writing.
  • Teach genre awareness to foster transfer of learning.
  • Sponsor writing, revising and incorporating teacher and peer feedback to create better writers.
  • Support grammar as a creative process, not just a rule-following process, so writers see how to make choices.
  • Read for content and for rhetorical moves to show students how to use mentor texts they can then build on in writing their own texts.
  • Teach English Language Arts’ disciplinary expectations for good writing and help students recognize that each discipline has different literacy expectations.
  • Apply Universal Design for Learning to the high school writing classroom through reading approaches, writing approaches, process approaches and assessment approaches.

When teachers take up these ideas and practices, they send a message to their students about what writing is, how it functions, and how students can become better at it. These students then come better prepared going into the university, and we can start at a new place in teaching them about how to develop their abilities as writers.

Q: How do you involve or impact students, both graduate and undergraduate, in your research work and projects?

A: As I’ve said, my work impacts first-year writers, high school students, and current and future teachers of writing in secondary schools. But my work also impacts graduate students. Because I also support Teaching Associates (TAs) to become teachers, my scholarship informs TAs and helps them to design lessons and activities that can support first-year students in learning to develop their abilities as writers.

Additionally, I have worked with several graduate students on independent study courses and theses that help them consider, for example, how to support their Latinx students, how to develop self-efficacy in students through teaching writing, how to inform students of disciplinary literacies so they can use that knowledge in other contexts, and how to promote transfer of learning in the writing classroom and beyond.

Q: What are your other research interests?

A: An additional area of my research focuses on the role of women’s rhetoric in third-party politics. Looking at the writing that these women have created, I analyze their rhetorical practices in order to consider how they have used rhetoric to make change to their circumstances.

For example, I recently presented at the biennial Feminisms and Rhetorics conference on Belva Ann Lockwood, who ran for president for the Equal Rights Party in 1884 – 36 years before women were able to vote. This presentation focused on Lockwood’s understanding of institutional literacy and how that influenced her 15-point platform and run for president.

Previous to my current research, I focused my attention on the pedagogy and practice of Directed Self-Placement, the practice and process of teacher development, the community activist writing of adolescent youth writers of color in the classroom and community, the rhetoric and activism of Green Party politics, the role of Latinx language and literacy development in the writing classroom, and the integration and use of technology for literacy learning and development. My academia.edu page has a list of some of my published scholarship.