Posts tagged English

On Being Student-Centered when giving out midterm grades

I have probably seen at least 90 of my 100 students in the last two days to discuss their midterm grades with them. As I was doing one-on-one consultations with each one explaining the grading for in-class writing, quizzes, midterm exam, self-study assignments, I had them fill out a questionnaire. My most interesting questions, to me as a student-centered teacher, was to find out the following answers to this question:

“What is your biggest struggle with writing a good, clear essay in English? In Russian? Do you have the same problems or how are they different?”

These are some answers from my masters students:

“I think I lack vocabulary in English, Russian is a difficult language and even writing in Russian is also difficult…”

“…introduction part to body, I usually do not write in Russian, but if I do, the problems are the same.”

“In English to find the right words to form an idea…In Russian to formulate sentences…the problems are almost the same.”

“There is no problem to me writing in Russian, you can see my articles on”

 “The biggest struggle in writing essay both in English and Russian is planning essay and orphgraphy.”

Vocabulary [in English] I don’t have any big struggle with writing essay in Russian.”

“Only problem is the topic of an essay…if I am not interested with it, it is very hard for me to make myself even start writing.”

“My English vocabulary is very, very poor.”

“Lack of vocabulary.”

“I don’t like writing.”

“Biggest obstacle is starting and when I start, the essay writing just flows smoothly.”

We as teachers in the Language Center use the process approach in teaching writing.  I did that same approach successfully back in the U.S. as well as Ukraine.  You need to see each students’ progress from A to Z (beginning of their choice of topic to final product of their paper).  However, one student showed me a glaring example of how to try to cheat the teacher.  I had a very stern talking to with her about how insulting it was to get an already finished paper from her ahead of the scheduled due date.  What was she thinking?  I wanted to see her summaries of two scholarly journal articles plus her working bibliography.  Instead I got a completed paper with the correct title page. I was NOT pleased!

The tipping point for me that this was either a paper she pulled off the Internet or she did this paper before or bought it from a “friend” was that she had not known how to answer a simple question, “What is an in-text citation according to APA formatting?”  She had in her paper, many examples of citations but she couldn’t answer that question in the midterm exam or when I talked to her last night.  I said that she had better get her assignments done the way *I* want them done before I turn in the midterm grades on Friday.

This morning I got an e-mailed midterm exam, late by the way, from one of my writing students who was supposed to have done a 50 minute timed writing back on October 8th.  I conferenced with him yesterday and told him that I had not received it and that I had e-mailed him back on the 8th that I had not gotten it.  No response, not until I saw what he submitted with a reworked thesis statement in the first paragraph and all the hyperlinks of what he had pulled off the Internet and was claiming as his own. 

I e-mailed this particular student that I needed to talk to him.  He will get a stern talking to also.  Obviously, he is a weak student as is the other student from my masters class.  Weak students and weak people go about cheating tactics.  I feel sorry for them but they will have to fail. 

It seems that all my other students appreciated my student-centered approach and would do better to improve their grade for the last half of the semester.  I should hope so, some are not doing their assignments while others are doing a GREAT job. 

Such is life on our campus while the autumn leaves continue to hang in there on the trees.  If this were Minnesota, they would have been long ago wind blown to the ground.  I love it here in Almaty, Kazakhstan!!!

Comments (1) »

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?










Comments (3) »

A Kazakh Linguist’s “Secret” to Learning Languages

Last night we enjoyed a meal at our place with a very talented linguist (let’s call him Murat).  He claims to know 15 languages and I believe him.  Russian was his first language even though he is ethnically Kazakh.  Eventually Murat mastered Kazakh, as well as Ukrainian, Uzbek along with being very proficient in German and English.  What a delight to get acquainted again with Murat after a hurried meeting in the Minneapolis airport 14 years ago when Ken was traveling with him from Washington D.C. to visit some Montana farms.  Ken and Murat go way back with their shared experiences in Soviet agriculture.


Twenty years ago, as a Communist party leader, Murat traveled with President Nazarbayev to the U.S. looking at American agriculture.  Later their delegation went to Canada representing the U.S.S.R.  In the U.S. they went as private citizens to many states, notably Kansas and later to New York where Murat’s cousin lived.  Their per diem as “communist big wigs” was $17 a day.  Murat’s cousin hosted them in New York and handed them hundreds of dollars of extra spending money, he knew $17 was not enough, especially in New York.  This same cousin of Murat’s, who is a noted Kazakh poet, was nominated to run against President Nazarbayev in an earlier presidential election.  Somehow he was talked out of his ambition for Kazakhstan’s top job and encouraged to pursue his career in poetry.  Murat’s cousin currently has an ambassador post in Italy where he can represent Kazakhstan while he writes Kazakh poems. Being linguistically inclined must run in Murat’s family.


Murat shared this advice about language learning which I think an important clue to his success:  “You have to love the people of the language you are studying.  Learn their songs, their jokes, their sayings…it does not work for Kazakh students to be forcefully told by the President to learn English or to think you will get a better job if you master the language.”  Murat went on to say that the best Russian spies who worked with the Germans succeeded only because they loved the German language and German people. (Putin comes to mind.) 


Murat emphasized, “Basic [to language learning] is that you have to love their tradition, their music.”  He heard someone say, “Switch off the Kazakh music!”  Murat is able to predict that that person would NEVER learn Kazakh with that kind of attitude.  Murat has translated into Kazakh the American folksongs “Where Have all the Flowers Gone” and also “This Land is Your Land.”  Murat did the same with translating four verses into Kazakh a German folk tune he learned from ethnic Germans born in Kazakhstan.  However, back in Germany the Germans only knew two of the verses to this very famous tune.  Obviously Murat has an ear for music which helps in language learning


Another secret to Murat’s achievement as a linguist who has mastered many languages is “Then you have to work hard, work continuously.”  He began reading English since 1966-67 every day.  He tells young people, “if you will do this, you will be better than me.”  Murat also strongly exhorts young people with, “Lazy bones, you can’t even imagine self-study in the 1960s when I learned English with only a rotating record and 25 lessons on it.  I couldn’t even imagine to travel or live in English speaking countries back in those times.  Now there is CNN to listen to American and British English, this generation has it so easy.” 


Even after 40 years he still has some of those first lessons in English committed to memory:  Mr. Green gets up early in the morning.  He dresses himself, he washes himself.”  He asks “Is breakfast ready?” then “We are having some people over for supper this evening.”  “It comes as a surprise to me what strange things people eat.  You stick to fish and chips I suppose.”  Murat listened and repeated after the record phrases over and over again.  Murat also added, “Most important I enjoyed doing it, I tried to pronounce in the same way as the native speaker, to pick up a faster speed, as fast as he speaks.”  Another key to his accomplishment was he would remember one sentence, but then insert other words in that sentence. 


Murat is a true linguist as he puzzled over westerners’ use of the word chernozem which means “black soil” in Russian.  [A very sophisticated classification system of soil was invented by Russian agronomist, Dokuchaev which unfortunately has fallen into disuse]. Agriculturalists today worldwide will mistakenly say “brown chernozem” or “chestnut chernozem” or “dark brown chernozem” but most confounding to Murat was when westerners say “black chernozem” which means black black soil to him.  We had a laugh about the nuances of languages.


Another sad but true story was when Murat was awarded by President Nazarbayev one of the first prizes for Peace in 1992.  Back then two others were also given the honor with the equivalent of $10,000 in roubles.  However, in those chaotic, first days of Kazakhstan, the worth of the rouble was plunging.  Murat’s prize amounted to only about $500 in cash prize, but the three had not even received that amount.  When Murat asked about it a year later, he was only given $200 worth of money.  Ten years later, Murat learned from other honored recipients of the distinguished, Presidential prize they received their full compensation of $10,000 worth of tenge.  He just shook his head with a smile, wistfully thinking what might have been.  Many people lost money during the early years of Kazakhstan.


Finally, as an English writing teacher I HAD to ask Murat what helpful hints he could tell me about his learning to write in English.  As a scientist, he knows how important writing is even though he has written many books about agriculture in Russian and Kazakh; he gets much of his material from literature in English. Murat said, “I worked in an international center for ten years, where every day I was writing.  More reading, more translation, if you do automatic translation, learn to speak and translating simultaneously, writing comes more naturally… you have to be committed, I knew that writing is important, as a scientist I had to learn how to write and later to publish.


One thing Murat ruefully noticed while he worked in this international office is that, “All [Kazakh] staff was local, all spoke English, but they didn’t make any effort to improve themselves in writing. They reached a certain level of proficiency and that was enough for them.” 


I fully appreciate President Nazarbayev’s vision about higher education in Kazakhstan.  In his most recent book The Kazakhstan Way on p. 329 he ended with a Kazakh proverb: “Try to master seven languages and know seven sciences.”  I believe Murat has more than achieved that as a linguist and as a scientist.  I would hope my future Kazakh students would share Murat’s contagious enthusiasm for learning. 

Comments (4) »

Reality Leadership and Helping Baghdad


 Our university schedule is coming to a screeching halt; we are sooo ready for the end of THIS semester.  Yesterday I got an e-mail from a former student of mine named Baghdad, he showed himself to be a very conscientious student when learning English.  However, I might add, I didn’t work at all with his writing.  This is his e-mail to me:  “I need your help!  I am going to try to win the scholarship of _____ company…I wrote about me for this response.  You cant imagine about my writing skills.  It’s awfull!! But I tried to write and it looks like this (Please, could you check it, correct huge mistakes and add something else to support my article):”


I was more than happy to help Baghdad and he was right, there were many errors such as:  “But let’s talk about myself.  At university I am one of the best student.” Once I cleaned up those minor errors I sent it back to him.  I am only too eager to help my Kazakh students to achieve the highest possible awards and scholarships they can attain while they are still young and energetic.  Baghdad had wanted to go to the U.S. this summer but his parents would not permit him to go.  Thus, whatever opportunities avail themselves here in Kazakhstan; I want to help him and others like him.


Thinking about leadership at our university I came across this quote by businessman and author Max De Pree.  His leadership moved his company near the top of the Fortune 500, he wrote:  “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.  The last is to say thank you.  In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor.  That sums up the progress of an artful leader.” I’m not so convinced that many leaders at the top of our administration have this ability to deal with reality or to be gracious as a servant-leader.  However, I believe some of them are “artful” in other regards.  I won’t go there by what I mean with artfully “crafty.”


Reality at our English Language Center is that many Kazakh teachers are working hard to teach their Kazakh students research methods.  Sadly, they themselves have not been taught how to write papers according to APA style.  What was rather vexing for some writing teachers was to get a Faculty Evaluation Form that would list their teaching load and then the next page was to fill out their “Research and Scholarly Activities.”  Reality is that many of our writing teachers have a B.A. and have never written a journal article or authored a research book or edited one.  They have not given a conference proceedings paper or done a business case studies.  For each of these they are to award points for being published by an international publisher.  For example, 3-4 points for a textbook and 4-8 points for a research book. (Maximum points for full time teachers is 30 points).


One can receive 15 points for “Administrative Contributions and management participation.”  All this is itemized out to see if the teacher would be awarded a promotion considering all the abovementioned categories.  Sending this Faculty Evaluation form to our Language Center is NOT dealing with REALITY!!!  Technically, the Language Center has long been thought to be the “service arm” to the rest of the university and not outfitted to do research.   Neither is our administration dealing with reality when this form is sent to many of the “Ph.D. professors” who try to pass off scholarly journal articles and award themselves points that clearly would not pass muster in a university in the West.  Such as, (fill in the blank with a Third World Country):  _________Journal of Development;  Journal of the Asiatic Society of __________; BIISS Journal (don’t know what those letters stand for but that is how it was listed). 

Seeing full professors put down Vanity Press publications is another favorite of mine when I see what passes for “scholarly work” such as University Press of America.  That is fine if you are proud of being from America but many of these professors are NOT from America!!!  Don’t even get me started on website publications that are passed off as peer-reviewed and scholarly!!!  Unfortunately, some of these professors will grab for promotional points any way they can.


If someone from the West reads what I am writing, they would not believe what passes for REALITY at our institution of “higher learning” in Kazakhstan.  But then again, I fear that not much learning is happening in the West anymore and that is why I am very eager to watch “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” once I get back to the U.S. this summer, the Lord willing.




Comments (1) »