Archive for December 12, 2008

Versus vs. Verses: Teacher Centered vs. Student Centered

Yesterday’s meeting revealed an “aha” moment for me in our institution of higher learning in Kazakhstan.  Long have I dealt with the cross-cultural aspects of teaching in an environment which is strongly teacher-centered vs. learner-centered.  No way to get around shifting paradigms without having head transplants for each and every teacher whose strong and foreboding presence looms large in their classrooms.  Supposedly the Kazakhstani teacher is to KNOW all and the students are to follow like docile, stupid sheep.  Refer to my blog about “Iron Rice Bowl” policy vs. “Naglyi” students.  The tide is turning where the teacher does NOT know all and some of the students are learning despite the teacher’s pretense of erudition.


American teachers are handy to have around at our supposedly “western” university, we can be blamed for things once we leave.  I’m not leaving any time soon but at our big meeting of the English teaching faculty yesterday I asked what I thought was a legitimate question of our director. He gave a respectful and measured answer. I wanted to know, in preparation for spring semester, how soon we would need to get a syllabus change for some critical issues that were changed from last spring semester.  My example was easily recognized by the 80 or so teachers who heard my question because half of them will be teaching this same reading and writing course next spring semester of 2009.  Two changes that I knew of that impacted our teaching this semester compared to last was requiring four essays down to only two essays (discursive and problem/solution) and three academic articles for the final portfolio augmented to FIVE journal articles!!!


Finally, I asked in front of the big group, what I thought was another legitimate question, why have a 10% reading “exam” that is spaced out 1 ½ weeks AFTER classes are finished when it could be a “test” administered during class time. Exam vs. test. If our students are successfully reading many articles they find of interest instead of the worn out topics set down by their teachers, then they will be reading and not knowing how much they have been reading.  I know, I know, we would have to come up with at least four different test versions because of the problem of leakage of tests and cheating from class to class.  Botheration, cheating and plagiarism is the bane of our existence and it hits us particularly hard at the first year level because we are supposedly the net to catch those cheaters from plagiarizing their way through the rest of their university years.


Last spring semester it was clearly stated in the Academic Reading and Writing syllabus that the students were to know how to write discursive, compare/contrast, cause/effect essays finally culminating with the problem/solution essay as the final portfolio project.  This portfolio is 30% of the final grade for this course and as I wrote in an earlier blog “Mr. Controlling Idea Meet Ms. In-text Citation” many of our students are not capable of writing an academic paper yet.  Some don’t even have the basic, rudimentary skills of writing a cohesive sentence in English let alone using proper APA citations and knowing all the intricate formatting rules.  We are expecting them to write a type of research paper.  Preposterous, you may say.  Wait, I just got started!


I had earlier recommended to the team leader that more of an emphasis should be put on students learning how to LOOK up information by going to the electronic research databases rather than being driven by a fixed outline. Outline-driven vs. Source-driven. This penchant for wanting to have every sentence in its place so it is easier to grade is, I believe, counter productive.  The only sentence I want to see in a particular place in any given essay is the thesis statement.  Typically it is the last sentence in the introductory paragraph, even that seems rigid to me. 


However, the students were handed an example of how to write a problem and solution essay and they are supposed to show the problem in the first paragraph and then have two solutions in subsequent paragraphs.  Each solution is to show that they have advantages and disadvantages, however, the second solution is to have MORE advantages than disadvantages.  I looked up in my friend, Joy Reid’s book on the Process of Composition, and there are many different outlines that can satisfy a problem and solution essay.  It does NOT have to be the cookie cutter outline that has been accepted as the norm by all our teachers in the last several years.  The teachers themselves would NOT want to write an essay which they require their students to write. 


Criminy, on top of that these poor students are required to have FIVE sources from the electronic database rather than the prescribed three articles from last semester.  The only reason I had recommended a change to five sources listed in the References page was to make the final project more Source-driven rather than Outline-driven.  I refused to have my students use this restrictive outline as it is like tethering a overly tight bridle on a high spirited horse with accompanying whips and blinders on it and expect it to move forward.  It won’t, the horse will come to a standstill.  The students with those kinds of restrictions will HATE writing. I know I would hate to have such a prescriptive outline that dictates in 1,000 words what I am supposed to write.  I also am well aware that many of the teachers are required to teach writing and they HATE it as well.  I’m saddened by this fact since I love to teach writing because I can see into my students’ hearts with what they write.  Some of mine have written quite eloquently if you get past the occasional grammar errors or strange word choices.  See an example of my students reviews


Stay tuned for Part II of Versus vs. Verses







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