Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Mentor’s Musing: On Teaching Writing II

(In which I once again had to listen to her evaluation.)

First she evaluated the test I made. Today, Mileah criticized the textbook we’re using in our reading and writing class. Since she passed the level test last week, we are now on a new book. And because she will only be staying for a month, we found the idea of using the fourth book in Our-Previous-Book series impractical due to its length. So instead, we decided to use the third in Our-New-Book series.
The book unfolds with a chapter on description. I thought, and she greed, that since it combines reading, comprehension and vocabulary, grammar and specific writing skills, the book is cool. The first reading selection was about a famous Indian landmark. Then a list of vocabulary from the reading, arranged according to parts of speech, then a fill-in-the-blanks activity wherein the students are supposed to choose the answer from the list. On the page that follows were a set of pictures that appeared to be a step-by-step tour guide of the Indian landmark, which I made her answer as an assignment, by the way. This was when she started evaluating.
“Mmmm . . . I think . . . this exercise is not good,” she began.
“What do you mean? It’s boring?”
“Uhmm”, she hesitated, “I know it will . . . make me understand this place but . . . I just look at the story again to answer it. I think it’s unnecessary,” she uttered in between her signature air-sucking motion.
“Well, it’s good that you know what that’s for. But since the lesson is about describing a place, this activity was made to widen your imagination – so you can imagine the inner structure of the landmark. And besides, not all students are comfortable imagining through text alone. That’s why there’s a picture there,” I explained.
Mileah just nodded and we went on to the grammar activities in the book that were comprised of adjective and preposition exercises as well as sentence construction activities executed by utilizing the aforementioned parts of speech. Here was where another section of her thoughts came in.
“But this is easy,” she said.
“Then that’s good,” I remarked, trying my best not to sound sarcastic.
“But I just have to copy from the story and make sentences using the adjectives,” she complained.
“Who says you should just copy from the text? The activity asks you to create sentences – grammatically correct sentences, by using the adjectives. But that doesn’t mean you should be contented in using the exact lines from the article or using basic sentences.”
“Mmmm. . . Okay,” she conceded, or so I thought.
Because when we reached the writing part, where she was supposed to choose to write one out of five topics and read the writing pattern on the next page, she once again bluntly accused the pages of being unnecessary.
“This is same as Korean. I know how to write. Why it says how to write?” she asked.
“Well, this is a reading and writing class,” I answered matter-of-factly. I looked again at the text arranged in numerical order. Think of a place that you want to describe. . . It must . . . have meaning to you. . . Create a sketch . . . Make a list of adjectives . . . Decide on a theme or sense that you want to create . . . Start drafting. . . What’s wrong with these?
“Yes, but it is just like Korean. I want to learn English. I already know this. You know? I passed university. I made essay in university.” Then she motioned her hand in a gesture to show how long the essay was. “But this is just English, not Korean. If I learn this, I feel I don’t learn English. Only writing,” she said as she was flipping the pages from beginning to the end and back.
I breathed in. this is going to be one tough explanation.
“Okay – “
“I think Our-Previous-Book 3 is better,” Mileah said. I held up my hands.
“Okay. But you have to understand first what a level test is for. The reason why did a level test is to check if you understood Our-Previous-Book 3. And you did. Congratulations.
In Our-Previous-Book 3, I allowed you to write essays at your convenience. But being able to write using basic sentences is no longer what we are aiming in this book. It has a lot of exercises from different language skills and questions that are asking you to create more complicated or sensible answers. If we left the fundamentals, there is no other way but to go to a higher lesson.”
She nodded, still flipping the pages.
“Writing has universal rules. We write using the same elements, only different languages, and therefore different grammatical structure. But we basically use the same writing pattern – we think, we picture, we decide. And for every kind of essay, there’s a different pattern.
The patterns there weren’t made to make you appear stupid. In fact, they are guides so you can make more sophisticated writings. You know the basics – introduction, body, conclusion, topic sentence, supporting sentences, general statement, thesis statement, the list goes on. But the question is no longer about your ability to use them in a beginner’s way. You have got to improve your style. That is what the book wants from you – a better writing style.”
Again, she nodded, her eyes fixed on the book and her fingers busy flipping.
“And about you not learning English. What do you think are you learning then?”
“Ahmm, anyway . . . I think you don’t understand my saying . . . but . . . hmmm. . . ”
Oh no! So I don’t understand at all?
Maybe I really don’t. I don’t understand why the book is unnecessary. All she has to do was to read and understand how to write effectively. And do it. Without an overload of accusatory questions or remarks. Writing is doing. Learning is, too.
She silently flipped the pages until there’s no more leaf to flip. I looked at the clock and told her we still have five minutes before the class ends and that she can do her thing. She fumbled her notebook and began writing.