Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why Are Most of My Students Asian or Indian?

Today an Asian parent asked me why most of my students are Asian- or Indian-Americans? Why not American-Americans?

Good question. I was recently pondering that myself. Possible answers:

1) Children whose parents do not speak English as their first language want to be sure that their children are getting as much high-level English instruction as possible, because they recognize that the mastery of English, and the ability to think critically in English, will empower their children in this country, as well as in many other nations throughout the world.

1a) American parents take English for granted, and many equate the ability to write a grammatically correct sentence with strong writing skills. They also see that their kids get decent grades, and that is enough for many Americans who have grown up in an educational system which stresses scores and sports over learning.

2) Highly intelligent Asian and Indian children feel unchallenged by the often superficial level of instruction in literature and language arts that they receive in regular elementary and middle schools. Though some of these kids belong in "gifted" programs, they may not have passed the tests back in 2nd or 3rd grade due to having insufficient English skills as new immigrants, like their parents. They might quickly catch up with their American counterparts in English, but by the time they do, they are in English classes designed for non-gifted students, and they lose interest in writing out of sheer boredom.

2a) Some Americans whose children are already in "gifted" programs feel that their kids must be learning more than average kids learn about writing, so why pay for extra classes and add more work to their already over-stressed, over-scheduled kids?

3) Kids of non-English speaking parents often have more difficulty with writing in English than kids of native English speakers; thus, the immigrant parents hire me as a remedial teacher.

3a) American parents who could never write well themselves may not value writing as an art, but rather, view writing as a skill; thus, they hire tutors, not writing instructors, who help their kids improve skills related to the mechanics of writing, rather than the substance and style.

4) Math- and science-focused immigrant families, with parents whose jobs do not involve much English writing, hire me to provide balance for their children by igniting their children's interest in writing, since they cannot do so themselves. They prioritize writing because they recognize, via their own communication problems in America, how beneficial clear writing skills can be.

4a) Many American parents, seeing how the Asian and Indian cultures have exceeded our schools in math and science progress, feel the need to focus their kids on scientific and mathematical studies to keep up with our "competition." This need to compete has caused many Americans to neglect and place a lower priority upon the language arts.

5) Many Asian and Indian kids I've met are avid readers whose appreciation for literature suffers in school, where writing instruction focuses not on meaning, but on formulaic assignments that restrict creativity and make writing a pressure-filled task.

5a) American parents may think that their avid readers learn how to write by osmosis and don't need more than good literature as examples to emulate.

These are some of the reasons that seem logical to me as answers to the question posed in this post's title. If you have any to suggest, please comment here.

Monday, January 25, 2010

On Critiques (a long overdue article)

Today was the first day of my 2010 classes. 2010! Unbelievable--especially when my former students write me that they're graduating from college and need advice on an essay for graduate school!

My current students learned today that a truly constructive critique session is TRULY CONSTRUCTIVE. They helped each other construct their revisions by offering suggestions like a team, with everyone rooting for their workshop teammates in a noncompetitive pursuit of excellence. I asked them to take notes about the ideas suggested by their classmates, and to decide later whether to incorporate those changes, "if they make sense in terms of what you want your reader to experience." The workshop atmosphere held no defensive posturing, no stubborn frowns, no teary eyes, or grimaces--only nods, pondering looks, and note-taking. By considering their fellow young writers' ideas, they not only showed respect and openness, but also gave their critics more confidence in their own skills.

Learning to respond to literature as a writer, not just a reader, with an eye on meaning and style, eventually carries over into the critic's own writing. Once I can get students to think and react critically to what they read, not just absorb words to regurgitate them later in superficial summaries, then I can create writers whose analytical skills translate into carefully chosen words. Too often, writing students tell me that the only criticism they get from peer editors AND teachers in regular school is negative, focused on problems with grammar, spelling, punctuation, and form. Or they get useless comments, like "great vocabulary," without any comments on how that "vocabulary" moved their readers/listeners. Using sophisticated words means nothing if the writer uses those words merely to impress, rather than to clearly and vividly communicate thoughts and word-pictures, as well as touch the reader in some way. Problem-centered and vague comments during critique sessions are DESTRUCTIVE in that they destroy the joy in the writing process by ignoring the meaning of, and the reasons behind, specific word choices. The purpose of writing is communication, sharing images and ideas to establish connections between the writer's and the reader's perceptions; all words should contribute to that purpose. The constructive critique session used in workshop-style writing classes is the only way to inspire awe for words and awesome writing--my goal as both a teacher AND a writer.

I was proud of my first "workshop team" today. I look forward to fostering a team spirit that enables everyone to progress happily this year.