Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Culture Bumps
It's always interesting to me when the students in my ESL class react just as I knew they would.

I have one particular student in my class who has lately been offering up little gems of anecdotal evidence to support how different Asian and American pedagogical styles can be. To give you some background, for the past 2.5 weeks, I've been doing a primarily content-based section using The Green Book. Each day, they had to read the next chapter, each about 10 pages, and answer some discussion questions to prepare for class.

One of the discussion questions was a thought/opinion question: "Do you think the valley of boulders will be important? Why do you think the author mentions it?" This did not strike me as a particularly unusual "thinking ahead" type of question. I remember answering lots of them in 7th grade. So we begin to discuss it in class, and the one student gives his idea, listens to the other answers, and then... the horror. I never told them what the right answer was! He raised his hand and asked, "What is the answer?" I gently replied that there was no right answer, because each person would have their own ideas. He looked kind of panicked and tried again. "What is your opinion, then?" Clever lad, but that didn't work either, since I just said that my opinion was probably different from everyone else's, and I wanted him to answer about his own idea. He could tell that was all the answer he was going to get, but he still looked like this was the most foreign idea he'd ever encountered in a classroom.

Yesterday, we finished discussing the book, and I decided to have them write an analytical essay, just the way a normal US college literature class would. I explained to them that this is the way most classes would be run if they were taking regular academic classes, and they perked up. I added that most professors in the US don't base class grades on multiple choice tests, but on the student's ability to show they understood the material by using it to support their own arguments. I gave them a choice between three topics. Then I explained how I wanted them to write the essay: 5-paragraph style, 3 reasons to support their argument, each reason supported with evidence from the text, so everything gets related to back to the book.

There was silence for few seconds, and then someone said, "But... that means we actually have to have understood the entire book."


I think they're beginning to see why they are not allowed to simply take whatever regular MSU class they want to. This also lends weight to my argument, though, that our ESL classes should be more academically oriented, so our students actually feel like they're learning something, not just about language (which they sometimes doubt, in the "fun and games" atmosphere), but also about taking classes in a US university, which is what many of them thought they were coming here to do.

Our students are fully capable of doing this work, they just need to be challenged to do it with texts appropriate to their level. One of the most frustrating things to me when I was learning foreign languages was feeling like I could only express myself like a child. Our students should be treated like the university students that they are. If they feel like their minds are being challenged along with their language abilities, they will be more engaged. We'll see how their essays turn out. I think they'll find that they understood more of the book than they thought.

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