Archive for October, 2008
You will have to read Part I of my blog from yesterday about “Mr. Controlling Idea MEETS Ms. In-Text Citation” to understand the content of today’s blog. I’m too tired to write anything about His Honorable Thesis Statement, thus, I will use some of my students’ examples which they used in their last mid-term writing exam. They were expected to think quickly and formulate their thoughts after a week’s time of reading the assigned four journal articles regarding the Aral Sea. The mid-term essay was to be done in 50 minutes. Would American students be able to do such an assignment, I wonder? It makes me think that the Kazakh culture of matching wits about who knows the most proverbs and to quickly say them plays into this writing exercise. How would YOU create a thesis statement for a discursive essay in the first five minutes to the following question?:
“The reason of environmental disaster around the Aral Sea is not merely human activities.”
“Even though pollution was the reason for extinction, humanity should pay more attention to what surrounds us, because people have plenty of global environmental problems that we must solve.”
“Even though the Aral Sea is one of the largest lakes in the world, environment around the Aral Sea is critical because there are a lot of toxins near it and there is not enough water to fill it.”
“How much of the Aral Sea tragedy belongs to human activities? Or maybe it was something else that caused a disaster? There are two main opinions about the reasons of such a tragedy.”
“Even though people intensively cultivate agriculture in Aral Sea, people should take into consideration that environmental disaster around that region is not merely human activities because it is a nature cyclical process.”
“Even though people think that environmental disaster is their fault, they should consider that they are not the only cause of Aral Sea deterioration because it is natural process and it comes cyclically over the millenniums.”
“Even though some scientists believe that the desiccation of the Aral Sea is a natural process, men’s negligence should be considered as the main factor of “nature’s revenge” because Soviet irrigation plans for the Aral Sea led to drying of its water making people suffer from consequences of this catastrophe.”
“Even though the water pollution and desiccation occurs because of men’s activities, people should take into account the intractable and inevitable cyclical processes occurring in the bowels of the earth.”
The above are some of my better students’ examples of how they approached the essay assignment with their thesis statement. They had no way of knowing what the exact question was to be except that it would have something to do with the Aral Sea’s destruction. I am proud of many of my students for accomplishing this assignment. Now we will forge ahead with our Final problem and solution essay. May the Force be with us as we have about five more weeks to solve the problems of such an assignment. I want my students to ENJOY this process!!!
This academic writing experience we expect of our students is as subject to crash and burn as any potential romantic relationship on our university campus. However, in this case at our university it is inexperienced hayseed cowboy who MEETS sophisticated debutante. The following is from my own long held convictions that topic sentences, who are first cousins to controlling ideas and supporting ideas, should remain in remedial courses for beginner students.
Let me introduce Mr. Controlling Idea, he has many virtues. His main job is to catch the reader’s imagination in the topic sentence with his singular purpose to entice them to read on. He wears a cowboy hat with complimentary boots, everything is in neutral colored rawhide. He wears a red kerchief around his neck, he has that “devil may care” look about him because he is invincible and young. However, if there are too many guys like him, too many Controlling Ideas, the paragraph falls apart.
He may have two or three brothers, depending on the paragraph formally named as Mr. Supporting Idea I and II. They help the reader to understand there is logical support or evidence for the control he maintains in his set paragraph or the corral. He rides on Transition Markers, good thoroughbred horses, to alert his reader which direction he is going. These horses names are called: Moreover, Nevertheless, In Fact, For Example, First and In Conclusion, just for example. Mr. Controlling Idea rarely backs up his horse but likes to go full speed ahead while letting his reading audience know there may be a gallop or a simple trot in the next paragraph or two.
One nemesis of Mr. Controlling Idea are the occasional encounters with Mr. Logical Fallacy. Actually, he and his cronies lurk everywhere and have no regard for the words they are surrounded by. Legions of Logical Fallacies abound and they care nothing for their dear readers, their sole mission is to lead astray. Cleverly concealed lies are their content but Mr. Controlling Idea and his brothers are able to discern who these negative forces of the essay paper are. Logical fallacy is NO match for a truthful controlling idea who maintains law and order.
That’s where Ms. In-text Citation makes her appearance. Even though she actually is a city slicker and can be quite provocative at times, she has some attraction for the man of the rodeo, Mr. Controlling Idea. Her expensive clothes are not practical and can show spots on them very easily. If she is of the APA formatting style, Ms. Citation doesn’t really want anyone to know whether she is a female or not, she prefers last name only. However, she DOES want everyone to know that she is wearing the latest fashion by having the most up-to-date publication. When she looks at the tired out Chicago style, she appears uppity. Also, she sees that footnotes of the Turabian devotees are so untidy. Ms. Citation doesn’t even try on MLA clothes, there is something so twentieth century about them. No, Ms. Citation comes from very highbrow types, just look at her parents in the “Works Cited” page.
Actually, her grandparents are called “Working Bibliography” who were from the farm and never take on their granddaughter’s airs, they work quietly minding their own business. The only way her Grandparents got to the top was a LOT of spade work, meaning they knew how to use Keywords to get their source material from the electronic research databases. Yes, Keywords are good family friends with the Bibliographies and Citation families. What Ms. In-text Citation doesn’t appreciate is that to make it into the essay in the first place, she has to be wanted by Mr. Controlling Idea. His Supporting Idea brothers have to want her in the family of their sentence as well.
So, what do we have in our university’s classroom with young, impressionable Kazakh students? We have those who do not know the basics of how to write in English, they’ve been grilled in high school on how to use correct GRAMMAR. This haranguing was probably done in steady Russian.
These beleagured students do not grasp the importance of what topic sentences with controlling and supporting ideas are all about. Unfortunately, these students are expected, according to the syllabus for their one and only writing and reading course, to know how to use the sophisticated reference work of APA formatting style to help buttress their arguments in any given essay. We only teach them two in the space of 16 weeks, discursive and problem and solution essays.
Some of our students are capable of this budding relationship between the simple mechanics of essay writing and using in-text citations. A happy marriage happens with good results if they have the grounding in Intensive or Provisional classes and in our Academic Reading and Writing courses are to fine-tune the referencing and researching fun.
Unfortunately, the two are not meeting each other, poor Mr. Controlling Idea and Ms. In-text Citation. This relationship takes time, writing takes time, writing requires re-writes. Alas, I didn’t even bring up the King of the Rodeo and that is His Honorable Thesis Statement. Stayed tuned for Part II.
Our Academic Reading and Writing teachers had a very good rubric to score each others’ students writing by during “Reading Week” what should be REALLY considered our mid-semester break. “Break,” meaning a rest from the usual grind. I suppose everyone has their own definition of what a “break” constitutes. It would seem that something fell apart in the implementation of calibrating our scores when we put our students’ discursive essays all together to divide out amongst the nine of us teachers. Turns out there were five of us for Stage One of our experiment of politely working together.
Keep in mind that we are all professionals with busy lives of our own, therefore, we did NOT want to spend hours quibbling over the finer points of how to grade our students on three different types of questions. Seems that my students had the more complex question to answer about the destruction of the Aral Sea, the others were straightforward, something like: “Discuss if the Aral Sea should be revived or let it die?” or “What is more likely, was the Aral Sea destroyed by man-made factors or natural causes?” In some cases, upon getting the results back for my students’ essays, I had high scorers give their feedback to my students mid-term exams. I know the student, I would have graded lower.
Unfortunately, other scorers just did the easy way out and did the copy-cat rating of the first rater’s score. We were ideally supposed to have two raters score the same essay twice. I rated over 50 essays when all was said and done. I only have about 30 students.
After nine weeks of working with my students, I know their abilities and strengths. I also know the ones who don’t show up for class and are lazy. Most of those have already been withdrawn from my class or curtsied out on their own. Those who have remained on my class roll have faithfully done their reading and writing homework assignments which amounts to 30% of their grade plus three vocabulary quizzes on the textbook units. The mid-term exam has 20% of the weight, according to our syllabus.
Here is the start of the inequities I observed in this erratic scoring. In one case, a student of mine who was averaging 23% in his assignments and quizzes got 75% for his mid-term essay grade. He is retaking the course, so perhaps he knows how to take tests and doesn’t want to be bothered with going to my class. However, two other girls, who are very consistent, hard workers with an average of 83% and 88%, were rated the same 55% for their mid-term exam. Another student who has the abilities but doesn’t show it in his scores got 90% on his midterm but is averaging 60% in my class! What gives!!!
I am VERY discouraged with our cross-checking amongst my teaching colleagues of mid-term essays between raters from very divergent teaching backgrounds. I am used to having weekly meetings when I taught ITAs at the University of Minnesota and we concertedly worked together to be on the same page. We necessarily had to calibrate our scores all the time. It is quite depressing that I’ll have to ask a third rater to analyze the work my students did.
As it stands, I can NOT give back the essays or their midterm grades tomorrow in class, it will have to wait until Thursday. That goes for about half of my students. I have been watching my students’ progress over these past nine weeks, some have made major improvements. I am very proud of most of them. It does not speak well for me as their teacher to have so many with failing midterm grades. So the question remains, am I in the way of my students’ learning? I certainly hope not.
A 50 minute sampling hardly shows the abilities of students’ hard work in writing over the course of nine weeks. Over the course of the semester, the ONE and ONLY semester these students will get in academic writing, it takes writes and re-writes to do this kind of skill justice. Of course, I enjoy those eager students who really, really want to improve their writing too. I am not interested in haphazard students. Also, I’m not concerned about grammar but content and passion to get the main point across. That is what I try to inculcate into my students. (sigh) Well, we WILL prevail with our final and second essay of the semester called a Problem and Solution essay. Seems we have a classic problem with how we teach this writing course. I am open to suggestions on how to solve the problem of getting our students to write plagiarism-free essays that are interesting for the teachers to read and grade.
Being a countrygirl, it was good for me to get away from the glitz of the city of Astana and see what a Peace Corps volunteer might experience in the surrounding rural area. We saw worn out gardens, perky chickens, yappy dogs, laconic geese, a sad funeral procession, gravesites, traintracks, wide expressway, Soviet tractors, pipes ABOVE ground carrying heat and much more. The overall landscape looked like Kansas or North Dakota.
Funny thing happened when three little girls met up with us in Akmol, a village just outside of Astana, where the ALZHIR museum is. They asked if we knew Angie. Apparently, since we were American, to their grade school minds they were certain we would know the one and only American they knew. If you are among my reading audience, Angie, your dear grade school pupils miss you in Akmol!!!
The mosiac is from the Astana Vokzal (train station), and the oil painting portrait of Nicolai Ivanovich Vavilov is from “Dry Lands Grain Farming Institute” named after agriculturalist Baraev, north east of Astana. We went by car with Murat, son of Kanat, a friend of Ken’s along the newly opened expressway. Once we arrived to this place where it was once considered THEE place for the most prestigious of agriculturalists in the former Soviet Union, we toured the institute’s museum. About a month ago, I read to my listening students the sad story about Vavilov from Christopher Robbin’s book “Apples are from Kazakhstan.” Vavilov was an important man due to his work and was highly promoted by the USSR but who later suffered much at the hands of Stalin when he contradicted his collectivization policies.
Much sadness observed in the ALZHIR area but we met these friendly, little girls who wanted to practice their English in the small town of Akmol. Are they aware of the sad past as portrayed by the mural at the newly built ALZHIR museum? Maybe they have distant relatives who came to be punished at ALZHIR during the 1930s and 1940s purges. The final photo is one young man making a wish on top of the Baiterek tower overlooking Astana. Maybe he is hoping for peace while outfitted in his military uniform.