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Date: Wed, 13 Apr 2005 10:24:09 -0600 (MDT) From: Silvia Rossi Subject: Crossing the Curriculum: Multilingual Learners in College Classrooms
EDITORS: Zamel, Vivian; Spack, Ruth TITLE: Crossing the Curriculum SUBTITLE: Multilingual Learners in College Classrooms PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates YEAR: 2004
Silvia Rossi, Department of French, Italian and Spanish, University of Calgary, Canada
This volume is a collection of thirteen essays exploring the issues surrounding English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students' experiences in mainstream college classrooms. Three perspectives -- the researcher's, the student's and the teacher's -- are represented and account for the division of the volume into three parts.
PART I -- Investigating Students' Experiences Across the Curriculum: Through the Eyes of Classroom Researchers
Co-editor Vivian Zamel begins Chapter 1 by contrasting two faculty responses to a survey she conducted about working with non-native speakers of English. The underlying assumptions of each response are brought to light, and their implications discussed. Sample responses from a separate survey of ESOL students follow, revealing the expectations these students have of the faculty members who teach them. Next, Zamel summarizes the experiences of two individual ESOL students with whom she conducted longitudinal case studies. (These same two students describe their individual experiences in greater detail in Part II of the volume.) Some of the reasons why ESOL and other writing-based courses are often relegated to the margins of academic institutions are then identified, and to finish the chapter, Zamel comments on progress she has made in working with faculty at different institutions. She states that "by looking for evidence of students' intelligence, by rereading their attempts as coherent efforts, by valuing, not just evaluating, their work, and by reflecting on the critical relationship between our work and theirs -- opportunities are created not only for students but for teachers to learn in new ways".
In Chapter 2, co-editor Ruth Spack reports on her three-year case study of one Japanese ESOL undergraduate student. The student's progress through different undergraduate courses is traced through descriptions of her attitudes toward course reading, assignments and the marks she received. During her first year, the student attributed her inability to manage coursework, and particularly to keep up with readings, to a lack of background knowledge. In the second year, however, she began to develop new strategies for reading, partly thanks to her first-year ESOL writing courses. By the third year, she was feeling more confident, and for the first time recognized the advantages that came from having lived and studied in more than one country. She also came to see the process of teaching and learning as one involving the construction of knowledge. After stating some of the implications of her research, Spack suggests that a new pedagogical model be developed -- one in which the "more contextualized and culture-based approach of constructive-developmental theorists" is favoured over the traditional monocultural perspective, "the cross-cultural implications of expecting students to produce a certain kind of discourse" are questioned, and assumptions about the nature of Western rhetoric are re-evaluated.
In Chapter 3, Marilyn Sternglass describes the experience of one participant in her 6-year longitudinal study. Despite initially failing a standardized writing assessment test, this student from the Dominican Republic went on to succeed in her college studies and even to complete a Master's degree in psychology. In each of the six years described, special attention is given to the role of writing in the student's academic development. Over the six-year period, the student used writing in her learning in three main ways: "to help her remember facts, to delve more deeply into ideas and theories from an analytical perspective so that she could apply these theories, and to develop new insights that led her to original research projects". Sternglass' eventual conclusion is that both aspects of writing, focus on form and focus on content, need to be nurtured over time. Instructors should praise content while simultaneously encouraging students to improve their form.
In Chapter 4, Trudy Smoke revisits a 4-year longitudinal case study of a Chinese student's progress in her college studies in order to focus on five assignments in particular. Through the descriptions of these assignments, the reader understands how the student "turned the assignments, the feedback she received on them, and the problems she encountered with them into learning experiences". An additional focus of the chapter is the contributions of graduate students in the City University of New York (CUNY) Writing Fellows program, who assist faculty in implementing writing-to-learn pedagogy initiatives. Writing Fellows often play the role of intermediaries between faculty and ESOL students, helping faculty members to become aware of difficulties ESOL students are experiencing, and helping students to better understand what is expected of them on assignments.
The final chapter in Part I features a description by Eleanor Kutz of a project she developed for her first-year composition course in which students investigate the discourse of one of their college courses. The rationale for the project is the conviction that the problems of advanced ESOL learners are more related to discourse-learning than they are to language-learning. Four ESOL students' assignments are discussed, revealing the importance of "seeing the big picture" for academic success, and demonstrating the process of moving from outsider to insider status within a discourse community. The emphasis is not so much on the uniqueness of the ESOL student experience, but rather on the fact that all students, regardless of language background, need to learn to negotiate a role within each new discourse community they enter.
PART II -- Learning Across the Curriculum: Through Students' Eyes
Chapter 6 is a passionate and often poetic first-hand account of a Colombian student's experience negotiating a freshman seminar and courses in chemistry, literature and biology. Martha Muñoz discusses the classroom practices which enhanced or inhibited her learning. Professors who showed passion for their subject matter and a genuine commitment to creating a bridge for students to get through difficult material were an inspiration. Successful techniques these professors used were weekly letters for in-class exchange among students, interactive journals and presentations in which students taught each other. In contrast, professors who lectured without making a personal connection with students and who had unreasonable assumptions about students' background knowledge were a disappointment. Particularly interesting in this chapter are the sections in which the student comments on how she took skills learned in her ESOL classes and applied them successfully to her other coursework.
Chapter 7 is another very personal student account, this time from Japanese sociology major Motoko Kainose. Motoko first discusses the prevalent stereotype of ESOL students as "neither writing nor speaking as efficiently and effectively as other non ESL students" in the context of a painful experience she had in one of her classes. Then, in a section entitled "The Sounds of Silence", she traces the progress of a philosophy class she took in which the level of student participation gradually decreased over time, discussing how this situation puzzled her and explaining why she found it so difficult to speak up in class. What follows is a fascinating account of how Motoko eventually turned to some of the learning strategies and traditional forms of self-discipline she had used in her native Japan in order to succeed in a particularly challenging sociology course. In the fourth section, Motoko shares her observations of Chinese students' behaviour in a Chinese literature course, helping to break down the common myth of the "mute" Chinese student in the process. A final section highlights the importance of teacher commentary on student assignments for motivation.
PART III -- Engaging Students in Learning: Through the Eyes of Faculty Across the Curriculum
In Chapter 8, Tim Sieber emphasizes the "head start" ESOL students have over other students in meeting the goals of his cultural anthropology course. Their bi- or multi-cultural backgrounds give them an advanced understanding of the subject matter. The chapter contains a strong focus on the role of writing to promote critical thinking, and the author explains how he moved from viewing ESOL students' tendency to discuss their personal experiences in their writing as a weakness, to seeing this practice as valuable because it contributes to the development of critical thinking skills. The three types of writing used in the course -- spontaneous in-class responses, a weekly ungraded critical reading journal, and more formal, longer essays -- are each justified. Several examples of student writing are provided, illustrating both the nature of connections ESOL students make between their personal experience and class material, and the pressure they feel to conform to their largely monocultural post-secondary environment.. Sieber comments on his personal transformation from seeing his role as a "grammar policeman" in evaluating ESOL students' writing to understanding that "this type of response to student writing was not effectively recognizing and promoting students' intellectual development". Some final remarks point to the danger of idealizing ESOL students as all being gifted in balanced critical thinking. Sieber notes that at times ESOL students' contributions are ethnocentric and even racist. Still, he concludes that in general, his experience with ESOL students has led him to raise his standards for all students.
Chapter 9 details the struggle of Neha Shah, a student from India, in an introductory level philosophy course. It is written by Stephen Fishman, the instructor of the course in question, and Lucille McCarthy, who had regular interviews with Neha over the course of the semester. Fishman describes Neha's early writing assignments and his complex reactions to them, and the dilemma he saw himself faced with: "If Neha was unprepared for my course, I, as a teacher, was equally unprepared for her". It took measures such as Neha's quitting one of her part-time jobs, and spending extra time in the writing lab for her written work to show signs of improvement. A valuable section of this chapter is the conclusion that writing-to-learn assignments were not, by themselves, helpful to Neha, but that in combination with other pedagogical techniques such as student letter exchanges, student-generated questions for class discussion, and student-generated exam questions, the benefits of writing-to-learn did emerge. In other words, writing helped learning when it was matched with activities allowing students to interact with one another. Fishman also underlines the importance of focusing on the content of students' work rather than becoming distracted by surface errors in their writing.
Chapter 10 contains Kristine Alster's reflections on nursing students' writing and on her own attempts at helping them to improve this skill. She argues that although nursing students often believe writing to be unimportant for their field, writing is necessary for communicating, for learning, and for enhancing professional status. Working against the positive development of nursing students' writing skills are poor models, the overuse of jargon, and an overemphasis on form over content. These can lead to a loss of confidence and a tendency towards plagiarism, and Alster explains how these consequences can particularly affect ESOL students. The author then provides some suggestions for techniques that can help nursing students to develop as writers including acknowledging the difficulty of the writing task, backing off when frustration levels run too high and working from the simple to the complex. Alster notes some of the reasons instructors may feel uncomfortable addressing student writing problems: 1) they are often unsure of their own writing skills, 2) it is commonly assumed that writing is the domain and responsibility of the English department, 3) instructors are preoccupied with covering nursing content and believe that this must take precedence over teaching writing skills. Alster's solution for this last challenge is that instructors must strive to "develop assignments in which writing promotes content learning".
Rajini Srikanth, an English professor, is the author of the next chapter, whose objective is to make the case for "placing the malleability of literature in the service of ESOL pedagogy". Two of Srikanth's primary classroom goals are to make students feel comfortable expressing their ideas and to acknowledge multiple interpretations of texts. In order to create a comfortable environment in which ESOL students feel free to participate, instructors must do several things: acknowledge these students' identities outside of their role as learners of English, avoid giving the impression that texts are authoritative and untouchable, and stimulate multiple forms of expression. Like the authors of previous chapters, Srikanth underlines the usefulness of ungraded written responses to texts, letter writing, and activities which ask students to teach one another. She ends the chapter by emphasizing the need to see "the unique individuals behind ESOL students' written essays".
In Chapter 11, Estelle Disch outlines some of the techniques she uses in her internship in sociology course in order to make the classroom a place where all students feel comfortable participating. The point is made that when an instructor strives to create a democratic classroom where all voices are heard, it is not only ESOL students, but all students who benefit. Some of the strategies used to create this inclusivity are writing activities designed to stimulate critical thinking in preparation for class discussions, short ungraded quizzes after which students defend their answers in small groups, and collaborative projects. In describing ESOL students specifically, Disch refers to them as both a gift and a challenge -- a gift because they "validate the importance of multicultural awareness in human services" and a challenge because of the linguistic and sometimes cultural gaps they often possess. Linguistic gaps, however, must not be overemphasized. According to Disch, instructors tend to attribute an ESOL student's silence or anxiety to linguistic shortcomings too hastily, when in fact the source of these problems may lie elsewhere.
In this final chapter, Peter Nien-chu Kiang describes an assignment called "The Meaning of Names", which students complete in his Asian American Studies course. The assignment asks students to reflect on the origins of their full name and their feelings towards it- in short, to tell their name stories. Kiang outlines the interesting relationships which exist between name stories and family expectations and educational achievement for many ESOL learners. He also shows how names are related to family legacies and to students' personal experiences of discrimination. The overall framework for this discussion is the problematic of student persistence in higher education and the idea that persistence depends to a large degree on students' academic and social integration. Kiang argues that assignments like "The Meaning of Names" provide opportunities for just such academic and social integration.
This volume is a welcome addition to the literature on learning across the curriculum. The fact that the perspectives of researchers, students and teachers are all represented make it a uniquely balanced view of the issues surrounding ESOL students and their experiences in college classrooms. There are several key ideas which appear repeatedly in different chapters of the volume. One is that informal response-type writing assignments can be a key to helping ESOL students find their voice and write authentically. Another is that instructors' comments on students' work are of vital importance to motivation and success. A third point is that more instructors are seeing ESOL students in their classrooms as a valuable resource rather than a problem to be solved. A final common thread running through the book is that pedagogical practices which are good for ESOL learners are good for all learners. In this collection, Zamel and Spack have brought together a highly readable and insightful series of viewpoints which guide the reader toward a fuller understanding of the complexity of ESOL students' situations and those of the professionals who guide them. In fact, the value of this book extends far beyond an audience interested in the ESOL student experience; it contains important lessons for all those who research, learn and teach at the post-secondary level.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Silvia Rossi is an ESOL instructor at the Languages Institute at Mount Royal College in Calgary, Canada and a graduate student in French and Spanish at the University of Calgary, Canada. Her research interests lie primarily in the area of third language acquisition, and she is presently investigating lexical transfer in L3 Spanish production.