I’ve decided to let an email that I just sent out to the team overseeing and/or collaborating with me on my work project speak for itself about what I have been up to this weekend. Another treatise on the nature of working in a cross-cultural context.
As with all new projects, there are always a few “bumps” in the road as we get started and this project hasn’t disappointed me in this regard. It has had, however, added some interesting twists and turns that I hadn’t anticipated. I’d like to describe the issues here and suggest how I, as the person responsible for creating the curriculum, would like to address them.
In the beginning of this project, several decisions had to be made.
What were the goals of the project to be? General English as is currently the case, or a journalistically-focused curriculum? Based on the Embassy’s desire to have participants develop skills in critical thinking with regards to the use of media in their work, communicate effectively with other media professionals, as well as to be able to write short news articles or whatever communications are appropriate for their media field (public relations, radio, TV, etc.), a journalistically-focused approach was selected.
Whether or not to use a text and, if so, which one? There are no English learning texts that focus on media, so the only choice was a new general English text or English File. We went back and forth on this issue and even though, in the end, we decided to do a separate curriculum, I was still planning to make sure that the curriculum covered the grammatical structures covered in the English File book for the level UCA decided to have me work with since it was anticipated that the students would return to using English File for the level after the one for which the curriculum was being developed..
For which audience should the new curriculum be developed? There are currently 9 levels: Starter, Beginner, Elementary, Pre-Intermediate, Intermediate, Upper Intermediate, Advanced, AEP 1 and 2.
Khairisho chose for me to work with the upper intermediate class because he felt that the instructor for that class would be more open to new ideas than other EFJ instructors.
To develop any curriculum, the materials must be used with students to see how they work, to figure out the kinds of instructions that need to be provided for both students and teachers, to identify activities that students find useful and that are methodologically sound. It was decided that, since the curriculum was to be designed for the upper intermediate level, it would be developed and field-tested in the Upper Intermediate class this year and that, to this end, it would be used instead of the English File textbook that is usually used.
The following issues have arisen related to these decisions:
The students in the upper intermediate class have vastly disparate proficiency levels, despite being in the same class. Where as one can write highly articulate statements, such as the sample included in purple in the sidebar below, others have trouble putting a complete sentence together, even about something as simpe as an answer to the question “why are you taking the EFJ course?” To help a student such as the second learn to write even a simple news article would involve a great deal of time, during which other advanced students would need to be working at their level. While this is not a problem for me personally as a teacher, it does pose a distinct problem for developing a curriculum designed to presumably address the needs of students at a more-or-less uniform level of proficiency.
Absenteeism is so pervasive for the MWF evening classes that it is impossible to systematically develop and field-test any graduated sequence of lessons. For example, more often than not, with the exception of one student, I had a different group of students for every class. Time and time again, I had to recycle things because the students in front of me are completely different from the ones who were in front of me the day before. Furthermore, the strongest students were the more reliable participants, which meant that the gap between the weaker and stronger students continued to widen. It took me six lessons to do what would have normally been done in two lessons with a class where everyone was present and more-or-less at the same proficiency level.
Comment: When I met with the EFJ teachers in September, their biggest complaints about the classes were: absenteeism, tardiness, and the non-completion of out-of-class assignments. They were quite upset about these issues, in fact, none of which seemed to me to be insurmountable at the time. I’ll be honest, I was wrong. I had no idea that these issues could be as severe as they are among a group of professionals, or among any group of students for that matter. I also didn’t realize how pervasive they were, and how crippling this would be for field-testing a curriculum, not to mention just trying to teach a class.
As far as I am concerned, the EFJ instructors deserve special recognition for working under the conditions that they work with regards to absenteeism, tardiness, mixed-level proficiency, and non-compliance with regards to out-of-class assignments. It is an extremely difficult teaching situation, by any academic standards.
3. OBLIGATION VERSUS OPPORTUNITY
Another issue which surfaced on Friday is that the students in the MWF upper intermediate class were never asked if they wanted to participate in a curriculum development project instead of having their regular English File classes. We now know that at least one individual is not happy with this situation and usually, at least in my experience, where there is one, there are more. This oversight needs to be rectified. The Embassy is sponsoring this program to provide English support to media professionals. If they do not feel that what we are doing for them is useful, then we need to do something else, or do what we are doing in a different way, or better educate them about why we are offering the program, if we have specific goals, for example, helping them become better writers, before we accept them into the program. My proposal here involves doing all three, i.e. doing something different on MW, doing what we are doing in a different way (workshops), and providing better education about what we are doing.
HOWEVER, in the context of media, there is one very immutable truth: No one is going to publish anything that is not accurately written, both with regards to factuality and prose (grammar and discourse structure). NOT EVER. There is no wiggle room in this. So, if a program is supposed to help people improve their English for the purposes of improving their ability to function on a par with other English-speaking media professionals, the question of accuracy has to be addressed one way or another or we are simply not doing our job
The question before us now is whether introducing critical thinking, five skills-teaching, and accuracy midway in a program which has not done these things previously is the best time to introduce those changes. At this point, based on what I have thus far observed, I would say no. That is, while I do believe that the introduction of a journalistically focussed curriculum into a language program for media professionals sponsored by the US Embassy that promotes critical thinking and accuracy in all five skill areas associated with foreign language proficiency is an appropriate goal, I think it needs to be done in one of two ways: either right from the beginning of the program, or after the students have completed whatever non-journalistically-focused general English course is going to be included as part of the program. Since the former is obviously not possible without turning the entire current English File-based program upside down and retraining all the teachers, the latter is the obvious choice.
SO…WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?
SIDEBAR: I do want to say that none of the preceding observations concern me in the larger schema of cross-cultural education. Differences between educational systems from one culture to another can be quite striking, and neither way is better or worse than the other. They are just different, but for the novice cross-cultural learner, as many of the EFJ learners are, an initial cross-cultural encounter with an American instructor can be disconcerting (we are often an “acquired taste”) and, rather than interpreting one’s feelings for what they are — the discomfort that most people experience when first participating in a new cross-cultural encounter — many people simply do whatever they can to get things to return to what they consider to be “normal”. This feedback comment, written on Friday by one of the upper intermediate students who has had previous unsuccessful experiences working with native speaking English teachers highlights this reality when compared to the response of his naysayer colleague:
4. CULTURAL AND CONTEXTUAL EDUCATIONAL EXPECTATIONS
a. Critical thinking: I do not think that when students are recruited for the EFJ program that the Embassy’s goals for them to improve critical thinking as well as English skills are specifically discussed. And since these goals are not part of the existing English File curriculum, it is somewhat disruptive to “the way things are” to bring in activities that promote critical thinking when students have come to expect routine exercises in textbook that do not require critical thinking.
Learning to write new copy (aka “write”) also involves “critical thinking” and this is not part of a standard approach to Tajik education, nor has it been part of the English File curriculum series. It has therefore been disconcerting to be asked to do original work for some students who have never been asked to to this before. Even something as simple as being asked to write a paragraph about why you want to learn English turned out to be a completely overwhelming assignment for a few.
To add insult to injury, if you are using materials for a curriculum that is in the process of being developed, there is no textbook already made to which you can refer to for guidance and support. As far as I can tell, people don’t seem to take handouts as seriously as a textbook, even if they are told that those handouts will one day be the pages of a textbook. I think something has to actually be a book to be considered a book.
b. Five skills:Teaching five skills simultaneously seems to be an unfamiliar concept in foreign language education in this context. For example, people consider teaching people how to write different drafts to improve their writing to be something that one only does in a writing class, not in a language class. I am not sure why such a separation in skill development exists, but it is certainly evident in the English File series, and I did not anticipate that people in media would not find activities to improve their writing to be inappropriate to their needs but that is, at least in the case of the one student who complained, one perception.
Another example, many students say that they need to practice speaking, as opposed to learning grammar. There does not appear to be an understanding that you need good grammar to speak any language comprehensibly. Grammar is vital to every utterance that a person makes; you can’t escape it, and you can’t speak without it. Presumably, they are talking about memorizing grammatical rules, but the belief that “grammar” refers to rules instead of what it actually refers to — using the structures of a language skillfully to communicate your thoughts — blinds people to the significance of what is a key element in developing foreign language proficiency.
c. Accuracy: The English File series is used at UCA to provide a program that is primarily fluency-based. Teachers report being told not to correct errors as it will stifle student motivation. This is certainly a hotly debated topic in the field of education, and one to which there is no objectively single correct answer. Different teachers believe practice differently based on their own beliefs about whether error correction is helpful, as well as upon how to do it.
6 classes! 6 very interesting classes of English for Journalists I have attended during last two weeks. After several not successful experiences of learning English with a native speaker, I would not think that I will fall in love with this process with Ani Hawkinson. The way she teaches deserves for the attention. It is not the conventional way, of course. You will not get everyday’s exercise from a book, but you will be taught how to collect a portfolio for yourself, how to use “several drafts” technique and how to write an accurate paragraph. Moreover, her way of speaking and her pronunciation is just perfect for my listening practice. Thank you, Ani, for your interesting class!
Whereas this student had previous experiences with native speaking English teachers against which to “interpret” his experience with me, and in so doing found the new encounter to be more positive than previous ones, I am guessing that the student who complained did not. The appreciative student was also open to the idea that something he hadn’t thought of doing before, like write multiple drafts of something, might enhance his writing. In a word, he was simply more tolerant of ambiguity than his colleague and, as a result, was more willing to try something new and see what happened, rather than try to get that new thing to simply “go away”. And, in his case, the results were inspiring: While his first draft was very good, his second one, had more of what I can only describe as “heart”. They were both good, but they each conveyed his feelings about learning English in a different way and, in so doing, he expanding his understanding of what writing is all about.
I think that, among other things, we would be well-advised to include some cross-cultural training activities into the new curriculum, but I need to give some serious thought about the best way to do this. This entire situation, with a foreign teacher working with host country nationals, one of whom hurries off to complain to management that things are simply too strange to be allowed to continue, is a quintessential example of a cross-cultural “incident” or “clash” as we call them in cross-cultural education. It has the potential of being a rich source of learning for everyone, if handled with sensitivity and appreciation for what is represents.
Finally, we need to remember that these are all working professionals who are experts of one type or another in their chosen fields. And often “experts” don’t like to hear that their products need further work, something which is inevitable if one is trying to learn how to communicate well in a foreign language. Furthermore, in a Muslim culture, women telling men what to do in a public forum such as a classroom is also not always appreciated. This doesn’t mean that I, as a female foreign language educator, won’t provide accurate and appropriate feedback about a student’s language. It just means that I won’t be surprised if there is “push back” in one form or another when I do.
Interestingly enough, the students in Friday’s class had a suggestion that I would like to implement. It will not solve the problem of how attendance impacts regular program delivery (and this is something that I think both the Embassy and UCA need to troubleshoot at some point), but it will remove absenteeism as a variable for the purposes of curriculum development. And the CD is, of course, my priority. Their idea, if implemented together with a decision to create a curriculum that addresses the Embassy’s goals for the program that will be offered after students have finished the English File program, should take care of juat about every issue on this list as it impacts the Fulbright-sponsored curriculum development project.
Their idea is to have SATURDAY workshops for purposes of field-testing the curriculum.
Now I am under no illusion that everyone will want to come on Saturdays, but many of students say that they would rather come on Saturdays than in the evenings and I don’t see why we can’t offer that option this year, particularly when they will be the ones who make the decision about whether to come or not. That is, we won’t be deciding for them that they get to be “guinea pigs” in a grand experiment to create a type of curriculum that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.
For field-testing curriculum, I don’t need a lot of people to come, I just need to be able to work with the same group of individual for the time it takes to complete a media-based mini-project, such as writing a personal profile, or a newspaper article, or interpreting a radio broadcast, etc.
Students could either come to workshops in addition to attending the MWF classes, or instead of them. It wouldn’t be too difficult to work out the logistics of keeping track of who went where, and when. Bakhtiyor already keeps meticulous attendance records.
6. ACTION RESEARCH: The Fulbright Scholar program is typically a program which sponsors Americans to do some type research at a foreign institution. Since field-testing is a form of research, it will be more in keeping with the spirit of the Fulbright program to frame the project for what it actually is — a classroom-based action research pilot study for a journalistically-focused English language education curriculum, something that, as far as I know, has never been done anywhere else. In reality, anyone who participates in the the classes using a previously untested curriculum are, in effect, human “subjects”. If we call it what it is, then participants can be invited to give comments and suggestions about how to improve things as we test out various activities and, in so doing, the final curriculum will be the result of a collaboration between EFJ students and the curriculum developers.
In sum, as far as I am concerned, Saturday workshops are be an obvious win – win – win: for students – for EFJ and UCA generalist instructors – for the existing UCA program – for the new curriculum. And probably for the fields of second language acquisition and foreign languag education if I decide to publish an article about the project.
From where I sit, there are multiple advantages to doing formal curriculum field-testing workshops on Saturdays that are independent of the existing sequence of EFJ classes:
1. FREEDOM OF CHOICE: Students who really want to come can come, those who do not can atttend their regular English File classes. That is, no one has to be part of the curriculum development project unless they want to be. As freedom of choice is a hallmark American value, this is an obvious plus for the Saturday schedule.
2. INCREASED STUDENT ACCESS: Advanced and AEP students could be offered the opportunity to attend Saturday workshops.
3. INCREASED INSTRUCTOR ACCESS: Other EFJ instructors could come and participate and/or observe on Saturdays so, from the standpoint of sustainability, this would allow more instructors to benefit from the project. Bakhtiyor has written quite detailed reflections, posted on the website, about what he is learning. It would be great if more EFJ instructors had the same opportunity.
4. CURRICULUM DEVELOPMENT: In terms of curriculum development, with a four-hour block, I would be able to field-test complete project-based learning modules with one group of students. That is, daylong workshops would eliminate the problems posed by chronic absenteeism.
5. PROGRAM CONTINUITY: If the curriculum is developed without outside of the current English Files sequence, it can be used as the culmination of the English File program, rather than as an interruption to it. It could be used either as a new course, after the Advanced Level course, or instead of it. It will continue to address the needs of multi-proficiency level learners.
I propose to field-test the curriculum as a formal research project, in keeping with how Fulbright awards are usually structured, working with groups of volunteer students, all of whom will sign the informed consent forms used with any research project that involves human participants.
[The next portion of the email covers various logistical points, probably not of any real interest to my readers, so I have deleted them, but for the following comment.]
8. Last, but not least, we will address the subject of how to give responsible feedback, and to whom it should be given, in the context of a working team, whether it be a class in an educational setting, a research project, or a work team at one’s place of employment. Neither Bakhtiyor or I know why the individual, who had a very good point to make, felt compelled to bring his or her concern about the way the curriculum was being developed to UCA management before raising the it with us. As this project moves forward, any individual who chooses to participate in he curriculum field-testing project needs to agree to bring any concerns regarding his or her learning experience directly to the people responsible for the project, which would be either me or my colleague, not to the U.S. Embassy or program management team. Only if someone does not feel that a legitimate complaint has been addressed by the curriculum development team, would the individual be encouraged to take the matter to the program management team, and we would support them to do this. Only under very rare circumstances would the Embassy be involved: They have given the entire responsibility for program oversight to university and the policy of academic freedom in the U.S prevents them from interfering with my choices regarding methdological practices. I consider myself and my colleague to be reasonable people, and dedicated professionals. If anyone has a concern, we will work to solve it in a way that this mutually acceptable to all parties.
I would like to say that, as an educator who specializes in learner-centered education, Friday was a splendid example of how responsibly and creatively students respond if given the opportunity to participate in discussions about how their instructors can better serve their educational needs. The Saturday workshop idea was, to my mind, a stroke of genius. I would never have thought that students would want to do this, so I would never have suggested it. I feel extremely honored to be part of this process with such a committed and creative group of professionals.
Fulbright Scholar, UCA, Dushanbe, 2019-2020.