New unique course combines algebra, composition

07.20.2015 | By Rob Vanya

A new combined math and English course is coming to San Jacinto College. Math professor Kate Dinwiddie, left, will teach the algebra component of the new course at San Jacinto College, while English professor Dr. Karen Hattaway will teach the composition component. Photo credit: Rob Vanya, San Jacinto College marketing, public relations, and government affairs department.


Course encourages students to think differently about the two subjects


San Jacinto College will launch a collaborative course in the Fall 2015 semester that incorporates algebra and English composition.

The new course will link college algebra and introductory composition, both gateway core courses for all students who plan to either earn associate degrees or transfer to universities.

“This is a novel concept at San Jacinto College,” commented Mark Johnson, North Campus language arts department chair. “The course will explore 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. The goal is to help students think differently about algebra and composition, two courses that can hold back students from completing degrees.”

Johnson says research indicates there are strong correlations between success in language arts and success in math. He cites, for example, an essay by Dr. Gene Fite, Kansas City Public Schools curriculum coordinator, that states: “The cognitive ability that drives symbol processing is the connection between language and math. The symbol processing ability is the basis for both language proficiency and math achievement… Reading and math share common elements. They both involve abstract, symbolic cognitive processes, and they both require a working knowledge of the interaction of numerous discrete skills.”

Research also indicates that a key reason many students struggle in algebra is that they struggle reading and understanding the language that surrounds math. “In essence, they have difficulty understanding what is being asked of them,” commented Johnson. “They can ‘do’ the algebra, often, but fail at interpreting the verbal language around the math.” San Jacinto College’s new linked math-English course will help students to better interpret the narrative component that is integral to algebra.

In the linked math-English course, students will 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 will satisfy the math portion, as well as one of the two communication components of basic college core requirements.

The course will be taught in a “learning community” environment that includes mentoring and tutoring. “Students will have peer support in and out of the classroom,” remarked Johnson. “They also will receive specialized instructor support in and out of the classroom.”

English professor Dr. Karen Hattaway, who will teach the composition component, says the algebra and English are actually two separate courses that will be taught in a learning community, not one course that combines algebra and English. “Students will 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 says the goal is to foster and improve 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 new algebra-English course will be available at the North Campus, and will be offered exclusively in a traditional classroom environment, not in an online or hybrid format.

Watch Dr. Hattaway talk about the new learning community:


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.

For more information about San Jacinto College, please call 281-998-6150, visit, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.