June 3, 2014

Shifting Boundaries between English as a Second Language (ESL)

Many scholars have written about the uncertain and shifting boundaries between English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and composition programs at colleges. When they first began to proliferate in the United States during the mid-twentieth Century, ESL programs and main-stream composition programs either viewed their missions of teaching language and teaching writing as respective, separate and apart, or at least perceived the necessity for a divided house in differences of methodology. Since then, perspectives on this relationship have evolved, but they have evolved in more than one direction. Most of the contention seems to pivot on the student’s transition from one program to another, the effects this transition has on the student, and the way that either ESL or college writing programs respond to those effects.

At one of end the spectrum is a camp inhabited by many practitioners, albeit few contemporary theorists, who view the mastering of academic writing for the English Language Learner (ELL) as a hierarchical process beginning with internalization of granular structures and terminating with native-like composition practices. This camp tends to hold a rather specific idea of what constitutes native-like usage, considers errors to be evidence of insufficient mastery, and equates errors of language use with errors in writing practice. Within this paradigm, it is the purpose of an ESL program to prepare ELLs to operate within composition programs in a fashion indistinguishable from Native English Speakers (NESs), and then, in turn, it is the mission of the composition program to instruct and assess ELLs and NESs without differentiation. Here, the transition from one program to the next is a gateway, one which closes once the student has traversed it.

Not very many of the people who hold to the view outlined above are bilingual. Or if they are bilingual, they have never faced the challenge of using their second language for rigorous academic or professional purposes. And their first language is almost invariably English. My first language is English, but I learned German in college, took classes at a University in Germany, and worked there for three years of my life. Germans complimented me all the time on how good my German was, which I noticed was pretty much what they said to anyone who was learning it as a second language. No one ever said I never made mistakes. No one ever expected me not to. No one ever corrected my grammar unless I said something evidently different from what I meant. I wrote papers for my college classes. I got Bs on them. My professors pointed out that the German in my papers was far from perfect, but their feedback made it clear that the Bs were for the content of the papers, which was fair, because the content could have been better. Perhaps I was fortunate in that case to be attending a university situated directly on the German-Polish border, where roughly half of the students were not German, possibly predisposing professors to be open-minded about language. But that hardly seems like an extreme case in a world where most people are bilingual.

It’s a simple fact. A majority of the world population is bilingual or multilingual, and research has shown that bilingual individuals are more prone to tolerate and accept differences in the ways that others use language. They look for meaning, not for errors. So maybe it’s just because I’m one of them, but my sympathies lie with the camp at an extreme opposite to the one described at the beginning of this post, whereby I contend that language instruction and writing instruction both need to change in ways that respect and leverage pluralistic attitudes towards language and communicative approaches towards writing, changes which will prepare not only ELLs but all students to live and write in the world which is actually coming to pass, and prepare them to make it better in the process. There lost of people who say it better than I could, but one of the strongest arguments comes from Jay Jordan. The way we look at it, the transition from ESL to college composition and beyond isn't a gateway, it’s a shift in orientation where the student begins accumulating new competencies for communication, and where the learning of language continues unabated.

I expect that the convictions of many who follow this blog fall somewhere in between the two perspectives outlined here. Whatever the case, it’s a conversation that ESL programs, composition programs and writing centers need to have, and which they need to have with each other, because the students who depend on us need us to be sure what it is that we are teaching them. Please comment.


Gunnar Jaeck is a writer and teacher. He is a tutor at the PCCC Writing Center, and has taught English and ESL in public high schools, universities, community programs and libraries. He holds masters degrees in TESOL and creative writing. His fiction has appeared recently in Used Gravitrons and Infinity's Kitchen.

May 2, 2014

The Writing Center, Social Networking & Communities of Practice

In The Everyday Writing Center, the authors couch the everyday disruptions of writing centers within the context of Etienne Wenger’s community of practice to suggest “the ideas and concerns that may have once belonged to or originated with one of us [become] collective matters or moments of possibility” (Geller, Eodice, Condon, Carroll, and Boquet, 2).  Such collective moments of possibility can also extend outside the traditional, face-to-face borders of the writing center via social media platforms like Twitter and blogs. While The Everyday Writing Center focuses on traditional in-center interactions, this article extends the conversation outside these borders and suggests that writing centers might utilize social media like blogs and Twitter to create, build, or support writing communities of practice. Centers can envision a new sense of the writing center: one that engages in the practice of writing on a much larger scale and emphasizes the value of writing as a social practice.

The Writing Center, Social Networking and Communities of Practice


Etienne Wenger describes a community of practice as a group of people that share interests, crafts, or professions. Wenger mentions that through the process of sharing information, those associated with the community exchange ideas to develop their own understanding and knowledge about a particular practice.  Communities of practice can exist in many spaces, whether online or onsite.

Wenger defines the structure of communities of practice as adhering to the following three components: (1) domain, (2) community, and (3) practice. The community of practice has a shared realm or domain of interest. Within the domain, members of the community engage in what Wenger calls “joint activities” and share information that “enable them to learn from each other” (Wenger). Interaction amongst participants is responsible for fostering community, not simply the dissemination of information. The community of practice must be practitioners who develop a “shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short a shared practice” (Wenger).

Communities of practice can also manifest in an online environment, beyond geographical or physical locations. Wenger advocates that online communities of practice might increase the “possibilities for community and [call] for new kinds of communities based on shared practice” (Wenger). If communities of practice can function in an online capacity, then social networking might provide a platform for communities to exist, especially within the writing disciplines. Social networking allows individuals with similar interests and/or expertise to share knowledge and further practice within a domain-centric community. Practitioners of writing thrive via social networking, and connect via blogging and Twitter to discuss and promote writing as a process, craft, theory, teaching, tutoring and more.

Blogging

Blogs align with Wenger’s idea of a community of practice since they support a domain (topic); generate a community of subscribers communicating through comments, and share relevant content within a profession or niche. The PCCC Writing Center blog publishes posts that discuss writing best practices such as WAD, WAC, writing center theory, and writing instruction best practices. For example, the blog post “Better Writers, Not Just Better Writing–Even Online,” explored how writing centers supports online writers through online tutoring, LibGuides, and portfolios (“Better Writers, Not Just Better Writing–Even Online”). The blog post also asks its audience to comment on how they were making decisions on writing center policy, procedure, and even budget, as it applied to supporting students online.

The blog also promotes guest posts by outside practitioners of writing and writing center theory such as writing center directors, tutors, publishers and traditionally published and self-published writers across genres. Typically, an email is distributed via the writing center listserve and a call for submissions is tweeted through the Twitter stream. Rather than wait for people to submit ideas for guest blog posts, reaching out to experts in the field is also a way the blog produces guest spots. “An Interview with Muriel Harris,” in which Harris talked about the Purdue OWL best practices, its humble beginnings, and what's next for the online lab received 709 views within one week of posting, and brought an unprecedented amount of traffic and credibility to the blog (“From Local Center to Global OWL”).

In addition to offering tutoring tips within the walls of the center, the blog allows the Writing Center to create content relevant to writers across the spectrums. In February 2013, the PCCC Writing Center partnered with Claudia Serea, a Romanian-born poet, to develop the first annual National Writing in Translation Month (“National Translation Month”). Serea edited a month-long series about the craft of translation and included poetry translations from Romanian, Arabic, Persian, Russian, and Bulgarian. National Translation Month fostered communication with scholars beyond the college’s community, and opened the conversation about writing to writers across genres. Traditionally, writing in rhetoric and composition asks its audience to enter into a conversation. Such conversation promotes a community of practice in the sense that it allows social interaction between writer and reader, playing on the traditionally social nature of the writing process.

The social nature of the writing process allows for a community of practice to prosper via blogging. Kathleen Kitao and Namie Saeki talk about the social nature of the writing process in their article the “Process and Social Aspects of Writing: Theory and Classroom Application.” Both Kitao and Saeki suggest that writing emphasizes an “initiation-response-evaluation pattern of discourse between teachers and students” (86).  The process approach to writing includes various stages of revision in an effort to create meaning for an intended audience: the reader. The reader and writer are in a dialogue where the writer expounds meaning and the reader translates and internalizes meaning. Hence, writing is a social process (Kitao and Saeki 86). Both parties are engaged in all three aspects of a community of practice: (1) shared interest in process, (2) a community of writers involved in the process, and (3) clear practice of the writing process. 

Blogs allow for that same type of conversation only to a larger audience of practitioners within the writing community thereby transforming ideas of traditional theory and supporting the social nature of writing. Before the idea of blogs even existed, Eric Crump observed that MUDs might transform “our thinking about relationships, our connections with and affinity to others, and the influence and persuasive power of online communities on how we think” or view traditional theory (Crump 177).   For example, in a recent guest blog post, Diane O’Connell, a veteran New York publishing professional who had a successful career at Random House, wrote about crafting compelling characters when writing novels. While this post might seem outside the realm of writing center related content, it may generate student and community interest in writing as a craft and creative endeavor as opposed to a simple academic requirement.

Blogs also decentralize the writing center as Melinda Baer suggested in her article “Using Weblogs in Your Writing Center.” I agree with Baer that blogs transform the idea of physical space, allowing students, faculty and tutors to participate in “writing centers’ discussions on their own terms” (2). Blogs permit writing centers to make information available and accessible at any time and in one concentrated space even after office hour’s end. Baer adds that such availability and accessibility of content eliminates “excuses for not participating” in writing center discussions (2).

Blogs promote the exchange of ideas, which is reflected in its content and accessibility. The more writing centers communicate to the larger community, the more meaningful the conversation (about writing) becomes with writers across spectrums contributing to the conversation. By varying blog content and creating a common space for discussion, writing centers might show they are open to an exchange of knowledge not limited to tutoring writing, but to the methodology and pedagogy of teaching writing, the writer’s craft (creative and critical), and professional writing thus becoming a part of an expanded community of practice.

Final Thoughts

Social networking is riddled with writing centers looking to delve outside the boundaries of the center and the classroom. Writing centers can take advantage of social networking to build a writing community of practice, thereby promoting their value, claiming their space in a global community, and reinforcing writing as a social process. Muriel Harris wrote in her article “Preparing to Sit at the Head Table: Maintaining Writing Center Viability in the Twenty-First Century” that in order to maintain our viability “we have to look beyond our campuses to see where the rest of the world is headed” (13). While she wasn’t referring to social media, she does suggest that writing centers look outside their boundaries to determine opportunities for intellectual and physical expansion. Social media allows writing centers to contribute to center scholarship and discussion beyond physical space as well as connect to a wider periphery, conceptualizing Wenger’s communities of practice and the social and interactive nature of writing. Writing is the basis of communication and social media is its obvious extension, permitting centers to expand writing as a discipline outside just academic concerns.

References
Baer, Melinda. “Using Weblogs in Your Writing Center.” The Writing Lab Newsletter. 31.2 (2006):1-4. Writing Lab Newsletter Archive. Web. 19 March 2009.

Crump, Eric. “At Home In the MUD: Writing Centers Learn to Wallow.”  High Wired: On the Design, Use, and Theory of Educational MOOS. Eds. Cynthia Ann Haynes and Jan Rune Holmevik. 177-190. University of Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Print.

Harris, Muriel. “Preparing to Sit at the Head of the Table: Maintaining Writing Center Viability if the Twenty-First Century.” The Writing Center Journal 20.2. (Spring/Summer 2000):13-21. Web. 15 Mar. 2013.

Kitao, S. Kathleen, and Namie Saeki. "Process And Social Aspects Of Writing: Theory And Classroom Application." Annual Reports Of Studies 33.1 (1992): 86-102. ERIC. Web. 11   Mar. 2013.


Wenger, Etienne. “Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction.” Communities of Practice. N.p. June 2006. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.


March 24, 2014

Embedding #Writing Hashtags in Your Tweets

The PCCC Writing Center does not use the blog exclusively to promote writing center content. Twitter is incorporated to help expand our content reach and facilitate conversation in a way to build a virtual social presence. One way that we promote content is by using hashtags or the "#" sign followed by a keyword such as "#writing." Hashtags "allow you to organize content and track discussion topics based on those keywords," as per Mashable. Hashtags also make you more discoverable and searchable, which is what helps tweeps find you (#VeryCool).

Let's have a look, shall we?

The use of hashtags has helped promote our content by making it more searchable (discoverable). For example, by using the hashtag #WriterWednesday (#WW) we’ve been able to connect with and gain followers to expand our Twitter stream.  For example, we’ve written tweets for this hashtag such as: “Looking to follow some new tweeps? Check out @[TwitterName].”  Some additional hashtags used in Tweets that help build an account are: #FollowFriday, which was started to recommend favorite tweeps to followers; #amwriting; #amediting; #writetips; #writertips; #writing; and #grammartip.

The PCCC Writing Center uses hashtags either at the end or beginning of the tweet. For example: “Experience/practice the writing assignment first before distributing it to students. Any revisions needed? #TeachingTips #justsayin.” Or, incorporate the hashtag in with the tweet: “Each language has its own confusing rules, like word order; sentence organization, missing (or extra) parts of speech. #L2 fact.”  In addition, the center’s Twitter account utilizes hashtags like #MondayBlogs or #MentionMonday to promote the PCCC Writing Center blog posts every Monday, which allows us to build our Twitter account through the addition of new followers, and help disseminate our content to new or existing followers.

Remember, social media is not for everyone, and it takes time and practice. However, you might find it inspirational, or somewhat enlightening to branch out beyond your writing center walls and share content over various writing landscapes.

How does your center use hashtags to promote content? 


March 7, 2014

Imitating Other Writers

After I’ve been reading something from one of my favorite authors, I often find myself adopting their style of writing for a little while. I form my words differently and start “thinking” in a peculiar way. This always gets me inspired to start writing again. Next time you are feeling uninspired, pick up a book from a writer you like and immerse yourself in their language.  See if you can adopt their style to get yourself started. You can even read a small excerpt from a book and then try to continue it in the same voice.

Don’t worry about copying another author too closely. You will find that as you write, you will naturally create a hybrid style, influenced by all the writer’s you read, and all of your experiences, thoughts, and emotions.

Another great exercise is to take a passage from someone else’s writing and try to revise it and make it your own. The trick is not to change the content of the writing, but the style and voice of the writer.

Try it now with this short passage from author Simon Van Booy:


When small drops began to fall and darken the world in penny-shaped circles, no one around him scurried for cover. For lonely people, rain is a chance to be touched.

February 10, 2014

Creative Journal Writing

When the topic of journal writing comes up, I usually meet two kinds of people: the kind that say “Journal writing is not for me” and the kind that say, “I used to keep a journal but then it got too difficult to write in it regularly.” Journal writing doesn’t have to be chore. It is not something you have to do every day, or even every week. If you do want to incorporate journal writing into your regular routine, try experimenting with different forms of creative journaling. Give yourself a prompt or exercise every day and let yourself have fun with it. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Day 1: Make a list of all the things you did today.

Day 2: Flip open your dictionary, randomly select 10 words and then write a paragraph using all 10 of those words.  

Day 3: In 100 words, describe what you see out your window. (Sometimes it is nice to give yourself a word limit. Then you know you won’t be spending hours on a journal entry.)

Day 4: Cut out pictures from a magazine and paste them to your journal. Make a collage of your favorite images.

Day 5: Do a word association. Begin with Banana and go from there. 

Day 6: Draw an emoticon of how you are feeling, or 10 emoticons of your most common expressions.

Day 7: Create a cartoon character of yourself. Draw him/her and give him/her exaggerated characteristics.

Explore other journal prompt ideas online and look at other people’s blogs to get an idea of what they are writing about. Remember that you can make your journal anything you want.


February 4, 2014

How to Manage Writing Anxiety

Everyone gets anxious about something. Most people are anxious about things they either don’t have much experience in or have struggled with in the past. Maybe you are out of practice with writing, or maybe you did poorly in a previous English class. Even though writing is often graded and evaluated using certain guidelines, writing in itself is a very individual process. Writing is just another form of communicating with others, and everyone does this in their own unique way.

Do you find it easy to express your thoughts verbally? If so, see if you can transfer those verbal thoughts onto paper. Consider getting a tape recorder and vocalizing your thoughts, then listening to a recording and transcribing it. You might discover that writing is easier than you thought.  Even if you do not consider yourself a strong conversationalist, think of some other areas of strength for you. See if you can incorporate some of these strengths into your writing. Are you good at coming up with ideas, organizing them, explaining them in simple terms, writing concisely, summarizing, or researching? Do what you are strongest in and get support in areas that you might struggle with.


Pushing through the anxiety and getting the job done (whether it is writing a paper, taking an essay exam, or writing a college application statement) will make you feel more accomplished, more confident, and more capable.