Only Connect: My Ideological Stance in Content Area Instruction

Only Connect: My Ideological Stance in Content Area Instruction

I present my ideological stance in content area instruction by first providing background information about the students and their goals and challenges regarding attaining proficiency in academic literacy practices. I then briefly summarize my ideological stance regarding teaching students in content area instruction, followed by describing three pedagogical approaches to integrate academic literacy into my instruction so as to provide equity and access for all students to succeed in content understanding.

Background of students

 The classes I teach at the polytechnic (or technical college) in Singapore are heterogeneous – students have wide ranging abilities in academic reading and writing, as well as come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. However, the majority of the students can be said to be passive learners. Asian students have been brought up on a diet of passive reception of information and knowledge, thus many students tend to be quiet in class, not responding actively to teachers’ questions or whole class activities because they are not confident of their ability to do so and would rather wait for the teacher to provide the answers.

Goal: Academic Literacy

Students need to master academic literacy (i.e., academic reading and writing skills) in order to be successful in school. Such skills are important not only to understand content across different subjects, but also to do well in assessments. Furthermore, as many polytechnic students continue to further their studies at the university, mastering academic literacy is important for their educational goals. Gee (2012) defines literacy as a “[m]astery of a secondary Discourse” (p. 173), thus academic literacy of reading and writing entails mastering “distinctive ways of … writing/reading coupled with distinctive ways of acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, dressing, thinking, believing with other people and various objects, tools and technologies[.]” (p. 152). Gee argues that the mastery of a Discourse requires both acquisition through an exposure through models and learning through having meta-knowledge about the Discourse (p. 174). Thus students should not only be successful at academic skills and assimilating its accompanying actions and attitudes, they should also be aware of how they become successful in such a Discourse (p. 175), thus facilitating their cognitive development.

Challenge: Coercive Power Relations

In terms of the teachers’ attitudes toward students’ English language proficiency levels, students whose English language standardized test scores are high are expected to excel at academic reading and writing, while students who have low scores are unquestionably assumed to continue to struggle with academic reading and writing and will have little hope of making any improvements. Furthermore, students’ use of colloquial speech – their primary Discourse, to use Gee’s (2012) terms – in class is frowned upon and is seen as a reflection of their lack of academic abilities.  Thus students’ past test scores and their functioning in their primary Discourse have a deterministic effect on teachers’ expectations of students’ future performance. This reveals the coercive power relations between teachers and students where teachers indirectly prepare students to accept the status quo regarding their academic abilities (Cummins, 2003, p. 25).

 

My Ideological Stance in Content Area Instruction

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My Ideological Stance in a Nutshell

My position is that students need to be weaned off passive learning and engage in active learning because the complex nature of their content area (e.g. business and marketing subjects), as well as the demands of higher education and the workplace in a rapidly evolving social and economic environment. In addition, in order to promote mastery of the discourse of academic skills, teaching must be lead to both acquisition and learning of the discourse. Furthermore, students need to be empowered to master academic skills so that they can succeed in school, regardless of their existing English language proficiency and the beliefs that they themselves or others have about their ability.

Pedagogical Approach 1: Cooperative Learning

I choose cooperative learning to encourage positive interdependence, individual accountability, equal participation and simultaneous interaction – the four basic principles of the cooperative learning approach (Kagan, 1998, p. 108) – to foster the development of active learning, academic skills and content understanding.

Sociocultural learning theory informs this approach as an important premise of cooperative learning is the social nature of the activities. Complex mental processes begin as social activities and evolve into internal mental activities which students can use independently in the future (Ormrod, 2011, p. 40). Thus cooperative learning influences the cognitive development of students. Furthermore, the use of pair and group work in cooperative learning allows a student’s learning to be scaffolded by more capable peers who offer assistance or co-constructed together with fellow similar ability peers (p. 45). In this way, the use of scaffolding in pair and group work promotes equity and access among the heterogeneous classes that I encounter.

Pedagogical Approach 2: Modeling

According to Gee (2012), “[t]eaching that leads to acquisition means to apprentice students in a master-apprentice relationship” (p. 175) through exposure to models “in natural, meaningful, and functional settings” (p. 174). In practice, this means using content-based instruction where the teaching of academic skills is done through “exposure to content that is interesting and relevant to learners” (Brinton, 2003, p. 201). For successful modeling of academic skills to take place, the selection of content should extend over several weeks. (p. 201). Furthermore, the modeling of academic skills is optimally effective when I am able to demonstrate “not only how to do a task but also how to think about the task” (Ormrod, 2011, p. 330). Such cognitive modeling can be achieved through think-alouds where I make my thinking explicit by verbalizing my thoughts while completing a task (Vacca, Vacca, & Mraz, 2011, p. 197), for example, when planning a persuasive essay. Furthermore, according to social cognitive theory, modeling not only teaches students new behaviors and skills, it also boosts their self-confidence (Ormrod, 2011, p. 334).

Pedagogical Approach 3: Using Primary Discourse

I use students’ primary Discourse as a vehicle to mediate their learning of a secondary Discourse. A person’s primary Discourse is acquired as a result of family socialization (Gee, 2012) and for many students, their primary Discourse includes oral literacy in non-standard colloquial speech.

Students’ oral literacy, however informal and deemed unacceptable, is the carrier for their personal perspectives that needs to addressed before teachers can move on less familiar literacies of reading and writing (Kern & Schultz, 2005, p. 384). By narrowly defining academic literacy as a “strict adherence to standard forms and conventions” (p. 389), students who do not meet the standards are viewed as deficient. However, by expanding the notion of literacy through linking students’ primary Discourse to the secondary Discourse of academic skills, I explore and validate how students communicate with the resources that they have, thus empowering all students, especially the low achievers. For example, encouraging students to use informal language to talk or write about their reactions to a reading passage is a way to address their unique or even culturally-specific ways of thinking. By validating their worldview, I motivate them to connect with the academic ways of thinking that I seek to teach (Delpit, 2002, p. 45).

Conclusion

Ultimately, using the three pedagogical approaches of cooperative learning, modeling and using students’ primary Discourse help to combat the coercive power relations that exist between teachers and students. I must first be conscious of such power relations, then explore more collaborative relations of power of interacting with students so as to negotiate the “acquisition of knowledge and formation of identity” (Cummins, 2003, p. 19). In other words, I must be conscious of affirming my students’ sense of identity by allowing them to be confident participants during lessons, as well as in all other interactions with me (p. 19). As Delpit (2002) so eloquently concludes, we must “reconnect them to their own brilliance and gain their trust so that they will learn from us” (p. 48).

 

This paper was written for a course in the MAT-TESOL program at USC in March 2012.

References

Brinton, D. M. (2003). Content-based instruction. In D. Nunan (Ed.), Practical English language teaching (pp. 199-224). New York: McGraw Hill.

Cummins, J. (2005). Teaching the language of academic success: A framework for school-based language policies. In Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework (3rd ed., pp. 3-32). Sacramento, CA: LBD Publishers.

Delpit, L. (2002). No kinda sense. In L. Delpit, (Ed.), The skin that we speak: Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom (pp. 34-48). NY: The New York Press.

Gee, J. (2012). Discourses and literacies. Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses (4th ed.) (pp. 147-178). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kagan, S. (1998). New cooperative learning, multiple intelligences, and inclusion. In J. W. Putnam and R. W. Slavin (Eds.), Cooperative learning and strategies for inclusion: Celebrating diversity in the classroom (pp. 105-136). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

Kern, R. & Schultz, J. M. (2005). Beyond orality: investigating literacy and the literary in second and foreign language instruction. The Modern Language Journal, 89(3), pp. 381-392.

Ormrod, J.E. (2011). Educational psychology: Developing learners (7th ed.). Boston, MA:  Pearson.

Vacca, R. T., Vacca, J. L., & Mraz, M. (2011). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (10th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

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The truths about teaching English

The truths about teaching English

In preparation for a new course with the MAT TESOL program, I read the first three chapters of James Crawford’s “Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom“. I was at first overwhelmed with the various programs and acronyms for teaching English to immigrants in America, but soon I grew curious about the assumptions and implications of these programs. By the end of Chapter 3 on Language Policies in the USA,  I viewed the act of educating an English learner with greater appreciation for the non-pedagogical (i.e. social and political) reasons. In fact, I started to think about my personal journey as an English learner, a timely response as Singapore’s annual Speak Good English Movement trots out slogans and ministerial soundbites in a bid to rescue the language from falling standards, whether real or perceived.

Response to Crawford

First, let me sum up my thoughts on Crawford’s overview of the diversity of English language programs in America. On the surface, it seems that the US government makes the effort to help immigrants and their children to assimilate into American society. But assimilation itself is not necessarily an ideal outcome. The whole idea of a Melting Pot sounds innocuous enough, where many cultures combine to form one homogenous culture (therefore avoiding ethnic, religious and political divisions). However, what goes unquestioned is that homogenous culture – whose culture is it exactly?

Crawford seems to champion acculturation instead, which he defines as “adding the new without discarding the old” (Crawford, p. 63). He highlights a competing metaphor, the Salad Bowl, which suggests that cultures should blend without losing their distinct flavors.

According to Crawford, the debate over teaching English in an English-only environment versus a bilingual (and bicultural) program has a lot to do with whether political camps take the Melting Pot or Salad Bowl view.

The America context, historical, social and political is a minefield that I am beginning to understand and discover. (See The Official English Movement: Reimagining America for an overview of the debate over language policies in America.) The Singapore context of language policies, on the other hand, is something that I’ve wondered about, sometimes becoming critical but mostly brushing it aside to deal with its realities. Crawford’s book has ignited my interest once again but this time, I hope to sustain my critical understanding of how English is taught, and “deal with its realities” in less reactive and more proactive ways.

How English is taught

The first thing I’m concerned with is how English is taught in this country. And the way it is and has been taught cannot be divorced from the history of the use of the language.

The history of English language teaching in Singapore goes back to the early 19th century when the British Empire conquered this sleepy Malay fishing village. This village was soon a major trading port and attracted immigrants from a mix of countries including India and China. In the land of immigrants speaking a plethora of languages, or more accurately, dialects, English was the language of the ruling power, administration, law, commerce and over and above all, privilege. English in as ‘pure’ as form as possible as long as the British were in charge, or had a heavy influence, entrenched itself in English medium (as opposed to Chinese medium) schools right up to the 60s. By the late 70s and early 80s, Chinese medium schools were no longer around, and English was firmly taught as a first language in all schools. (Note: These are broad historical strokes from my under-researched understanding. I welcome clarifications, corrections and recommended readings.)

Even as a first language, the way English has been taught (particularly in primary schools) from the 80s right up till today has undergone several changes. The most obvious one to me, since I was a primary school student during the 80s and now I teach students who went through primary school in the 90s, is a shift from a focus on grammar to a focus on communicative competence. I have yet to come across solid researched evidence but my sense (as well as the sense of my peers and elders) is that the standard of English has dropped, with a typical teenager who has undergone the 10 years of schooling, speaking and writing less grammatically. Of course we can all understand each other, and even foreigners will figure us out, but the fact that it is our first language (or is it?) should demand that we know and perform it well.

English language and the immigrant

The second thing that I’m concerned with is how the English language interfaces with the 2nd wave of immigrants coming to Singapore. Now, more than ever before, Singapore is experiencing an influx of foreign workers, blue-collar, white-collar, with a range of qualifications and motives. Many Singaporeans, especially those who speak and understand primarily English, are frustrated at the number of foreign service staff who seem inept at providing customer service since thy struggle with the language. There are others who feel that the immigrants (or perhaps more rightly called migrants) are not even interested in assimilating into Singapore culture, and by that, I think they mean speaking the lingua franca of English.

Apart from the workplace, there are also potential issues in English language learning among immigrant children or foreign students in Singapore who struggle not only with the language, but also understanding other subjects that are taught in English, and mixing with their local peers.

This issue of how English interfaces with the foreign community is complex and I will have to deal with it separately at a later date. But for now, my view is that we cannot assume that the foreigner themselves should bear the burden when it is clear that their language competence affects how we perceive them and how well we all get together.

E pluribus unum (Out of many, one). But there is no one truth about learning or teaching a language. There are many because we as language learners are complex creatures because of our histories, social interactions, personal motivations and aspirations.

Reference

Crawford, J. (2004).  Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom (5th edition).  Los Angeles:  Bilingual Educational Services (BES).

 

Navigating a new world of e-learning

Navigating a new world of e-learning

Learning points from eLearning Forum Asia 2011

I just finished a 2-day conference (8 – 9 June 2011), the eLearning Forum Asia 2011, held at the National Technological University (Singapore). While there was a variety of topics, my main interests were on e-learning and using social media for teaching. For e-learning, my takeaway was that we need to focus on the design of the e-learning activities. For social media, my takeaway was that we need to engage the students where they were. Ultimately, it was about the learners – what they were like, what they were doing, and how we could cater to their needs.

The following paragraphs, if they can be called that at all, are lists of ideas, jotting them down before this conference becomes a vague memory. I don’t want to end up with post-conference inertia and I hope this post reminds me of what I need to do.

E-learning

My actual experience with e-learning has been largely i) me uploading stuff and students downloading stuff and ii) students posting superficially on forum threads.

What I would like my experience to be:

i) Students and I do stuff together on something;

ii) Students care about this stuff we do together;

iii) I actually have fun getting all this done!

What I could do in the immediate future:

i) Use Google Docs for group writing for collaboration;

ii) Set specific instructions for students so they don’t get lost in the activities;

iii) Model the actions and behaviors I expect from them.

Social Media

I have recently started to connect with my students via Facebook but not for specific teaching or learning purposes. I use it to make announcements for some of my subjects, encourage students, send reminders and wish them Happy Birthday!

I’m not entirely sure how I could use it for teaching although the Facebook Group Page comes to mind. I’ve just finished a Social Media workshop by the folks from UWM and it was awesome! Some things I’ve learnt:

i) Social Media is here – don’t fight it, join it, manage it!

ii) Twitter is powerful! I’m now officially on Twitter (@orangecanton)

iii) Facebook Fanpages are a great resource for putting up information for courses.

iv) Some challenges include privacy and convincing people who don’t care much for social media but control the approvals and money for using it in education!

v) Students will appreciate it that you are reaching out to them through the very means they live 24/7!

The Apprentice – a lesson on resourcefulness, respect and responsibility

The Apprentice - A Lesson on Resourcefulness, Respect & Responsibility

In anticipation of a 9 am Monday morning lecture, I started to look for YouTube clips that could rouse the interest of potentially sleepy and clueless students. The subject is Events Management and I wanted a short but impactful clip that could convey the essentials of event planning. Search results from key phrases like “event planning” and “event management” didn’t quite generate upbeat videos that I was looking for. Then I turned my thoughts to reality TV – home of Murphy’s Law – where “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”

At first I tried searching for a wedding type of show, hoping to find scenes of disoriented wedding planners trying to make it all work but ended up with more scenes of brides screaming for attention. Then I realized what I needed. I needed drama, entertainment and education all wonderfully crafted together. I needed … The Apprentice. I can’t say I’m a huge fan, only watching episodes sporadically whenever it aired on TV or cable. But whenever I did, I was always impressed at how the show managed to blend real life human emotions with down to earth lessons about what to do and not to do when organizing and executing a business event. So I searched for “apprentice” + “event” and eventually found this video clip:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eK48vnJV5iI

It’s Episode 12 from Season 4 The Apprentice and has Rebecca Jarvis and Randall Pinkett as the finalists. (Refer to Wikipedia for details.)

From this clip onwards (as one clip leads to one continuing clip after another), I was hooked. All the editing and dramatic angles made this entertainment, but the human drama that played out on screen felt authentic, and so were the nuggets of wisdom that Trump and his associates dished out in the boardroom. I thought to myself, ‘This has got to be the video clip I was searching for!’ The video clips that covered part of Episode 12 and the finale had many great lessons in event planning that were relevant to my lecture. For example, the team leaders and their teams had to overcome unexpected hiccups, deal with different personalities, and stay calm while under pressure.

The main takeaway I had watching how Rebecca and Randal handled their events was that you have to be resourceful. The part of the show that I watched also raised issues such as respect and responsibility. Those are two great intangibles that to me, sound a little too grand for rookies in event management such as my students. But in true American fashion, The Apprentice makes it simple enough to be understood during a prime time TV slot, and entertaining as well!

So what about respect and responsibility? From the segments, I heard a lot about respecting one’s team leader, as well as your boss. If you watch the clips, look out for how the team leaders responded to Trump’s arrival at their events. Responsibility was also talked about, how the team leader is responsible for the outcome of the event. Before I go on with a review of the video clips (which is not what this post is about, and I really don’t want to go into that), let me go back to my main point which is The Apprentice makes good teaching material, or at least, a starter for group discussion.

My challenge is that because there are so many great scenes, I have to be selective about what to screen in class. I did contemplate a video viewing session on its own but I think that needs a little more thought. What I’ve decided to do in the end is to select a clip that has enough discussion points. I don’t need to show all the clips to show how the problems were resolved because: i) the students can watch the rest of the clips on their own; and ii) the point of the lesson is for them to think about what they would have done in those circumstances. I played the Apprentice video clip (less than 8 minutes) towards the end of the Monday morning lecture. I thought the students were fairly attentive and responded to the questions quite well.

Encouraged by this small success, I will consider using  Apprentice video clips for future lectures.

From Zero to Hero – How I Learned Chinese


How I Learned Chinese

I stared at the textbook in front of me, mechanically reading the Chinese characters that appeared on the page, or rather, parroting whatever the tutor said, even instructions on what I was supposed to do. At 7 years old, I started  Chinese tuition, and like many of my peers, stuck to it until I cleared the major exams.

There was no Mandarin speaking environment at home, no social circle which required any knowledge of Chinese, and no inner desire to figure out the language. Tuition was the answer and led to reasonable results for the national exams. While the exams were taken care of, my actual knowledge of Chinese was quite rudimentary. Outside of answering assessment book questions, I was clueless as how to respond to the language. When it was no longer as crucial to pass the Chinese exam, I did away with tuition and my incompetence in the language was further exposed.

The worst period of studying Chinese was in junior college. After getting a B3 for Chinese at O Levels, I did away with tuition; I no longer had a crutch. My foundation in Chinese was so weak I had to attend remedial lessons, all in the hope of salvaging whatever was left in this near empty vessel in the hope of passing the exam. I eventually passed the written exam, but failed the spoken component.

The story of my life learning Chinese culminated in that excruciatingly painful 15 minutes or so where I was assessed on my ability to speak Mandarin. There were two parts to the spoken assessment: one, reading a passage and answering questions, and two, conversing on a topic chosen by the examiner. For part one, I could hardly read the passage set in front of me. The exam strategy of reading whichever part of the character I recognized if I didn’t know how to read the whole character, or skipping the character altogether, blew up in my face as I applied the principle to probably most of the key words that made up the meaning of the passage. I have little recollection of what happened in the Q&A – but probably nothing much since I didn’t understand most of the words.

Part two would seem easier since I only had to speak. Alas, it was not to be. The topic seemed fairly easy to handle – ECAs or extra curricular activities. Except that my ECA was Writer’s Circle – a group of us would contribute poems and short stories to a quarterly in-house publication. What was so difficult about that, you might ask. First, I translated ‘Writer’s Circle’ as literally as I could since I knew no other way.  The examiners looked puzzled and asked what I did in that ECA. In as brief a phrase I could muster, I said, “Write poems.” As luck would have it, my anglicized pronunciation of Mandarin made ‘poems’ (shi) sound like ‘eat’ (chi). Another wave of puzzled looks led to the next question, “Eat? What do you eat?” I repeated ‘shi’ several times, finally blurting out in perfectly crisp English: “Poems, I write poems!”

The next exchange I had with the examiner got personal. “Are you a Canadian?” she asked, “Your pronunciation is strange.” “No! I am Singaporean!” I proudly exclaimed. (When I relate this story to my friends, they remarked that I should have just played along and pretended I was a foreigner with a bad accent. Maybe I would have gained sympathy marks.)

Fail

My formal Chinese learning ended in humiliation. My actual Chinese education, however, started when I realized people around me at university were using Mandarin in their day-to-day conversations. I was finally in an environment where the Chinese language was being used in authentic manner! Or perhaps, I was finally in a more realistic representation of society at large?

I decided to improve my Chinese. I listened to Mandarin pop songs. My favourite singer was (and still is) Winnie Hsin (or Hsin Hsiao Chi) from Taiwan. I bought almost all her albums, read the lyrics as I listened to the songs, and soaked in the MTVs. Apart from taking up a hobby, I got out of my comfort zone. I switched from the English service to the Mandarin service in church. But the one thing that decidedly turned me from English speaking, Western cultured to Mandarin speaking and pseudo-Sinophile was living in China.

After getting my CELTA, I got a job teaching English in China and I was there for about two years. In no time at all, I was using Mandarin for most of my daily activities and that got me comfortable and more proficient in using the language. My recognition of Chinese characters improved as well but only as much as it helped me in getting from point A to point B and figuring out how to read food labels. Writing was still a challenge and never really improved since I never had to correspond in that manner. But certainly, listening and speaking the Chinese language notched up several levels and since I came back from China several years ago, I’m still as comfortable with the language.

Not by campaign but by immersion (Speak Mandarin Campaign in Singapore, circa 1990)
Not by campaign but by immersion
(Speak Mandarin Campaign in Singapore, circa 1990)

The moral of the story? Language immersion seems the way to go in learning a language. Learning is not forced since it becomes necessary for you to learn the language for survival! When I apply this to my own teaching, in particular for ESL/EFL, I make it a point not to use the student’s native language as a reference point unless it’s absolutely crucial. When the teaching / learning environment forces students to use the language form beginning to end, however uncomfortable it is, it slowly conditions them to think and speak in the language.

It’s kind of like being thrown into the deep end of the pool – sink or swim! Most of us won’t allow ourselves to sink. At the very least we will try to keep our heads above water.

 


Image credits (in order of images):
Flickr: Learning Chinese by nik (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Flickr: FAIL STAMP by Nima Badiey (CC BY 2.0)
Flickr: Speak Mandarin Campaign by chinnian (CC BY-SA 2.0)


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