Thursday, January 16, 2014

Writing as global citizens--a hopeful reflection on my goals for this semester

As a teacher, I'm always looking for ways to increase student engagement in the material. In a required freshman-level writing course, it is essential that I create assignments that are relevant to their lives and more important, interesting.

This semester, I am trying to bring out global citizens in my students. I hope for them to gain an appreciation for other countries, cultures, and languages as they practice valuable reading and writing skills.

One way that my students are getting exposure to another culture is through pen pals at Far East University. I was contacted by a teacher looking to set up an exchange between her Korean (and other nationalities) students and students studying here at Northern Arizona University.

From the outset, I faced a challenge: the classes at Far East were smaller than expected, and my classes often overflow during the first week until everything settles out. Due to the short English camp at Far East, I wanted to get our project going right away--on the second day of class. Having 50 students to pair with the 30 or so from Far East, I assigned students to work in pairs to write their pals. Although I was concerned that my students would have trouble navigating a letter with more than one author, the pair work was a huge success. Students were collaborating in the truest sense by asking each other content and language-based questions. What do you think about this word? Would our pal understand it? Should we ask this question? How do you think I say say that? What I saw as they composed together was amazing in terms of communication and revision, and it was only the second day of class! I was so proud of my students, and I hope that their pals enjoy the letters. I can't wait to see what these students learn from each other and how their worldviews might change.

In addition to the pen pals, students in my class begin the semester doing rhetorical analysis. They write an essay in which they deconstruct a text and analyze the effectiveness of the author for a particular audience and purpose. In the past, I've given students a few choices of essays from our textbook to analyze. This assignment has worked in the past, but the main complaint from students is that it's boring. What a buzz-kill in a required class. The main reason that I chose essays from the book was that I wanted students to get their money's worth from the book--something I'd call: "on principle" rather than because I'm passionate about it. While I still think students should get their money's worth out of the book (they will!), I don't think it should be at the expense of fuller engagement with an important assignment that has so many interesting applications.

In order to capitalize on the flexibility of the assignment, my students will be analyzing the rhetoric of text- and media-rich websites. Digital literacy, including the ability to evaluate and analyze the wealth of information on the internet is one of the skills that university students must have. Not only for college, but also for life! Therefore, I want to help them see how the concept of rhetoric is applicable not only to essays, speeches, and more traditional modes of rhetoric, but how it plays out on the web and all around us. I also happen to be very interested in the rhetoric surrounding whales right now. The documentary Blackfish exposes the dark side of whales held in captivity, but the SeaWorld website makes an attempt to counter the claims made by Blackfish. On a related note, the Sea Shepherd organization, who are often called "eco-terrorists", have campaigns waged both on the ocean and on the web against the killing and mistreatment of sea animals. Students can choose between the Sea Shepherd website or the SeaWorld website to analyze for their essays, and we will watch and analyze the Blackfish trailer in class to get students interested. Because I read so many of these essays, it is certainly to my benefit to select topics for students that interest me. However, a side benefit of assigning a choice between these two topics is that it encourages students to think critically about a real world issue.  Examining the rhetoric around these issues becomes a natural extension of reading and thinking about the interesting (and often conflicting!) information on the websites. Thus, student engagement is up, and I hope to see that engagement reflected in thoughtful rhetorical analysis essays.

The dual focus on content about whales and writing instruction is reminiscent of a popular ESL teaching approach known as Content-Based Instruction (CBI). As my teaching career has included both ESL instruction (mostly English for Academic Purposes, EAP) and freshman composition, I have begun to realize the symbiotic relationship between these two seemingly very different types of teaching. My training in both areas often build on each other as a hybrid teaching style with a sensitivity to language use, international perspectives, and expectations in "the academy". In the coming months, I hope to reflect more about how ESL and freshman composition compliment each other, and how (and why!) I approach my non-native-speaker-only section of freshman composition differently from my sections made up mostly of native speakers.

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