Saturday, April 07, 2007

Two Miles But Quite a Distance

Come to my session at CATESOL in San Diego, "Two Miles But Quite a Distance," on Saturday, April 14th from 11:15-12:00 noon in Royal Palm Five.

Abstract for Program:

After 15 years in adult education, last September the presenter became a full-time college ESOL teacher. In this paper, she will share reflections on her transition and the implications for adult education and college teaching. Participants will be invited to reflect and dialogue. Handout with sample materials will be provided.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Catching my breath

In one week I'll be presenting at CATESOL on this subject . . . my transition and adult ed. students' transition to college. What will I say? During these past months, several questions have been asked or implied: What can adult ed. ESL teachers do to prepare their students for college? Does the college ESOL curriculum meet the needs/goals of its students? At what point should non-native speakers leave ESOL behind? How can or should adult and college faculty collaborate? How can or should ESOL and content faculty collaborate? These are big questions, but they also suggest an agenda. If we are to facilitate adult ed. students' transition, we need to engage in curriculum review and dialogue. The conversation should include ESL faculty from both divisions, English Department faculty, ESL learners, counselors, and subject matter faculty.

In fact, this need became apparent at our last English Dept. meeting as we began a serious discussion of learning communities (paired courses in which students enroll in both sections, for example a developmental reading course paired with a developmental writing course, or an English course paired with a history or math course). The advantages of these pairings are multiple: improved retention/persistence; increased learning; renewed curriculum, and energized instruction. Some faculty argued strongly that there should be compensation to participating faculty because of the extra preparation and collaboration time. Then came a plaintive request from our Assistant Dept. Chair -- In our enthusiasm for learning communities, let us not forget nor neglect the need for curriculum review in all our basic courses, especially English 51 (the developmental writing course prior to English 101 which requires passsing a timed five-parapgraph essay on a topic agreed upon by all three college campuses within our district). The discussion then became focused on this need, the need to re-do English 51. Soon, we realized that if we revamp pivotal English 51, we will need to scrutinize all developmental courses, including ESOL. The discusssion gave me a chance to voice some of the questions and concerns that have been populating this blog. I expect that curriculum will be an emphasis in the coming year in our department, and I say, the broader and more inclusive the conversation and the participation is, the better.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

My mind is still racing. More thoughts about ESOL vs. content courses . . .

First, I want to thank anonymous, Liz Flynn, and Dave Williams for responding to my last post. I found your insights and anecdotes enlightening. Let me just quote each briefly. Anonymous wrote, "ESL classes should foster language skills, not delay attainment of goals and dreams." Flynn wrote that she advises students who are transitioning differently depending on "his/her skills and the major being considered." Williams wrote about LVN students who are non-native speakers, "Would all of these students benefit from a higher mastery of the English language? Almost certainly, but the fact is they still achieve success without it." Check out their full comments.

I've had some interesting experiences this semester relating to this issue. First, at a pre-semester workshop on learner persistence, I had the opporunity to work with faculty from different disciplines. In one discussion, talk turned to the issue of ESOL students. A professor from Radio/TV shared that he had had a Japanese student in his scriptwriting class the previous semester. She showed wonderful imagination and creativity in her writing; however, her language skills interfered with her ability to communicate effectively. His dilemma -- and it clearly worried him -- was what grade to give her. If he gave her a "C," no film school would accept her. With a "D," she would be able to repeat the course, but again, no film school would accept her. In the end (to his great relief), she pulled out a "B." But, he was still concerned about whether she really had the language skills to be successful. And, he was concerned about this issue coming up again with other ESOL students. It made me think about all the brilliant, hardworking ESOL students in content classes. Their instructors clearly root for them. They want them to succeed, and yet, they don't want to pass them on with insufficient skills -- perhaps setting them up for failure. At what point, if any, should language fluency and accuracy become the primary goal?

Other stories . . . I have two ESOL students this semester who are coming back to ESOL after having taken content courses. One is in my intermediate writing class. She took all content courses last semester after graduating from high school in June. She told me that a Chicano Studies course overwhelmed her because of the writing involved. She said she thought she passed because the professor could see how hard she was working. Her plan is to finish ESOL before going on to more content courses that require substantial writing.

The other student presents an interesting case. She has completed all her requirements for the AA degree in Child Development, except for English. (She stopped ESOL after one semester.) She is working as a pre-school teacher right now and has been for some time. During the course of her child development program, however, she came to realize that she was struggling excessively due to her limited English. She is now taking ESOL 20 (low intermediate writing/grammar), and she says that she is just beginning to understand how to write an essay. She advises other students to finish ESOL first.

Perhaps what these stories tell us is that the answer is individual. At the same time, I do believe that students should have the opportunity to hear about other ESOL students' experiences, and that faculty and counselors should be honest about each student's strengths and weaknesses as well as the demands of courses or majors.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Of many minds . . .

I've been reflecting on my first semester teaching at City College. One student, in particular, comes to mind. She is a 44-year-old former teacher from Somalia. She is a dedicated student who had completed level 6 (advanced low) in Continuing Ed. before transferring to City. Although she initially placed into the lowest level of ESOL at City, she started taking Child Development and other content courses concurrently with ESOL. She has passed all of her classes thus far.

Her counselor advised her to bypass additional ESOL and focus on completing her AA degree. She did not want to do that -- She told me that she wanted "a firm base" in English, that as a teacher, she knows that reading and communicating in English are fundamental. However, by the end of this semester, having successfully completed ESOL 20, 21, and 22, (intermediate writing/grammar, reading, and listening/speaking) she decided to follow her counselor's advice and postpone ESOL studies until after she finishes her AA in Child Development. Completing ESOL would simply take too long.

Her decision raises several questions for me. Will she need ESOL to reach her goal? Will she be able to complete her AA without additional ESOL or developmental English courses? If so, what does that say about the expecations and standards in ESOL classes and those in subject matter courses? Let me also state that I think this student was properly assessed and placed. To my English teacher mind, she would definitely benefit from the next two levels of ESOL. She is still developing college-level reading and writing skills. More questions . . . Assuming she achieves her goal, will she be able to obtain employment and perform successfully on the job? Will her language skills hinder her or limit her opportunities? Would she be able to transfer to a university -- and will she be prepared to do so?

And heres's a biggee for me as a new college teacher . . . Does our ESOL program meet the needs of our students?

Any answers out there? Thoughts? Anecdotes?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Well, how did I get here?

As I was scrambling to prepare to teach my first classes at the college level (having gotten the offer only two weeks prior to the start of fall), I obtained the official course outlines and then I started collecting syllabi from colleagues and off the Internet. I was surprised by a couple of things. First, there was a tremendous amount of graded work -- from quizzes to homework to in-class essays to take-home essays to class participation to oral presentations to journals to tests, midterms, and finals. Deciding what to grade, how much to grade, and the weighting of assignments was completely new to me. Most surprising, however, were the extremely detailed instructions on how missed work would be handled. In almost every syllbus I found statements such as, "There are no make-ups for missed quizzes or graded assignments." Or, "Essays are due on the due date. Late essays will be lowered by one letter grade (10%). No essay may be turned in more than one week late and only one late essay will be accepted in the semester." Regarding attendance, "If you are absent three times, you may be dropped from the class. Two tardies count as an absence. Leaving early or coming back late from break counts as a tardy." These syllabi attempted to ward off -- or have an answer for -- any possible excuse, justification, or life event that students could imagine. Fearful of flaky college students trying to manipulate me, I dutifully included such policies.

Toto, we're not in adult ed. any more.

Now that the first semester is winding down, I believe that most syllabi's bark is worse than their bite. We are, after all, human -- students and teachers alike. However, I also believe that having some policies in place is essential for one's sanity. I just need to decide for myself what I'm truly comfortable with -- and what I can realistically enforce. It will evolve.

So, do I think that adult ed. needs to model this sort of rigor (rigidity)? No, I don't. I do think that it would be a good idea for adult ed. students, who are considering college, to read some college syllabi -- that would be a good reading task. They should have an idea of what college is and how it is different. I had two young brothers from Chechnya in my writing class this semester. Because of the demands of their jobs, they had to drop. They really wanted the challenge that college offered, but they were not prepared for the reality of its demands. They told me that they will be back next semester, having made the necessary arrangements in their complicated lives. I hope they return. If not, adult ed. should be there for them.

Friday, November 17, 2006

What they really need . . .

I recently attended my first ESOL grading session. Faculty teaching the same level of ESOL meet to read and evaluate student mid-term essays, which were written based on the same prompt. Essays are then "scored" on a High Pass/Pass/Low Pass/No Pass basis. I was, at first, a little taken aback by the emphasis on essay form in the scoring, i.e. Is there a clear thesis statement? Do they have two body paragraphs with topic sentences? The level I teach is intermediate (ESOL 20); they have two levels of ESOL and a developmental English composition course (ENGL 51) to pass before they can move on to English 101. In other words, they will be learning how to write a five-paragraph essay for the next year to year and a half, minimum.

The question I had been mulling over about the focus on essay form sharpened after I had a conversation with one of my colleagues. He affirmed, "Our ESOL students, by the time they exit ESOL 40, know how to write an essay. They've got that down. However, they struggle in ENGL 51 because of their sentence structure, grammar, and vocabulary. Many of them have to repeat the course." I reflected on the developmental reading class I am teaching (ENGL 56). Many of the former ESOL students in my class were having a terrible time restating main ideas in their own words (the focus on our current chapter). An impoverished vocabulary, reading difficulties, and limited understanding of sentence structure contribute significantly to their struggles.

So, my question is . . . what should our focus be in the lower levels of ESOL? Do we need to re-think our curriculum?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Conversing with Continuing Ed. ESOL Teachers

A few weeks ago, I attended the San Diego Regional CATESOL conference. I was caught off guard when a former colleague said, "I heard that you think we aren't preparing students for college." By "we" she was referring to Continuing Education, the adult ed. division of the SDCCD. I let her know that the rumor mill hadn't quite maintained the integrity of my comments. True, I had remarked to a couple of Continuing Ed. buddies that the credit ESOL courses were substantially more demanding than the CE classes (in general) and that CE students at the high intermediate to advanced level were placing into the lower levels of college ESOL, primarily because of their academic reading and writing skills. The stakes are just much, much higher, and the pressure is intense -- timed in-class essays, take-home essays, midterms, finals, GRADES.

A little later that day, I spoke with two advanced level CE teachers and shared some of my perceptions. They agreed that there was a large gap between the two programs. The difficulty in Continuing Ed. is that not all students have academic goals. Even those that do may not attend regularly because of work or family commitments. For me, one of the beauties of adult ed. is its focus on the here and now, the eternal present of that three hour block of time. At the same time, many adult students desire the content and the rigor that will enable them to move on to college, job training, or a promotion. If adult ed. prepares those students so that they place into higher levels of ESOL, students will be on a faster track to realize their goals. There may be an issue, however, of compensating instructors who take on such a job -- grading significant numbers of essays would definitely impact workload.