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Getting Into the Flow of ESL Learning Communities
LaGuardia Community College Hosts Winter Conference

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If the last time you cracked a book on second language acquisition was when you read Krashen and Terrell's "The Natural Approach," or if the last thing you remember about "interlanguage" is that it was an irrelevant construct, Saturday's NYS TESOL Applied Linguistics SIG's 24th Annual Winter Conference would have been like having a bucket of cold water poured over your head.

In the normal course of our professional lives, it's hard to avoid developing at least a few mental habits: what could be called working hypotheses which you just can't seem to find time to test and modify anymore. Who can blame us if it's all we can do to make sure the affective filter is low enough to encourage our students to feel greater confidence; if we try to make sure our lessons are learner-centered with content which is interesting; if we operate under the assumption that the students and we together form the only relevant "community" for English learning purposes.

If you teach English in an intensive program at a community college or university setting, it may have occurred to you and your colleagues that it would be nice to know more about what happens to your students after they move into regular college courses. Are they able to handle the pressures of a "real" academic classroom? Do they integrate successfully with the other students? How much of what we have taught them in their ESL classes transfers over and serves them as they face educational challenges.

Credit-bearing courses for ESL students

Bibliography: studies related to learning communities

When Marcia Babbitt and Rebecca Mlynarczyk, both from the Intensive ESL Program at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, titled their session "The Power of Academic Learning Communities," they may not have realized that, aside from the midday plenary, theirs would be the most highly attended event of the day. Marcia and Rebecca were literally pulling in chairs from other rooms in order to accomodate the demand.

A crowd of 50+ sat spellbound as first Marcia, then Rebecca, conveyed the excitement in their "content-based, collaborative and interdisciplinary" ESL program. Their students move through the program in cohorts; "community" at Kingsborough also means there are credit-bearing courses (Intro to Sociology, Popular American History, Intro to Pyschology, Speech and Student Development) incorporated into the ESL curriculum. Kingsborough faculty cooperate with the ESL faculty to ensure that students receive the "scaffolding" to meet the rigorous challenges of these credit courses: two other key elements in the formula are counselors and student tutors. The tutors attend the credit-bearing classes and also function as an early warning system to alert counselors on the ESL side if particular students are experiencing difficulties. "We want to catch problems before they loom so large," explained Marcia Babbitt. Counselors, faculty and tutors meet regularly at the start and throughout the semester.

According to Rebecca Mlynarczyk, the success of these collaborations with the larger Kingsborough College community are in great measure simply an extension of the intensity and success of the ESL program itself. "We use a fluency first approach," she explained, "with massive amounts of reading and writing." She admitted that their ESL classes are "very demanding," and "at the beginning students are overwhelmed," but credited support services with "making the big difference." Follow-up data indicates very good retention, and some students even skip entire ESL levels after passing the regular Kingsborough assessments of reading and writing.

The cohorts at the center of these students' ESL and academic learning experiences are crucial for their success, yet only one part of the many-faceted learning community in which they grow and develop at Kingsborough. The challenge for ESL teachers and administrators is to demonstrate by our own examples how to successfully integrate our efforts with those of our peers in the larger college community. The Kingsborough Community College model, and the contagious enthusiasm and confidence it inspires for ESL students (and teachers) should serve as a wake-up call for intensive ESL programs across the country.

Has multiculturalism failed to deliver?

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Bibliography: Studies related to bilingual education

Did you study multicultural education as part of your TESL/TESOL/TEFL training? Did those lectures about "tossed salad" versus "boiling pot" make a significant difference in your development as a sensitive ESL teacher who appreciates and celebrates the diversity of cultures our students represent? Do you enrich your classes with American Indian folklore, Martin Luther King's dream and equal rights?

Well, snap out of it.

According to Sue Dicker, of Hostos Community College, who spoke on "Meaning Making and the Immigrant Narrative," these feel-good approaches to diversity are just another way of maintaining the status quo and locking minority cultures out of the power structure in American society. "Multiculturalism," said Dicker, "is just the most liberal variety of the assimilation narrative." The concept which held so much promise in the revolutionary 1960s, she suggested, "has failed to reach its goals [because proponents] have focused on superficial ideas and avoided deeper problems like unequal treatment, racism and stratification."

"White, middle-class educators have embraced diversity," said Dicker, "but haven't dealt with the fact that power is not equal." She called for a more radical approach. "Why not work to change the structure of education?," Sue Dicker asked. "I don't see the will to change things."

Dicker's current research interest is in the obstacles faced by immigrants to America as they strive to participate more fully in American society. According to her, there are two main factors which limit immigrant communities. First, they have less socioeconomic power than more established sectors of society. Second, their limited English ability "takes away the power to tell immigrant narratives."

"Thus, those who tell the immigrant story," explained Dicker, "distort it." She says this distortion results from the storyteller's distance from the experience and is also due to pressure to conform to the expectations of a society which believes in an assimilative success story, constituting an "homogenization of the immigrant experience." One example Dicker used was the 1991-93 CBS series, "Brooklyn Bridge," which dwelt on multi-generational Jewish families whose history was told by American-born members. In this series, there is no focus on religious observance, despite the fact that Jewish immigrants were religiously observant, according to Dicker. Further, the grandparents in "Brooklyn Bridge" speak in English, although, explained Dicker, "it is probable that the first generation spoke another language and was not assimilated." Another oversimplication she pointed out is the way that Irish and Jewish families in the series "discover commonalities through discussion of their experiences": according to Dicker, "the reality was and there still is lots of tension between Jewish and Irish in New York City."

She concluded her talk with some preliminary data from a linguistic analysis of the book, "Muddy Cup: A Dominican Family Comes of Age in a New America," by Fischkin (1997). According to Dicker, the author uses more sophisticated, more complex syntax when reflecting on her own experiences, but more simplistic, less articulate language when conveying the experiences of the Dominican family the book is about. The effect of these discourse nuances is to trivialize the immigrant experience, reinforce preconceptions about immigrant cultures and ignore the reality of their lives.

Are you aware of your students' underlife?

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Bibliography: Studies related to hidden communities

But, you're perhaps thinking, in my classroom and my school it's a different story...I really help the students give voice to their experiences by giving them access to the English language...we are a real community of learners...

Plenary speaker A. Suresh Canagarajah, of Baruch College, CUNY, would like to disabuse you of the notion that you really know what your students are thinking or how they utilize (or subvert) your lessons. His Powerpoint presentation, "Hidden Communities in Classroom Learning," was provocative, to say the least. The 130+ conference participants were taken on a guided tour of "vernacular" discourse among students inside and, especially, outside of the classroom. Canagarajah apparently uses surreptitious eavesdropping (and e-mail bulletin boards) to gain insights into the learning experiences of his students. "I can't tell you exactly how I get this information," he joked with the audience.

Canagarajah's oldest bibliographic reference was from Erving Goffman, 1961, in "Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates."

The practice of reserving something of oneself from the clutch of an institution...this recalcitrance is not an incidental mechanism of defense but rather an essential constitution of the self."
Goffman (1961)

Canagarajah's awareness of hidden communities dates back to his school-related experiences growing up in Sri Lanka, as well as his knowledge of his country's history as a former colony of Great Britain. When he was in school, he and his classmates were punished for using their Tamil language, so they resorted to using it behind the teachers' backs. "It was stressful to maintain relationships and identities in English," explained Canagarajah, so when they broke into small groups their discussions were mostly in Tamil, but then they would present the answers in English to the teacher. "The English-only policy only taught us which codes should be hidden from the teacher," he said.

The Construction of Hidden Communities
* constructed collaboratively through active struggle against perceived modes of domination
* nurtures arts of dissimulation and secret symbolic resources for developing oppositional knowledge
* testifies to the agency of the dominated to evade/negotiate/manipulate hegenomic sites and use them for their empowerment
* breeds weapons of the weak for "safe" forms of everyday resistance
-Canagarajah, PowerPoint Slide, Winter Conference Plenary, 2-23-02

Here in America, A. Suresh Canagarajah had to dig a little more deeply to discover the hidden communities. At a summer course he taught to a group of mostly African American freshmen at a university in the southwest, Canagarajah initially found the students "eager to satisfy requirements." But outside of class, phrases like "Fight the Power" and "To Strong, To Black" appeared in chatroom and e-mail exchanges. "Under my nose," explained Canagarajah, "these students were living a new life."

The Construction of Hidden Communities
* helps resolve conflicts between institutional conformity and person aspiration
* suggests how gaps in dominant institutions can be used to exercise agency
* houses oppositional knowledge and insurgent discourses that challenge the mainstream
* draws from a tradition of masked protest shared by dominated communities through their histories of marginalization
-Canagarajah, PowerPoint Slide, Winter Conference Plenary, 2-23-02

Canagarajah traces two aspects of black discourse (some of which he observed in his students' e-mails), ambivalent talk and satirization of dominant communities, back to the days of slavery in America.

The Educational Significance of Hidden Communities for Minority Students
* displays their need to relate to communities of practice in their own terms
* since their discourses aren't valued as linguistic capital in schools, this ensures a space to practice them
* they are compelled to construct their own support groups as they are excluded from the dominant groups
* they are forced to bond and develop stronger community consciousness in contexts of discrimination
* hidden communities are an extension of community developed underlife resistance
-Canagarajah, PowerPoint Slide, Winter Conference Plenary, 2-23-02

Perhaps the most radical concept an ESL teacher will ever encounter is at the core of A. Suresh Canagarajah's argument: that our students will actually modify the English language through their adoption of it to their purposes. "Dominant discourses themselves change as a result of this process," he announced, "and this has particular significance for language minority students, who don't have adequate representations of their discourse in the dominant discourse."

Identifying and Studying Hidden Communities
* sites in the educational environment that are relatively free from surveillance, perhaps because these are considered non-official or extra-pedagogical by authorities
* potentially any site can be made free from surveillance if students collaborate in developing an active underlife
* may constitute domains of both space and time
* underlife discourses and behavior may periodically be displayed to out group members for strategic reasons
-Canagarajah, PowerPoint Slide, Winter Conference Plenary, 2-23-02

In the classroom, Canagarajah sees signs of student underlife in spatial domains: asides between students; passing notes; small group interactions; peer activities. Temporal domains are, for example, the periods of time before, between and after classes. According to Canagarajah, students reveal only partial glimpses, or "the tip of the iceberg," of their hidden communities, whose very survival would be threatened if too much were known.

Literate Functions of the Hidden Learning Community
* a) helps retain vernacular discourses
-nurtures plural discourses and heterogenous speech acts
* b) enables comparisons between vernacular and academic discourses
-develops a meta-discursive awareness
-develops critical language usage
* c) develops communicative competence in code-switching
-helps construct hybrid code
* d) develops strategies for negotiating conflicting identities
-therapeutic processes
+ builds student solidarity
+ nurtures community acceptance
+ enables students to encourage each other
-coping strategies
+ the notion they are only fronting
+ compartmentalizing social domains
* e) keeps alive vernacular literacies and interpretive strategies
-using L1 to negotiate English texts
-collaborative interpretation
-use of community knowledge
-widening the context of text
-embedded argumentation/grounded interpretation
* f) nurtures oppositional knowledge and critical reading
* g) helps demystify the ideologies behind mainstream texts
* h) enables appropriation of mainstream texts
* i) facilitates uninhibited experimentation
-Canagarajah, PowerPoint Slide, Winter Conference Plenary, 2-23-02

Canagarajah reports that "these minority hidden communities demonstrate more imaginative discourse," and laments "the sad fact that code-switching is not yet included in language learning curricula." In hybrid discourse, according to Canagarajah, "students explore new issues and give more depth to the classroom discourse...student appropriate the texts to apply them."

Examples of hybrid discourse are quite rampant in chat and e-mail, he explained, where students "play with genres and try new syntax." In essays, on the other hand, the "gatekeeping effect of grades" considerably limits the occurrence of hybrid discourse.

Academic Literacy and Minority Students
* moving beyond models of Access and Voice
* cultivating the literate arts of the contact zone
* gives birth to fluid genres and mixed codes of communication
-Canagarajah, PowerPoint Slide, Winter Conference Plenary, 2-23-02

According to A. Suresh Canagarajah, there are two main camps, or philosophies, of teaching English: access and voice. The access camp, for example Widdowson (1993), believe ESL teachers are opening a new world for their students; the voice camp, for example Kachru (1986), believe they are giving their students language tools to express themselves.

Canagarajah, however, concluded by suggesting a third alternative: the fusion model, in which learners become "confident users of both languages," freely creating hybrid texts and "expanding genres with vernacular elements."

Is Canagarajah advocating a "free-for-all" approach to ESL? Is he questioning whether concepts like "total immersion" have any foundation in reality? Are we as teachers sensitive enough to the view that English is a code which largely serves to further entrench the influence and power of a dominant, imperialist socioeconomic system? Do we give our students enough freedom to "play" with English and create hybrid discourses? Are we "gatekeepers," enforcing rules of style and syntax? Are we open to the notion that language learners actually change the language they are learning, as they accomodate it to their purposes? To what extent does policing an English-only rule influence, positively or negatively, learning outcomes? What are the implications for bilingual education?

NYC public school administrator explains ELL pilot

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The New York City Public School System perhaps operates in the most complex array of community settings and interrelationships ever seen in the world. A constant stream of immigrant families may be the single, most salient feature of New York, the global capital. New Yorkers speak a faster, tighter version of English than is found anywhere else in America. Conversational exchanges are sometimes over before you even realize it. Everything, including language, has an economical aspect to it here. Since the public school system draws a significant amount of money from the budget, it also draws plenty of public commentary, much of it critical. One area of concern has been how to best serve young people from immigrant families (including sometimes second and third generations, still struggling with English). There is a healthy, if often embattled, bilingual education program, but the newest favorite is English Language Learning (ELL), which seeks to mainstream students more quickly.

In an afternoon session, Virginia Jama, the ESL Coordinator in District 7, the Bronx, gave an overview of the Chancellor's Program for English Language Learners and the "Accelerated Academic English Language Model" (AAELM) which is being piloted in 40 classrooms in New York City. AAELM was created in conjunction with the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), and Jama took conference participants through an AAELM teacher professional development workshop, which CAL designed.

The AAELM workshop builds a teacher's awareness of sources of content objectives for ELL classes, including mainstream science and social studies textbooks, ESL New Standards, the Internet, museums, Chancellor's initiatives, the School Comprehensive Education Plan (SCEP) and Comprehensive Education Plan (CEP), curriculum guides and results from classroom tests.

Language objectives can come from textbooks, literature, standards, curriculum guides, journals, needs assessments, current events, BICS/CALP or social language, portfolios, culture issues and assessments such as the LAB test.

The AAELM workshop also introduces techniques for adapting content concepts to proficiency levels of students, including assessing proficiency levels of students, sheltering language for comprehensible input, using a variety of resources, paraphrasing and simplifying sentences, scaffolding with T-charts and other graphic organizers, chunking, highlighting key words, playing word games, using TPR and role play, viewing videos, choosing high interest texts and picture books and building background.

For the development of academic vocabulary, the AAELM workshop suggests that teachers work with dictionaries, visuals, sentence strips, Language Experience Approach (LEA), word walls, flash cards, TPR, vocabulary walks, Jazz chants/songs, other music, poetry, Internet searches, word study, association charts and shared reading.

ESL teachers at the 40 New York City schools which are piloting the AAELM initiative are also encouraged to use pre-reading activities, such as sharing personal experiences, prediction, anticipation, KWL charts, semantic webs, vocabulary in context, motivational activities, preview questions, reading aloud, vocabulary flashcards and story maps.

In order to determine if students have understood lesson concepts, teachers in the AAELM pilots should give quizzes, assign homework, have students paraphrase or draw pictures about the content, use KWL charts and graphic organizers, summaries, performances (role play, dialogue), compositions, art projects, dioramas, classification activities, hands-on activities, word-search games, learning logs and peer teaching.

Jama reported that teachers in the AAELM pilots are investing lots of their time developing original lessons to make their classes more interesting and useful to the students. She gave conference participants a feel for that enthusiasm by having us break into small groups, scan a chapter about the geography and history of Africa from a social studies textbook, pick out a content topic and some related language items to teach and present our ideas for discussion. It was great to move away from the lecture format of some conference presentations, and engage in small group dynamics with our new awareness of "hidden classroom communities." Most groups managed to stay on task enough to generate topics and supporting language objectives.

Are you achieving "flow" in your classroom?

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Bibliograpy: Studies related to classroom interaction

The final session I attended was a 90-minute panel called "Learning Communities: A Framework for Integrating Language, Content and Critical Thinking," led by William Koolsbergen and Carol Montgomery, both of LaGuardia Community College. Koolsbergen gave a great overview of different models of learning communities, everything from credit-bearing ESL courses to team-teaching initiatives. He laid out a continuum of "Learning Communities and Faculty Involvement," from minimum collaboration (informal dialogues between teachers, shared themes and goals) to maximum collaboration (regular meetings, collaborative assessments and joint syllabi).

According to Koolsbergen, when there is higher collaboration and faculty involvement in learning communities, "students complete courses and persist at higher rates, succeed academically in higher ed, report higher degrees of personal growth and report significant gains in learning skills, learning content, ability to see other points of view and analytical skills." He encouraged participants to go to to see more details on the positive outcomes of learning communities.

Carol Montgomery said she agrees with Van Lier (1996) and others that the kind of classroom interaction that promotes the development of language, content and critical thinking skills is meaningful, dialogic and spontaneous, "in other words, conversational." She described social interaction as an "engine" that drives awareness, autonomy and authenticity. Intrinsic motivation, according to Deci and Ryan (1991), she said, is based on three innate needs: competence, relatedness and autonomy.

Montgomery highlighted the connection between intrinsic motivation and "flow," a concept proposed by Csikzentmihalyi (1990). According to Csikzentmihalyi, said Montgomery, "flow" describes a learning experience in which "time is irrelevant, effort goes unnoticed and skills are in perfect balance with challenges."

These principles of classroom interaction correlate well with three ESL teaching approaches, according to Montgomery: collaborative language learning, content-based instruction and task-based instruction. "Learning communities," said Montgomery, "provide an ideal framework for these principles and approaches." She reported that in some of her critical-thinking classes, she will often walk into the room to find "hidden communities" of students already there, energetically debating issues from the course, of all things.

Here's why Ray Clarke drove down from Vermont

There were a good number of publishers and ESL materials bundlers displaying their wares from 8:30 A.M., when registration opened, until about 4:00 P.M., when the E Building Atrium at LaGuardia Community College, which hosted the event, was cleared to set up for an end-of-the-day wine and cheese reception.

One publisher who drove three hours from Brattleboro, Vermont, was Ray Clarke, a founder of Pro Lingua Associates. In a short interview with ESL MiniConference Online, Clarke told how he got interested in ESL in the early 1960s, when he was a high school teacher in New Hampshire and was assigned to develop a curriculum for students whose first language was not English. After that, he traveled to Nigeria in the Peace Corps, where he developed an appreciation for alternate varieties of English. Clarke designed ESL curricula for a number of international projects, including Peace Corps, over the years before starting Pro Lingua with some colleagues in the early 1980s.

Clarke was very forthcoming about some current editorial projects he is involved in at Pro Lingua. At the NYS TESOL convention in Rye this past October, Pro Lingua was promoting a timely book of ESL plays, "Celebrating American Heroes," and an accompanying photocopyable collection of exercises. "Now, we're working on a more extensive reader to go along with the shorter plays," he announced.

In addition, Clarke is working on a couple of his own pet projects at Pro Lingua. "I'm writing a textbook for zero-beginners," he said, "starting with things as basic as the letters of the alphabet." Clarke is well-known for his texts on experiential learning, and now is writing a comprehensive guide for the ESL teacher.

Groovy music, free-flowing wine & animated conversation

As everyone came downstairs from the last sessions of the afternoon, at about 4:30, we encountered a pleasant array of sliced cheeses, bread and gourmet crackers, as well as a table devoted to red, white and rose wines. The reception included an hour of music performed by Gustavo Moretto and his Jazz Ensemble: David Nolan on sax, Gustavo Moretto on keyboard, Mary Ann McSweeney on bass and Barbara Merjan on drums. You really would have understood Carol Montgomery's focus on the concept of "flow" if you had been there, listening to "The A-Train," nibbling cheese and enjoying the timeless beauty of everyone and everything at the 24th Annual Winter Conference.

Reported by Robb Scott

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