Archive for May, 2008

Three Men and Manhole Covers

Three menI can almost guarantee these three men are NOT talking about “postmodernism” but the wizened old man looks like he has plenty to say to the other two men. Daily this older gentleman sits below our fifth floor balcony as if he lives in one of those three manholes.  I often think of our fellow Fulbright friend from Ukraine, Lon K., who has his own story to tell about manholes.  He was in western Ukraine and errantly walked on an unstable manhole cover and fell in, he bruised his shin badly.  The Ukrainians who accompanied him weren’t too sympathetic and exclaimed, “Don’t you know that nursery rhyme to NEVER step on a manhole?”  No, we don’t grow up with advice like that because back in the U.S. we TRUST our manhole covers to be solidly in place.   I’ll have to ask my Kazakhstani teaching colleagues about this nursery rhyme that apparently all Soviet children grew up knowing.

I have Lon K. to thank about his views on postmodernism from an architect’s point of view.  He learned early on that blueprints just HAVE to work in order to build a structure of integrity.  You can’t have whimsical angles go off in different directions without proper support.  Architects create designs with all beams and joints to be solidly in place as we expect them to be so a building won’t collapse and kill people.  I’m still thinking of all the sad families in China who lost loved ones in the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks.

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How to Catch a Plagiarist!

I already know who my A students are out of 11 as we lurch into Day Five out of 30 days of course instruction for Summer Session One. I have five more weeks to find out who my B and C students are and hopefully none will fail.  Unless, of course, I catch them in plagiarism which I have sternly warned them to not even try it with me.  I usually can easily detect the plagiarists.  They try to lazily get by among those who are more honest enrolling to LEARN how to improve their writing. A genuine student shows up quickly especially for us writing teachers who have to check all aspects of a students skills in listening, interacting, logical reasoning, following through with assignments, facility with grammar and spelling and finally how adept the students are with using the computer.  The following are ways I can spot a plagiarist a mile away.


First, the plagiarist doesn’t follow instructions.  I’m not sure if it is a listening problem or if it is purposeful, maybe a combination of both.  I had one girl in a recent TOEFL class I taught who was a very weak student.  She tried to cover it up by being confused by the instructions or she claimed she didn’t understand so it was probably a reading comprehension problem as well.  In any case, I was flummoxed why she was taking an advanced course of TOEFL to see about placement in a western university abroad.  She needed to be back in a remedial class brushing up on the basics.  Another instance was this same girl’s computer started shutting down (I think on purpose) so that she wailed she had lost her whole document she had been typing on. Yeah right. 


Second, a known plagiarist skips classes and they make a habit of this practice early on.  That way they have a reason for not knowing what the assignments are or not doing it as the instructor asks them to.  This happened with a girl back in Minnesota who was too busy with her job to bother to show up for my class.  She had a stunning essay about young people and drunk driving she submitted to me electronically.  It didn’t take long, matter of seconds, to find the same essay on the Internet. I caught her red-handed.  I can’t remember if she dropped out or if I failed her in the class when I showed her the evidence. 


Third, these “kidnappers of words” (Latin root) like to come and talk one-on-one with you as their teacher. These “kidnappers” take up teachers’ valuable time explaining why they didn’t do their assignment or why they don’t like doing it the way we prescribe. My guess is that these talkers want you to see how good their English is and they are very communicative on an oral level.  I won’t be fooled by this tactic.  Oral fluency skills are different from writing skills.  Give me the students who are NOT good talkers, more introverted and readers, they are typically the good writers.  I have two who wrote in their first night of class that they LOVE reading.  I love those kinds of students, they produce great writing samples right away.


Fourth, these talkers about their writing can also be found out to be good liars.  Case in point, one girl came to my office a couple hours before class was to begin to tell me she would be absent because her boss called her back to the office. (I wonder about some of these masters students who are juggling a full time job and taking not one but maybe two extremely intensive summer session classes.)  I’m not sure when they have time to sleep with all the reading they are assigned to do along with writing about it.  I have a couple students who are mothers so they are “supermoms” going back to school but I appreciate their maturity.  Sometimes older students are my best students because they take their learning seriously.  Funny thing about this same young girl who was absent, I found her smoking a cigarette behind another building right after our class was through.  I don’t like being lied to, no teacher does.


These are the tell-tale signs of a plagiarist in action, not following instructions, skipping classes and talking to me about why they don’t want to send their assignments to me electronically.  ?!?  I’m just wondering if known plagiarists are among our teaching ranks or God forbid, among our top administrators at our institution of higher learning.  Just asking because by the time I get to the end of the sixth week of teaching this summer session we all know what the level of involvement is with each student.  The student knows that I know just by what they have produced in class and by their attendance and level of participation.


Writing is NOT like some impersonal lecture class of 100s of students where a few students claim to be surprised by the final results of a final examination of 100 multiple choice questions.  No, the writing process is ongoing from the get-go and a very personal and sometimes exhaustive communication between the teacher and students.  Writing teachers should know their students very well by the end of the semester. That is, only when the students are writing honestly and not kidnapping other people’s words while the teachers take interest and read everything the students write.  Correction of grammar and mechanical errors in formatting styles is a whole ‘nother topic for a later blog post.

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Eight Students’ Samples of Their “Slice of Life”

The following excerpts are from a 25 minute timed writing of my masters level students the first time we met on Monday evening. (I had them sign a consent form so I could share a “slice of life” with my faithful readers.) I asked no leading questions, just simply asked them to write about themselves and I was very pleased with the results.

I was also very happy yesterday to get a text message from a former student of mine whom I had tutored for several weeks for the iBT version of the TOEFL exam.  Andriy was my “dream student” who flew to Almaty from Aktobe just to brush up on his speaking skills, as well as writing.  This was his text message to me, it MADE MY DAY!!!


“Hi there, how r u? I just got my results! Guess what, I got 93! My hands were shaking when I saw that I could get the score! Now, I hope u of c [University of Calgary] will accept them! Thanks!”


Dinara – “…Though I am valued employee at my work (yet, there is no irreplaceable person) I feel an urge to apply what I’ve learnt so far in practice.  Consequently, I decided to apply for a position in Big 4.  I know that when I do want to achieve the goal and I am keen on subject matter, I will shift every effort to become maybe not the best one, but at least to be among the best…reading is another hobby of mine.  Honestly speaking, I used to spend hours and hours reading the book, I cannot tear myself from the book unless I read it right till the end.”


Irina – “In 2006, I decided to get MBA education in________.  I really thought it produced excellent specialists.  But I don’t want to write bad about all the _______students…just to say that many of graduates are “empty inside,” in particular bachelors (just “coolness).


Elvira – “My friends say that I am a good friend.  I build any relationships honestly.  I’m always ready to help. Even my name means “person who protects everyone and takes care”  Sometimes it is not good for me because all my spare time I can spend to someone else.  I have big problems with time management and I can’t make any priorities. 


Maya –I did what thousands of other teenagers did at the early nineties when Soviet Union was crushing and the market economy was coming to change the communism, I entered the Technology University, on economy faculty.  Many teenagers at that time wanted to be a businessman or businesswoman. At 1999, I graduated the university, but I did not feel confident about my knowledge obtained there, because the level of education was very low there. 


Yulia – I have a brother, his name is Igor and he is younger than me on 8 years.  He is a hockey player.  Actually, it was the dream of my father to play hockey but in those Soviet time unfortunately it was impossible to play hockey if you are not Russian (because Russian men are strong, tall and brave.) I’m not sure that it was true, maybe it was the joke of my father but I believed him. 


Gulnar – “I dream to visit Japan, Italy and Brasilian.  I think their cultures are colorful and interesting.  I admire women, those who can combine family duties and good career.  I really want that Hillary Clinton would become the first women-president in USA, I believe that she is smart, strong and kind.


N.T. – “My favorite dream is “become great ruler which lead to Kazakhstani people to prosperity and sustainable development.”  I hope that God will bless Kazakhstan and me.  Also, I think that every person should be patriot, in family and country.  Also, I think and hope, and believe every one in this life have mission.  Who knows, maybe I have also great mission because it’s hard and stupid to just live.”


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Reflections on “Sensitivity”

“Did we pretend to be ‘hurt’ in our sensitive and tender feelings (fine natures like ours are so vulnerable) when envy, ungratified vanity, or thwarted self-will was our real problem? Such tactics often succeed.  The other parties give in.  They give in not because they don’t know what is really wrong with us, but because they have long known it only too well, and that sleeping dog can be roused, that skeleton brought out of its cupboard, only at the cost of imperiling their whole relationship with us.  It needs surgery which they know we will never face.  And so we win; by cheating.  But the unfairness is very deeply felt.  Indeed what is commonly called ‘sensitiveness’ is the most powerful engine of domestic tyranny, sometimes a lifelong tyranny.  How we should deal with it in others I am not sure; but we should be merciless to its first appearances in ourselves.”

From C.S. Lewis Reflections on the Psalms

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“Dandy-Lions” are NOT missed, others are!!!

pine treesiriseskilldeer eggs

My Mom is doing a GREAT job in getting me to pine for things at home with her photos she just took of our farmyard.  Such as the discovery made by my Dad of Killdeer eggs right in our gravel driveway by the yardlight.  Or seeing the irises spearing through the black, fertile soil in our garden between the lilacs and pine trees. Or even the fresh limegreen shoots of the pine growth and witnessing the weeping willow tree growing ever taller at our “dacha” back home in flat, northwestern Minnesota. 

If you are a foreigner in a foreign land you long for all those things that are familiar to you while the natives of Kazakhstan can enjoy both job security and seeing their family AND enjoying their own national holidays.  I already missed going to the graveyard(s) with my Mom and Dad to honor our ancestors this past Memorial Day weekend.  Looks like I’ll be absent for our national day of independence (Fourth of July).  Largely due to the fact that I have the privilege of teaching Summer Session One to privileged and wealthy students (Dandy-Lions) of Kazakhstan on how to read and write in English at an academic level.  I don’t miss the dandelions back home but I miss others!

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New Day, New Way, New Tray

wild flowersToday I took a different route for my sunny morning walk and discovered a new way with lots of wildflowers.  The fresh, new day invited a cheery “Dobra utra” to the other 6:00 a.m. morning walkers and they responded in kind.  One imposing, Kazakh gentleman in athletic garb was walking very slowly said something else and laughed.  I must have fooled him with my very fluent greeting.  Or maybe he saw that I had picked up the pink rosebud from the path and made a joke about it.  Another older woman walking on the newly lad path looked like she could have been a sportswoman from many years back but now she walked with a limp.  The third disciplined early riser had a swifter gait and she responded “Good Morning” in Russian to me too.  But the trick thereafter was to pick paths that I wouldn’t have to say “hello” again to these same three walkers.  My vocabulary doesn’t extend beyond saying, “Yes, I know these are NOT flowers, just weeds.”  “Oh, you say it is illegal to pick them anyway?”  “That’s fine, because I think I’m allergic to one of them.” 

What I gathered in my little bouquet was some pink clover, a mum that looked at first glance like common fleabane, some kind of hot pink lupine or sweet pea looking vine and a blue kind of aster.  The one that is probably allergy ridden is the one I’ve never seen before, it is a tall stalk with both purple and blue little flowers and spikey kind of pods.  Painful to pick so I won’t do THAT again.  I had to show off my new tray that I just bought from some friends who are leaving Almaty.  I can’t wait to get my new little Casio electronic piano once they depart in mid-June.  Such is the start of my new day!

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Photos of Rained out Picnic

Ken\bakytYuri and shaslikAnna and Aliya

Yesterday we went to a picnic hosted by Bakyt and his wife Anna for Ken’s economics department.  The weather was unpredictable since it had rained earlier in the morning.  Thankfully it was warm and sunny by noon.  However, by the time we had our picnic at 3:00 p.m. it was raining again and coming down “cats and dogs” by 3:30.  Fortunately, by the time we left after our fill of salads, horse meat and shashlik, the rain had stopped.  Sadly it was tough for a little four year old boy named “Lion” who probably felt caged up inside the house.  Anna’s parents had bought their house after WWII where she and her husband, Bakyt, currently live with much property in the backyard including fruit trees and gardens.  Prime real estate now, sixty years later, close to the Kazakhstan Hotel and other notable locations.  If it hadn’t been for the rain, we would have enjoyed being out back in their expansive yard.

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Nine Kazakh Proverbs from Saule

My husband had asked Saule for some specific Kazakh proverbs that might relate to the “Golden Rule.”  The following are what she came up with:


“Nightingale cannot do without woods, man cannot do without Motherland.”


“If the dead aren’t satisfied, the living will not get rich” [If you don’t remember and honor/respect the departed ancestors, you will not succeed/get rich in your life.]


“If somebody offends you, don’t treat him in the same way – treat him to food.”


“Work is your hands’ dirt.”  [Work is temporary, today you might be boss but tomorrow not.  Don’t become proud (get conceited, put on airs, become arrogant)]


“If your wife is good, your home is full of abundance (guests, joy, luck, happiness)

If your wife is bad, your home is full of unhappiness (sadness, failure).”


“If your daughter-in-law is good, your house is golden.”


“Man is a defender of his people,

Woman is a mother for her people.”


“Bad people cry that they are good,

Good people can’t say they are good.”


“Escape (run away from ) rich people lying to you,

Escape poor people complaining to you.”


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Nazarbayev – “Nightingale Cannot Do Without Woods”

Yesterday we finished our third day of “Virtual Classroom” with Language Center teachers doing keyword searches on the electronic databases provided by our university library.  Five questions were part of the Treasure Hunt about known authors from our university and about nine people e-mailed their answers to me.  The quickest was Olga and as winner she received the latest edition of the Turabian style book.  The consolation prize of an MLA style book went to Claudia who found the article on SpringerLink of an administrator who had an article published in a physics journal in December of 2000.


We ended our “Teacher-Researcher Workshop” with a panel discussion with three professors from our university, one in Public Administration, the second from Political Science and the third from Economics.  Each helpfully contributed something to over 40 Kazakhstani teachers.  The first talked about writing being the “Queen of Rhetoric” or communication, it involves all the thinking skills.  This public administration professor felt fortunate to have had a very good writing teacher in his undergraduate class which helped him in his subsequent classes and even now in his publishing articles. 


Our second panelist from a political science perspective has great empathy for what we do as writing teachers for first year students.  He advised to stick with ONE style of writing research papers.  At the very least let the students know there are as many formatting styles as there are journals.  It seems that most of the professors on campus prefer Chicago or Turabian with footnoting or endnotes and NOT the APA style we have enforced on our fledgling first year writing students.  He also stated that American high school students have an edge over our Kazakhstani students because they have already been exposed to research papers.  Unfortunately, our students don’t have that writing background when they enter our western-style university.  He recommended that we prepare the students in the first year on how NOT to plagiarize so that the upper division courses don’t have to focus on that but devote more time on the conceptual ideas of each students’ paper. 


Our third panelist from economics stated that “Writing is Thinking and Thinking is Writing.”  Being a writing teacher is a difficult position to fulfill all those expectations. He knows that in the U.S. it is the most arduous for administrators to fill writing courses with qualified teachers. With all other teaching assignments, such as speaking, listening or grammar, the teacher conducts the class and leaves whereas the writing teacher conducts the class with the same contact hours but also has hours and hours of correcting papers afterwards.  No one wants to invest that kind of time into a course and be paid the same amount of money, unless they are convinced it is for the betterment of their students.  Clearly writing teachers in the western universities are not IN IT FOR THE MONEY!!!


One Kazakh teacher, during the Q&A time, lamented on how to make writing seem less like punishment to the students.  She claimed there are so many rules on writing a research paper and felt there is so much pressure and tension to get all the rules correct.  Her students wailed they did not want to take another semester of a writing course as has been suggested.  Yet another teacher responded that her students were very enthusiastic about writing because of all the options available with the research databases and other Internet cites that help make it easier and more enjoyable. In a group of 40 teachers, there is a vast array of skills, experience, level of curiosity and time commitment involved with the teaching of writing.


My last comment to all who were gathered yesterday is that we have to guide and suggest topics with our students that are of interest to them.  I believe we need to hover over them from the very start when they are experimenting with thesis statements.  Especially do young students need help with English synonyms for keyword searches once they start looking for journals on the electronic databases.  Bottom line for us as teachers, we need to help the students in the PROCESS of writing from first draft, second draft to final version in order to have good papers to read.  If we are enjoying the process and discovering along with them, the students will ultimately enjoy writing too. 


Therefore, I would recommend that the Kazakhstani students have a required three semesters of writing at our university instead of only one semester so that they can discover their own voice. Most all western universities have two semesters of writing courses for their incoming freshmen students. I strongly suggest first semester would be very informal writing with narrative, descriptive, compare and contrast essays, topics the students would really enjoy writing about.  The second semester would be more discursive, cause and effect, argument and problem and solution.  Finally, the third semester would be the most formal writing with a research paper, fully preparing them for other coursework that expects written essays.  Instead we are expecting our first year learners, who do not have English as their first language and have NO writing experience in high school, to immediately write like an academic in a short 15 week course!!! That is definitely a recipe for disaster and no wonder some of the students end up hating writing and feel desperate enough to plagiarize even though there are red flags all over the syllabus to NOT plagiarize!!!


One final thought I’ll end with a Kazakh proverb, “Nightingale cannot do without woods, man cannot do without Motherland.”  The country of Kazakhstan will fall behind in achieving its goal of being one of the top 50 countries by 2011 if corners are cut in the most supreme of communication —writing! If the Kazakhstani students are not given a voice, as the nightingale has such a lovely voice, they will not be able to articulate to the rest of the world what a great country Kazakhstan


To be a global player, President Nazarbayev realizes and knows that computer technology and learning to write in English is one of the ways to success.  Why else has President Nazarbayev written so many books in English?  I believe Nazarbayev, as a true leader, is that nightingale singing for the good of his country.  Will other Kazakhstani writing teachers follow him?










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Photos of Two Events on Campus

teachersKen and teacherspeytonstudents 

The photos are two entirely different events scheduled simultaneously on the same campus with two unlike groups of people, teachers and students.  My dear husband Ken shared in the Teacher-Research Workshop, to almost 40 Kazakhstani teachers, his experience as an economics teacher getting students to write short papers without plagiarism.  Simultaneously I went over to the big hall to hear all the rules 250 Kazakhstani students need to know before they go to the U.S. on a Work and Travel program in about a week.  Both sessions were dealing with rules not meant to be broken!


The following are reactions by a few of the teachers to yesterday’s blog about the “Virtual Classroom.”


How did the ten quotes from your teacher colleagues about IT [Instructional Technology] make you feel? – use three adjectives


Wistful, somewhat old, pessimistic


Everyone understands that virtual classroom is contributive, practical and a bit challenging as it involves IT in itself.


practical, up-to-date, challenging


not new, actual, exciting to put into practice

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