Posts tagged Fulbright Scholar

Restore Dignity to My Students and Their Grandparents

One of the cardinal sins of any English teacher is to assign a homework assignment to their dear students and not do it themselves.  On a couple occasions I would try to cut corners and tell my American students to read from their textbook pages 55-80 and then I just briefly skimmed over it and gave them a quiz on what I thought were the highpoints.  Guilty as charged!  But truth be told, I didn’t commit this sin too often and it was only my nerdy A students who followed all my directions and assignments that read everything from their textbook.  What I see at our Kazakhstan institution of higher learning is that writing teachers are assigning their poor students to write a highly intricate, complex essay without writing it themselves. 


I’m becoming a more student-centered teacher the longer I live in Central Asia or I appear more so being surrounded by heavily equipped teacher-centered methodologies.  When I taught as a Fulbright Scholar at a westernized university in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in 1993-95, I purposely did not join in the fray with the younger American teachers who were claiming that the Kyrgyz teachers were WRONG in the way they were teaching their students.  I thought, how did these students learn to speak English with no native speakers around them during the period of being closed off in the Soviet Union?  The Kyrgyz students, no different than the Chinese, memorized everything and to learn any language, memorization is key.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I thought to myself. I was pleasantly surprised at the abilities of my Kyrgyz students, that is, until I had them do in-class writing for me.  Different ball game, but they produced writing samples in English by journaling.


When I taught English courses in China, again I was surrounded by a very heavy teacher-centered style of teaching and I remember the Chinese teachers fine tuning their grading of exams to the nth degree.  A third of a point could potentially be taken off for answering the question thus and so.  Fortunately, I had such big classes back then because all the Chinese students wanted some exposure to an American, a native speaker of English, I don’t recall administering tests.  I really don’t know how I graded my Chinese students but in one class I had 60 in a Speaking and Listening class.  SomehowI coped.


What I witnessed last semester was the same feverish penchant to assign points to every jot and tittle that the students wrote in their two essays.  We worked through the scoring rubric for their final portfolio project so that it was explicit about what the students should have in their problem and solution essay.  We did not mandate what kind of outline the students’ essays should follow in the scoring rubric.  Unfortunately I have to keep emphasizing that point.


Noone likes to be accused of being WRONG but I’ve been getting that in liberal doses lately from one of my fellow teachers.  She was not even a part of last semester’s team of our “Academic Reading and Writing” group but I think she is speaking to me out of a sense of duty as a friend. She did not see the handout of what I offered as a different option for my students to write their final problem and solution essay simply because I am more student-centered in my approach while she is clearly TEACHer-centered.


Even though it is not in our syllabus that we are to have this particular outline to follow, talking to her you would have thought it was cut in stone like the Ten Commandments.  This is what seemingly was mandatory for the students to follow:


I.                   Problem (example of topics:  high school dropouts, drugs, obesity, insomnia)

II.                Solution One

A.   Advantages

B.    Disadvantages

III.             Solution Two – (the advantages are supposed to outweigh the disadvantages)

A. Advantages

B. Disadvantages

     IV. Conclusion


Now add to this already restrictive outline of a 1,000 word essay, the students were supposed to come up with FIVE sources to pepper throughout the paper with in-text citations to buttress their points.  Afterall, this was an Academic course we were teaching where the students were to learn APA style which has enough of their own quirky regimented rules. (hopefully the students would come to know there are as many different formatting styles as there are publishers) In our case, we dispensed with having an Abstract for such a short paper and there were other adaptations made too.  Examples off of OWL website or a writing textbook I used showed differences in APA nitpickiness.  However, as a teacher I told my own students I would NOT allow for any of their sources to be off the Internet, no “Anonymous” would be found in their References page.  I wanted all my students to be equipped for the rest of their academic career with utilizing the electronic research databases.


This electronic, digital age we are living in the 21 century is all very new to some of my Kazakh teaching colleagues.  Who would have anticipated that volumes and reams of paper which are found in the stacks section of every library would be digitized to be viewed 10,000 miles away on our computers?  None of the teacher-centered teachers went to school learning this, but our students are living in a digital age and they need to learn it to keep up.  Especially true of Russian teachers who were schooled under the Soviet system where there was only ONE way to do things.  “My way or the highway.” Or suffer in Siberia in the old days.


Therefore, it works in the Kazakhs favor to have their students memorize huge quantities of information (much like the Chinese do) which helps in learning to speak English. Learning languages is all about memorization and practicing it of course. The students can do that adeptly but learning to write is a whole new ball of wax.  The teachers themselves have not been required to write in English and perhaps in some case they have done their fair share of plagiarizing or claiming others’ words as their own.  Seems strange to have them policing their own students now on this issue of plagiarism.  I can understand why the very, very restrictive outline, it is to make sure nothing is taken off the Internet lock, stock and barrel and claimed as their own. 


I challenge these same self-made English teachers to provide good writing examples for their Kazakh students so they know what is expected of them. Let me repeat for emphasis, I think the teachers should write the essay they assign their students, it would be a cardinal sin NOT to do so.  I provided my students with an example of what I wanted and gave them other handouts as well.  It does no good to take an example off the Internet and say, “This is what your problem-solution essay should look like.”  Besides, these teachers won’t find their convoluted way of writing a prescriptive problem-solution on the Internet as an example because no one would even conceive of writing such a 1,000 word essay, not in a student centered classroom.  Not with five in-text citations, not with two solutions and the second one must have more advantages than disadvantages!!!

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