A Tale of Two Classes

IMG_0844I teach two sections of the same advanced ESL grammar class, but you’d never know it if you visited these sections separately. One class is filled with students who I know must have taken a vow of silence. When I explain something to the class, my voice goes out into space, but nothing comes back. Is it because the class begins at 8:00 in the morning? Is it that there is a majority of students from one country? Is it that we just don’t connect, that my brand of teaching doesn’t reach their style of learning? Getting students to write on the board is like pulling teeth even though I have stressed that I like to see grammatical errors in their sentences since everyone learns from such errors. “So, don’t be afraid of making mistakes.” I used to ask for volunteers, but it took up too much time. Now I take my dry erase markers and pass them out randomly to students around the room. They get up and write.

The other class is lively, engaged, and full of fun. When I ask for students to put their answers on the white board, they immediately get up to get a dry erase marker and start writing on the white board. If I ask for questions about anything they don’t understand, five hands will go up without hesitation. I will explain something to the class, for example, that the relative pronoun “that” cannot be used in non-essential adjective clauses: “Paris, which (not that) is the capital of France, is a beautiful city.”  And I will immediately get feedback from many of the students. My voice does not disappear into a void. It causes comments and questions. “Why can’t we use “that” in non-essential clauses?” “When else can’t we use ‘that’?” “I thought we could always use ‘which’ or ‘that’ with adjective clauses.”  Is it that this class starts at 10:00 a.m., and at that time, students are more awake? Is it that there is a much more cultural mix of students whereby each student gets to work with another student who doesn’t speak his/her native language? Is it that my teaching style clicks with their learning style?

The course outline is the same, but I can’t teach the classes exactly the same. I have had to make adjustments in the “silent” classroom. I realize that the students seem much shyer and almost afraid of talking to the whole class. There had to be more pair work or small group work. In these smaller groupings, students did much better in using the language and sharing their ideas. Every class discussion is prepared with a discussion done in pairs. They get to try out giving their opinion to a partner before they give it to the class. I have created more survey activities, requiring the students to walk around the classroom to get answers to a series of questions. There are seven questions, and they have to ask seven different students for the answers. I do these things also in the “lively” class, but it is not as essential as in this “silent” class. I try not to compare the two sections, but it is almost impossible not to do it. I can predict way beforehand what will work in both classes and what will work only with the “lively” students. With that in mind, I always rack my brain to come up with a solution for the “silent” ones.

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Extra Credit?

george_jump_x600I can already hear the voices complaining, “Don’t offer extra credit.  You are only setting up the students to expect it in every class.  Don’t do it!”  But I do.  Let me explain.  When I offer extra credit, I make the students go out of their way to achieve it.  It is not just another homework assignment.  Usually it involves physically participating in something outside of class and writing about it.

Since the Theater Department is now putting on the musical, She Loves Me, I figured that this was a perfect opportunity for students to see a live performance and then write about:  three paragraphs:  What happened?  What did it mean?  Was it any good?  I was familiar with the play already since Foothill had done it before.  I knew it was accessible to even low-level students if they knew the story line beforehand.  There would be music and singing, and the songs are very melodic.  The students would be able to earn up to 15 points if they wrote the three paragraphs and attached the ticket.  (Total points for the quarter is 350.)

I haven’t received any of the written work yet, but I have experienced a whole series of reactions to seeing a live play.  (I should add that seeing a play in the Lohman Theater is ideal, for no one sits that far away from the stage.)  A group of students from my high-intermediate class (lowest level credit class we offer) went to previews on Thursday night, so I was able to talk to them on Friday.  I started to have second thoughts that perhaps the experience wouldn’t be a good one, and the students would never enter a theater again.  I also heard that it was 2 ½ hours long.  However, the first students who went were very impressed.  “The actors are professional.”  “The singing was very good.”  “I want to see it again.”

An aspect that I had forgotten about was that the students were doing something together outside of class.  Students have told me in the past that having such an outing is liberating since the goal is to enjoy something.  (“Yes,” they say.  “We know we have to write about it, but we don’t have to write about it there.  And we can talk to the other students there about the event.”)

My expectations were very high when I attended the performance the next day.  The production was just as good as the students had said, and some of my students were also there.  What I hadn’t expected was how nervous the students would be.  “What happens if I can’t understand anything?”  I told them that we could meet as a group in the intermission.  (It is important to explain that there is an intermission;  otherwise, students may think the play is over even when the story isn’t finished.  This happened with Angels in America last year.)

There were many questions the students had during intermission, and some of the students had asked their friends to come along with them, who knew more English.  What followed was a lively discussion about the play and how easy or difficult it was to understand.  Everyone enjoyed the singing even if they couldn’t understand the words.  No one talked about the assignment.  What was important was the present experience.  One student told me that he had been in the U.S. for three years and had always wanted to see a play.  Yet, he had always hesitated because he thought he wouldn’t understand.

I don’t know how good or bad the written papers will be, but it doesn’t really make any difference.  Getting the first reactions of the low-level students, hearing the questions by the students generated by the play during the intermission, and hearing the students use English to communicate their ideas to each other and their classmates’ friends alone made the experience worthwhile.

I have to remember that when assigning extra credit work.

You Can Lead a Horse to Water, but…

IMG_0870Every time I use this idiom with my ESL students, they get confused.  “Are you calling us horses?”  I always have to explain to them that I can present an opportunity for them to learn English by their working with a partner or doing group work, continuing at home with paragraph writing or grammar exercises, writing their examples with or without mistakes on the white board for the class to look at, etc.  However, they have the choice to take advantage of the opportunity or not.  I cannot force them to learn English, and I certainly can’t learn it for them.

This little talk I have with my students usually happens midway through the quarter when I see who is doing or not doing what.  Last weekend I thought to myself that if I saw “He have” another time on a paper, I would end up pulling out my hair.  How could advanced ESL students make a mistake that they might have made in their first ESL class?  What is going on?  (And you can find such mistakes in papers written for English 1A or History or Psychology.)

So, I decided to get at the heart of the matter and ask my students, but I wanted them to be totally honest with me.  Don’t tell me what I want to hear.  Tell me the truth as you know it.  I asked the students to take out a clean sheet of paper and not put their names on the paper.  They were to answer 4 questions for me, and they were to be an honest as they could.  I told them that if they were afraid of my recognizing their handwriting, they could use the other hand or just print.

I asked them the following questions:

  1. Do you always proofread your work before you turn it in?
  2. If you do, how do you do it?  If you don’t, why don’t you?
  3. Why would students not proofread their work before turning it in?
  4. How is it possible that an advanced ESL student in their class could write, “He have problems at home with his family.”? 

I collected the papers.  The students could discuss the questions with their partners to see how similar or different they were in their answers.  I waited until the next class meeting to have a class discussion when I had read all their answers.

For #1, I got a mixture of yes and no.  “If I have time.”  “If I am not tired.”  “Never.”

For #2, the students who proofread said that they just read through their homework once.  For those that didn’t, they complained that there was so much homework and that it took so long that they had no time to proofread, or that proofreading wasn’t part of the assignment.  Some said that they couldn’t recognize their mistakes even if they proofread the finished assignment.

For #3, you might expect the students to just repeat #2, but many said that perhaps students had never learned how to proofread.  Or no one had ever even asked them to proofread before.  (Can that really be true?)  Some even said, “That’s not my job.  That’s the teacher’s job.”

For #4, many students said that such mistakes are made and remain in the work if the student didn’t proofread the paper.  But more students explained that the distinction between 3rd person singular verbs and verbs for the other persons may not exist in the first language of the students.  And the meaning of the sentence is not obscured by writing the wrong form of “have.”

What was refreshing is that the students knew I didn’t know who had written what, but they could discuss the topic without giving away their proofreading behavior.  I presented some of the opinions, such as the one about the teacher’s job being to correct errors on papers.  Good idea?  Bad idea?  How long would this option hold out after they left their ESL classes?  At four-year colleges?  At their future jobs?

Out of this discussion came the concept of language independence.  How could they achieve this independence if this were something they valued?  I told them that some students had said that they had never learned how to proofread their papers.  I asked them how many were interested in learning techniques of proofreading, and surprisingly over half the class raised their hands.  So, that is on the agenda for this coming week.  However, the proof is in the pudding.  What do you think?  Will I see “He have” or something so basic after next week?

The Humor of It All

10613091_901298726555785_9081573921012705040_nFrom 1-30-16 – Have you ever walked into a store or a restaurant here or in a foreign country and immediately noticed an error in English on a sign or a menu?  It just might be odd or funny.  What do you do?  After you smile, do you say something to the owner to correct the error, or do you leave it so that the next person will see the same thing that you saw?  When I was sent this picture on Facebook, it first brought a smile to my face.  And yet, when I started to read the reactions to the picture filled with hysterical laughter and ridicule, I thought, “How smug.” 

I wondered how many people who forwarded this sign on Facebook can speak a second language reasonably well.  (And not just to order food.)  Americans are not well-known for their foreign language abilities.  It is easy to ridicule the language errors of others when we have no experience of truly living in a foreign country with a second language (or having to do business in a foreign language).  English is an international language and is now spoken by more people as a second language than as a first.  People go out of their way to learn it, and it ain’t easy.

The owners of the store where the picture was taken were probably sick of foreign shoppers coming into their store and man-handling their merchandise.  Such signs in flawed English can be seen all over the world.  My question is:  once the person snapped the photo, did s/he go over to the owner and point out the mistake so that it could be changed?  Or did s/he leave it so that more people could get a kick out of the unintended meaning of the sign?  Is it so hard to put yourself in the place of the owner and see it from his/her point of view?  What would s/he have preferred?

I witness each day the struggle of ESL students trying to master English.  I say master because they are not learning the language to travel around a bit and buy souvenirs and order at restaurants.  Their goal is to study at an American university, and for that, they need academic English.  In a country growing more and more anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, you hear people say of the foreigner, “Why don’t they learn English?”  Well, these students ARE learning English, and whether they master it is up for grabs.  (Research shows that it takes 7 years of English instruction for a student to acquire academic English.)  ESL students are always complaining about how hard it is for them to make American friends.  When some ESL students report using English only 30 minutes a day outside of class, I wonder what progress they can make.  I doubt that being made fun of will further their acquisition of English.1239653_647013801984280_573765916_n (1)

What’s in a Name?

IMG_0362.jpgYou’ve probably noticed that many of our international students often from China change their names when they come to the U.S. and choose English names.  Students have told me that they do this because English speakers cannot pronounce their names (and they are so tired of hearing their names butchered).  The names they choose may at times be odd or somewhat dated.  I had a student last quarter called Never, which was short for Never Give Up.  I had a male student who wanted to be called Kitty, which was short for his very long Thai name.  There are two students named Grace this quarter, one student named Howard, and another named Abner.  I once had a student, whose name was Ausensio.  The following quarter he was Ace, and by the third quarter, he was back to being Ausensio.  People create identities with these new names.  They may keep them or discard them as easily as they had adopted them.  But they seem like free choices.  And yet things might be changing.

Over winter break, I bought a new car.  The salesman who sold me the car was called Moe.  I first thought that The Three Stooges’ names might be coming back in style with more Larrys and Curlys in the wings.  I soon realized that Moe might be short for Mohammed, given my salesman’s last name.  During the second week of class, I had another Moe add my class.  His name is also Mohammed.  This got me thinking of the Italian family I knew when I was a kid who had changed their name from Corelli to Parker, thinking that they would beat discrimination with an American-sounding name.  Or I was reminded of the change in name of Berlin Street to Brussels Street in San Francisco during the First World War.  At that time, German-American families could no longer name their children Gretchen or Hans for fear that they would be considered the enemy.

And so, are we now again at a time when people feel they have to hide who they are because there is so much mass hysteria in our society?  I have had up to now many students named Mohammed but only one Moe.  Is this a change?  What must it be like to be Mohammed or Hanan in the U.S. right now?  Do they see themselves viewed as the enemy in the U.S.?  In adopting this nickname, I think my student (and my car salesman) were doing this out of fear.  Maybe they were tired of constantly having to look over their shoulders at the prospect that perhaps they would be watched if anyone found out their real names. 

Repeating Students

IMG_1190.jpgWhat do you do with students who repeat your class?  Granted, they haven’t passed your class, but what do you do when you have designed something that will hold your students’ attention the whole quarter?  What am I talking about?  I teach advanced ESL grammar.  This can be a very boring subject if all you do is grammar exercises ad nauseam.  By just doing grammar exercises, the students don’t learn how to use English grammar.  They learn how to do grammar exercises.  I find that if I can present a shared experience that the students can write about, they can immediately use the grammar being taught in class in a meaningful way.  Showing movies offers the shared experience, but showing one movie over ten weeks also holds the students’ attention if the film is suspenseful enough.  (Yes, I know that I might not choose the right film.  That has happened.  Or the students will go out and watch the entire film since they have no patience to wait ten weeks for the ending.  I try to convince the students not to peek ahead, for that will destroy the experience for them, but I can only do so much.  Most students claim to be patient enough to wait.)

So this is how it works:  When I teach adjective clauses, for example, (The woman who is working with Phil is Rita.), I ask the students, after we have had sufficient practice, to write a summary of a segment of the film I am showing.  In the summary, they have to embed six examples of adjective clauses.  A summary is written for each segment shown until the entire film is seen, and each segment has a grammatical structure focus.  What I find is that the students become interested in the film so much so that they look forward to seeing the next segment.  At the same time, they have a context to use the newly learned grammar when they write a new summary.

When I use Groundhog Day, it always starts off the same way:  all the students hate Bill Murray’s character and don’t want to watch more segments.  I ask them to be patient, and slowly the students come around to what is going on and become interested in what will happen next.  Every time I have shown this film, students have told me that they enjoyed the film and even got something out of writing the summaries.  However, when students have to repeat the class, there is no point in my showing the same film again.  If I were to do this, these students would be left by the wayside.  (Should I let that change my plans?)

So, another film I attempt to show when this happens is What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?  I based the choice of this film on one of the diagnostic paragraphs the students wrote at the beginning of the quarter.  One topic they were to write about was the most important thing in their life.  The great majority chose their family.  If this is so, will they somehow accept the unusual American family in this film?  And this is a risk.  Because if the students don’t empathize with the members of this family, the watching of the film might very well be a long, drawn out, tortuous session, and there would be little interest in writing about it.  I have only used this film twice, and both times the mood in the class went from disgust with the family, especially the over-weight mother, to affection, but there is never a guaranty.  I also feel regret that I cannot show Groundhog Day in these new classes since it is a film that is not known to my ESL students, and many of them claim that they have learned life-lessons from the film.  So I am stuck. 

The First Week is Over . . .

IMG_1498From 1-9-16 – Every winter break I usually get sick at the beginning of the break.  This year I got sick right before the winter quarter started.  I didn’t feel very enthusiastic at first.  On top of it, El Niño supplied the rain for the opening days, and the powers that be had me assigned to classrooms across campus.  One of the classrooms was the exact same one I had been assigned a year ago when I wrote for the Reflective Writing Challenge, and I hadn’t improved one iota in working with PC computers.  Another classroom had chalk boards, which I hadn’t used in I don’t know how long.  During the whole class, the chalk dust made me cough, and when I wasn’t coughing, I was sneezing into Kleenex or blowing my nose.  On the bright side, I was able to move all my classes to the LA Division area of the campus after the first day of class.

And yet, I looked out at the faces of the new students, or the students who were repeating the class, or the students who had moved on to the next class.  What difficulties were they going through that I was blind to while being self-absorbed with a cold?  Had they just arrived in this country?  Had they gotten sick and had dragged themselves to class as well?

And then during my office hour, a former student came by to see me.  He was now in English 1B, so he had been in one of my classes over a year ago.  He had come to see me to apologize.  I asked him why, and he said that when he was in my class the first quarter he was at Foothill, he had been absent a lot and had missed a lot of material.  I thought he had been sick a lot.  He told me that he had been extremely homesick and depressed.  He had never wanted to study in the U.S.  He had gotten into a university back home and looked forward to going to college with his friends.  However, his parents told him that he would receive a better education if he went to the States.  He had argued with his parents for a whole year before he was forced to leave his home country.  I had no idea.  Here was a student who was always laughing or smiling in class, and yet he had missed so many classes, and I hadn’t understood.  He even mentioned how he had covered up how he really felt in class so that no one would suspect.

I wonder now how many students in my classes are in the same situation, and yet I may not notice it since they also might be covering up their feelings.  As the week went on and I began to recover from my cold, I started to notice the individuals in my classes more and more.  Behind those smiling faces might be happy students or students who are going through their own bouts of sickness or depression, and yet on the surface they look the same.