Algebrish: A winning formula
07.18.2016 | By Rob Vanya
Course linking math, English gains national attention
San Jacinto College’s unique collaborative course that incorporates algebra and English composition was a hit from the start and is now gaining national attention.
Because of the success of the course (informally called “Algebrish”) professors Dr. Karen Hattaway and Kate Dinwiddie, who teach the composition and math components respectively, were invited to be presenters at the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) conference held recently in Austin.
In the linked math-English course, students work in a “cohort” model, staying together for both subjects, which are taught in tandem by an English professor and a math professor. Students who complete the linked course satisfy the math portion as well as one of the two communication components of basic college core requirements.
The course, that will soon begin its fourth semester at the North Campus, is taught in a “learning community” environment that includes mentoring and tutoring. “Students have peer support in and out of the classroom,” remarked Mark Johnson, North Campus language arts department chair. “They also receive specialized instructor support in and out of the classroom.”
Hattaway explained that the algebra and English components are actually two separate courses, not one course that combines algebra and English. “Students earn six hours of credit, working together in algebra on Mondays and Wednesdays, and then again in English on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” she said. “The emphasis is on creating a community of learners. Studies show that learning communities support uncertain students more than stand-alone courses because the students have a recognized circle of classmates who become colleagues in learning.”
Hattaway said such a concept fosters and improves critical thinking so that students can succeed in upper-division courses and in the business community. “Our industry partners say that some graduates cannot write clear reports, engage in business discourse or apply their learning or industry experience to new situations,” she commented. “There is a recent trend to split STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) from humanities with the result that STEM majors often struggle to express their ideas well enough to function in an information-heavy business environment. For students to succeed in a science and information age, they must be able to explain what they know and how this knowledge contributes to industry decisions. After all, even rocket science has to be explained to government budget developers.”
The algebra-English course is available at the North Campus and is offered exclusively in a traditional classroom environment, not in an online or hybrid format. Johnson said there have been discussions about offering similar courses at the Central and South campuses.
Data thus far suggests the linked course provides a productive choice for students. Retention and success rates for algebra are significantly higher than state and San Jacinto College District levels, and English composition retention and success rates (A-C) are as high or higher than district rates.
Student feedback has been mostly positive. “We asked students to provide comments,” Hattaway said. “Tonya Volker, who made an A in both classes, had this to say: ‘After an education gap of nearly 11 years, it was scary to think of taking classes like algebra or English again. Having teachers that are working together for your success is a big bonus. They both have the same students and can see where an individual needs help in two different areas. I knew if I was having a problem in one class there wasn’t just one teacher there to talk to, but two. In a fairytale world, all classes would be this way.’”
Johnson said the novel concept explores the power of narrative in math and English. “Give a person some facts and part of the brain lights up; tell a person a story and the whole brain lights up,” he commented. “The goal is to help students think differently about algebra and composition, two courses that can hold back students from completing degrees.”
In order to be properly prepared to teach the collaborative course, Hattaway and Dinwiddie (both veteran educators) decided they should go “back to school” in a sense. Hattaway gave Dinwiddie a refresher course in English composition, and Dinwiddie returned the favor, giving Hattaway a refresher course in college algebra. Hattaway said she felt like a dunce while taking the algebra course, but Dinwiddie quickly said that Hattaway was being modest and was actually a quick learner. In like manner, Dinwiddie said she felt like she was a poor comp student, but Hattaway said the math teacher was an excellent student.
Watch Hattaway and Dinwiddie prepare a lesson plan together:
About San Jacinto College
Surrounded by monuments of history, industries and maritime enterprises of today, and the space age of tomorrow, San Jacinto College has been serving the citizens of East Harris County, Texas, for more than 50 years. As an Achieving the Dream Leader College, San Jacinto College is committed to the goals and aspirations of a diverse population of approximately 30,000 credit students. The College offers 186 degrees and certificates, with 46 technical programs and a university transfer division. Students benefit from a support system that maps out a pathway for success, and job training programs that are renowned for meeting the needs of growing industries in the region. San Jacinto College graduates contribute nearly $690 million each year to the Texas workforce.