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Working with English Language Learners by embracing the challenges they face
One of the most common points of confusion and anxiety that I come across across in working with faculty is the question of how to assess and support English language learners. How does one engage with writing that can present as overwhelmingly loaded with surface errors? Can someone who doesn’t have formal TESOL training productively work with with ESL students? In giving feedback on ELL writing, what will actually be helpful? How do one’s usual standards for responding to student writing apply when the writing contains a number of disfluencies? At the root of all these questions is a tension between devotion to teaching on the one hand, and uncertainty of how to help on the other.
Languages are bewilderingly complex things. Every language variety is its own lovely, idiosyncratic, and largely illogical collections of structures, conventions, and ways of thinking about the world. Learning a language (or progressing in fluency) as an adult is a tremendous challenge; navigating an institution of higher education in a non-native language is a profound undertaking, worthy of the deepest respect. Alongside their journey towards full fluency and mastery of American discourse conventions, English language learners face the same challenge that any college writer faces— learning to navigate the complex thoughts, ideas, habits of mind, and styles of argumentation that exist within the academy and within academic disciplines—but do so without the benefit of being able to draw on the unconscious ease of communication we all enjoy in our native language.
English language learners, like all writers, are on a journey. TESOL specialists have an especially important role to play in helping ELLs along in this journey. But every one of us who uses and teaches writing in our courses stands to offer important assistance to ELL writers. We can do this by posing the questions to ourselves, for every course and for every assignment: where is this student in their progress as a writer and learner of English, and how can I best focus my energy to help them—not to full fluency, not to mastery of academic writing, but to the next stage in their journey? What feedback can I offer in service of this specific, targeted goal? How can my assessment of this student reflect my personal goal to help them along this path?
The most important assistance, however, that we can offer to English language learners is in respecting them as thinkers and writers, even (and especially) when disfluencies in writing make the underlying thought and argumentation hard to see. Most of the ways we can do this are good pedagogy for working with any student writer, regardless of language background: making sure to comment on argumentation and ideas, not just surface issues. Avoiding line-by-line commentary, highlighting patterns rather than isolated issues. Pointing out what’s being done well, in addition to what needs works. Providing, minimally, an early drafting phase to explore ideas without having to worry about surface polish. Creating a grading rubric that clearly identifies the percentage of grade based on grammar and word choice, and sticking to it. Above all, what we as teachers of writing can provide depends on our ability to see the student behind the writing, and to engage with ELL students as sophisticated thinkers and creators of ideas, even as they work towards mastery of English.
Using Portfolios to Teach Reflective Writing & Narratives of Learning
Whether you’re teaching a “W” course or not, in a twelve-week semester, fitting in the core aims of writing pedagogy is challenging. You have to offer multiple opportunities for writing in different forms, with varying stakes and audiences (and levels of feedback); to offer practice in substantive revision and thoughtful reflection; to help cement learning by creating a holistic account or thick narrative about that learning, to cultivate meaningful connections (or “assignments with legs“); to help students connect authentically to their learning and to connect that learning to broader communities; and to do as much of this with playful and earnest and timely attention, to boot.
It’s truly an art of juggling, a balancing act — one where often as not I drop at least one plate. To help provide a net for learning, I’ve turned to the portfolio model. Portfolios typically are a small edition of polished works, introduced by a reflective essay, often followed by a selection of works to illustrate process, and usually including an archive of relevant learning materials. There is rich literature in the field on the benefits of using portfolios to help students reflect on what they are doing, to develop meta-narratives of course learning in conversation with others, and to provide a richer context for revising and polishing their work. Portfolios also can help students bridge their learning as writers across our curriculum. Like any other strategy, they are not the be-all and end-all of accomplishing our aims in teaching writing, but they can help create a place where students can synthesize what they are learning about content and process.
Despite differences in what’s possible in paper vs online platforms, portfolios can build on key principles from writing transfer theory to help students develop awareness of their learning (metacognition), forge authentic connections to their purpose and audiences, and create a thick story of learning of both content and process. Students leave the class with a stronger sense of accomplishment and the relevance of their work to their education and their purposes in the broader world.
Here are slides from a recent presentation as a member of a panel on Using Portfolios in Classes, sponsored by the Faculty Commons. It draws on a handful of key threshold concepts for writing from Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s important anthology, Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (2015). It also includes links to a few sample student portfolios, available to the Bates community.
My students’ portfolios are not perfect works. The early ones I assigned in my FYS “Reading the Wild” functioned more as an archive for course writing than as vehicle for reflection, synthesis and learning. There may still have been benefit to that process, as students had to engage in another level of revision, to select examples from earlier drafts and informal pieces, and thereby to create a fuller story of their education as writers.
In ENVR 450 “Environmental Writing in the Public Sphere,” senior ES majors designed portfolios to highlight a single larger work (or series of connected works) on a self-selected topic in their concentration, written for a public audience in a recognizable genre like the long form essay or referenced blog posts. Smaller pieces in different genres helped students experiment with different points of view and see their topic with fresh eyes. A substantive reflection on the process of writing and learning introduced the whole thing. Students were also free to use a platform of their own choosing. For these seniors, as for most writers, it was a juggling act, as they shared what they learned as scholars with intended audiences who are not, all the while trying out new forms and media.
And for me, that process of learning, where we’re throwing plates in the air and hoping for lovely patterns but finding, inevitably, fragments on the floor — well (syntax be hanged), it is that process that helps us through to find and to create lasting meaning through our words, and impacts that go beyond our classroom doors.
Code-Meshing and Writing Across Curriculum (WAC) Pedagogy
In 1988, Gayatri Spivak provocatively asked: “can the subaltern speak?” Spivak, a theorist of postcoloniality, contends that members of “subalterns” communities—most often people of color, post-colonial subjects, women, low-income people—“are never quite able to speak or write from their own ways of knowing.”
In his 2013 essay entitled “Subversive Complicity and Basic Writing Across the Curriculum” Victor Villanueva deftly applies Spivak’s concern of “subaltern silences and elisions” to college writing pedagogy and practice. Villanueva convincingly argues that “writing is epistemological.”
Indeed, college writing is an epistemological act rooted in a particular way of marshaling and valorizing arguments, according to Villanueva, most often based in “edited American English and Aristotelian logic.” Contrary to the notion that “writing is just writing,” Villanueva argues that “expository and argumentative academic writing tends to work from an older Roman legal tradition, in which he jurors or judges must know an argument’s general premises or assertions first, so as to prepare listeners for the arguments to follow (and thereby judge).”
In an effort to name and challenge such allegedly epistemologically neutral origins—and to ensure that the subaltern can speak (and write) in rarefied academic spaces—Villanueva recommends a writing pedagogy that values code-meshing: an approach to writing centered on blending language codes and conventions in the classroom, rather than switching from one set of discursive codes to another, depending on the “appropriate” social and linguistic contexts. (https://www.uc.edu/content/dam/uc/journals/composition-studies/docs/bookreviews/43-2/Krichevsky%2043.2.pdf)
What does a code-meshing writing pedagogy look like in practice? Villanueva writes, “[once students and I] establish something about language as epistemological and a social construction, we discuss conventions…a matter of registers and codes (speaking to an elder versus speaking to a peer, say).” During the first draft phase of writing assignments “students are encouraged to write ‘naturally,’ in their own ways. Then we work through papers together. Unlike the standard model of the writing process, we begin with editing…[through which] we translate the student’s discourse onto something akin to academic discourse, especially as pertains to audience. In the process, students become conscious translators of their own ways with words to those of the academic discourse community.” It is in the act of becoming “conscious translators” of one’s “writing self” in which students—especially college students from the “subaltern”—may be able to balance the dictates and conventions of academic discourse without leaving their bodies, minds, and experiences at the door of the composition classroom.
Welcome to the Writing at Bates Blog!
Writing at Bates is a program dedicated to supporting faculty as teachers of writing, and students as writers, at Bates College. The work that we do here is typical in many ways of college and university writing across the curriculum programs— faculty workshops, cups of coffee and tea over syllabi and draft writing prompts, consultations with student writers—tweaked locally, as every WAC program is, for the circumstances of our institutional context. We’re a group of people with very different scholarly backgrounds and interests, united by a passion for writing and the teaching of writing.
In the course of this work, and in our reading, and as we engage with each other, our peers on campus, and our national colleagues, we come often across topics that pique our interest or bear a little more discussion than we typically get to have in the course of a busy day. This blog is a venue for us to break down those ideas in the way that we, as writers and teachers of writing, most love to do it. It’s a place for us to share the wonderful moments and conversations and insights around writing that often emerge in meetings, workshops, and conversations, and give them a wider audience than the people in the room at the time. It’s a space for us to explore some of the areas of pedagogy that are most exciting to us, and to connections between writing pedagogy and the social-justice-oriented mission of Bates College. And we very much hope it’s a space you find meaningful, as a site for connecting with us and with others over writing, teaching, and the power of both to make the world a better place. Thanks for joining us. All of us at Writing at Bates look forward to connecting with you here.
Director, Writing at Bates