Thursday, February 07, 2008

It's the Same, only Different

My second day of class today. We started working on an essay assignment based on personal knowledge and analysis. Basically, the assignment asks students to analyze their experience of something familiar and to think about it along some specific lines.

It's a good assignment for my English speaking first year writing students because it takes something familiar, but asks them to think and write in a college level way. They don't have to absorb and learn a ton of new material before starting to write and think about a college assignment. And it works pretty well at being what it is.

Writing well is sometimes counter-intuitive; sometimes it doesn't make sense right off the bat.

In this case, I ask students to start by listing some basic ideas. Then I share a list, and get them to work more on their lists. Then we share ideas on the board, and I ask them to add more to their list. They also give each other feedback about possible essay topics. The goal is to get them to think broadly and openly about possible "topics" for the essay they'll write within the assignment parameters. Intuitively, many students want to just grab a topic as quickly as possible, and start in.

But, counter to that, sometimes the writer makes a better choice after mulling a bit. It's hard to convince students to take the time to mull, though. In class, I do it by having them pre-write about several potential topics. Sometimes, they seem to think I'm nuts. But sometimes it works.

I learned a lot teaching today's class. We went a bit slower than I expected, because I needed to take time to explain some vocabulary on the syllabus and the short reading for today. That's important, and well worth the time, but I hadn't accounted for it fully. So we didn't get as far freewriting and pre-writing for the essay assigment as I had hoped we would. So I gave homework: take another thing from the list and freewrite/pre-write about it.

The class nodded when I gave the assignment and asked if they understood. All nods. And then about half the class came up afterwards to clarify one or another aspect.

So, obviously, I need to be clearer in giving the basic assignment! I sometimes need to be clearer with English speaking students, too. It's always something I work on.

I think it's especially hard because the assignment is counter-intuitive; it's asking them NOT to get started on the essay writing in any obvious way, but rather to step back and do "other stuff." IF I do my job well, then the "other stuff" does actually help them get started, but there's a sort of leap of faith in an instructor to doing that work in good faith. And then it's luck if it pays off quickly, rather than at some later date.

So, I'm taking it as a hopeful sign that they were willing to clarify the assignment with me, because it means they're willing to try that leap at least once. I hope I am worth the try.

What else I learned? All of my students have these amazing little computer dictionaries! WAY cool! And once I got them started at the beginning, they were really great at asking about vocabulary and such they weren't sure of. And really good at helping each other through my explanations. (The winners of today were "monstrosity" and "sprawl." You have to imagine me trying to explain "monster" along the way to "monstrosity." Yeah, I'm nothing if not graceful and suave in the classroom.) (One of my profs did the most amazing coelemate worm impression when I was an undergrad. He somehow got a whole hydrostatic "skeleton" thing going. I aspire to be half as memorable!)

They also had really cool sounding lists going once the got into the sharing phase. I hope that bodes well for interesting essays!

I'm aiming to play tourist in the imperial city tomorrow, and to visit something called the Path of Philosophy. Sounds cool, doesn't it?

I'm planning to take my camera along, hoping to take some pictures of some of they WAY cool birds I've been seeing!


  1. I usually have 20 or so Japanese students in my classes, and they always have those cool electronic dictionaries too. Often they even have the etymology of a word (which can be awkward if I have just told the class an etymology, and the dictionary contradicts me!)

    I wish my English native-speaker students would get these dictionaries too. It would improve their writing no end!

  2. Anonymous5:20 AM

    i did an assignment like that in college. we wrote about a personal experience. mine was about this time I went down to the river with my friends and we sailed paper boats. we had to share in a little group and I remember this other kid--he wrote about getting his ham radio license--asked if I was always this far out in left field.

    yeah well. i got an A.

  3. Don't take the after-class-clarification bit necessarily as a sign that you're being unclear. In classes with non-native speakers you can pretty much count on the answer to "do you have any questions" to be "no" or "does everyone understand" to be "yes" and then the private (or just after class) follow-up to occur.

    I could cite sources and such but I'm being lazy right now. I just wanted to step in and say it's not necessarily you -- it's a culture/education style thing.

  4. I've had similar experiences with my Chinese students: nod nod nod in class, then a bunch of individual questions to clarify the assignment. And those little translators are great, but sometimes they offer bizarre suggestions, such as the time the Chinese student e-mailed me to say that she wouldn't be in class because she had a pain in her "tripes."

  5. OK, this is kind of cringe-worthy, but I have to share. The Chinese kids in summer-school classes had an offensive (but kind of clever) word for those computer translators. Since most of the kids I taught were either first or second generation Americans themselves, they looked down on the kids who needed the translators. Since their offensive word for the kids was "FOB" (for "fresh off the boat"), their word for the computer dictionaries was.....



  6. That was supposed to say the Chinese kids *I taught* in summer classes...Just so you know where I'm getting this story from.

  7. Fifi Bluestocking2:41 PM

    Hello Bardiac. I'm reading this late and I'm sure you've worked it out but wanted to say that the nodding is definitely a cultural difference. The students are telling you that they are listening, not that they understand. That's what I was told and that was my experience teaching over there. You are making me very nostalgic for my Japan days!