Friday, October 7, 2011

A Mentor’s Musing: On Teaching Writing IV

(In which we are both tested.)


Today, in our IELTS writing class that has already run for more than a couple of weeks, I was once again baffled by Janice’ inability to come up with a 150-word essay about a line graph after twenty minutes. And when the inevitable shock and frustration showed on my face, she manifested an unconcerned countenance, explaining she actually didn’t expect to finish the task under time pressure.

Of course I was incredulous.

“You know, I already know I won’t finish it. Just like before.”

“And do you think that’s positive?” I can’t help but ask. I really try my best not to sound condescending so I didn't ask if that's is really something to be proud of. I wouldn’t want to be trained that way, either. All of us have our own pride to salvage.

“I know. But I think writing is not my goal. You know? If I fail IELTS, I will take speaking and reading test when I go back home. So writing is not really my priority. I think having writing everyday is not what I want. So now I’m confused. And I think, if I memorized a lot of academic expressions, I will write better,” she confidently lectured.

For more than two weeks, it filled me with happiness that her organization is improved at some instances. That she can defend her ideas and actually makes a concept map before writing. But IELTS is a timed test. Either you vouch to accomplish the tasks within the time limit or you quit. But I didn’t tell her that.

“First, we don’t have a writing task everyday. In fact, we spend most of our time on vocabulary practice and essay analysis. I understand that you aim for a superior academic vocabulary. And I am telling you, you have the capacity to produce an academic essay – “

“But it is not enough. You know? When I read sample essays, I do not feel frustrated. I feel that the words are important for me. So if I memorize them, I will be better.”

I took a deep breath and told her what I think.

“You know, I also read essays by writers younger than I am, writers who did not even major in English. And I feel frustrated about myself. So when I see a writing style or a vocabulary so awesome, I incorporate it with my own. You’re right. They are helpful. What I’m trying to say is that although I understand your predicament, we still have to stick to our goals. Do you know what our difference in that matter is?” I asked. And with that she looked suddenly stunned.

“I have all the time to spare and contemplate on my writing. You are making do on a limited time to be prepared for an exam. I wanted you to remember the right structure of writing. That is what the usual writing tests are for. I understand that you have a difficulty remembering vocabulary at times, and during the test, you will be too tensed to remember words. And the last thing you need is an unfinished essay albeit with superiorly academic vocabulary. The tasks are for you to be more familiar with writing styles. The time limit is for you to extract what you learn under time pressure. It really surprises me that I seem to be more pressured than you actually are.”

“I know”, he sighed, “but I don’t want to just to finish essay with basic words. I don’t want that.”

In my imagination, I can see her painstakingly searching for words to use in her essay. In her dismay of using late learner, she spent 5 minutes coming up with opsimath and another 5 minutes for somnambulist instead of sleepwalker. Those thoughts furthered my apprehension for the future so I discarded them immediately.

Thus the two-hour class intended for writing tests have been utilized in an open forum, an unfinished essay and an unspoken promise of a cycle.