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A Community College On-line Writing Project

Sarah Sarkissian and Greg Conner from California

These two community college instructors asked their students, "What's it like to be in a class with students at very different levels of English fluency? Both are instructors at Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, California.

Sarah and Greg
Photo: Sara Storm
We decided to organize an on-line writing project for our ESL classes on an impulse. Sarah had stumbled across the TOPICS magazine and thought, "Our students could do this!" Greg was also interested in the topic and in providing his students with a real-audience writing project.

 

We teach ESL at Orange Coast College, a community college in California with a large population of ESL students: international students, resident immigrants, and naturalized citizens. The college ranks tenth in the U.S. in terms of the number of international students enrolled. Many students choose OCC because it has a very high transfer rate to four-year schools.

The primary goal of the ESL program is to prepare students for success in Freshman composition and other college coursework, including a variety of technical and vocational programs. The program has five levels in two tracks: listening-speaking and grammar-reading-writing.

We decided to organize an on-line writing project for our ESL classes on an impulse. Sarah had stumbled across the TOPICS magazine and thought, "Our students could do this!" Greg was also interested in the topic and in providing his students with a real-audience writing project. Both of us were attracted by the idea of working on a collaborative project that would give three different classes a chance to publish jointly.

Choosing the topic was easy because it came directly from a problem that faces every student in every community college in California: What's it like to be in a class with students at very different levels of English fluency? We asked this question to students at three different levels of writing skill: intermediate, high-intermediate, and advanced. The three groups had different prompts: more structured for the lower level, more open for the advanced.

In Greg's class, the students brainstormed the topic in small groups and as a class, Greg writing their ideas in note form on the board for them to use as they wrote their first drafts. After receiving written comments and proofreader symbols from the teacher, the students wrote their final draft in class, receiving clarification from the teacher if they did not understand what the proofreader symbol indicated.

In Sarah's lower level class, the students chose one of four related prompts and did pre-writing discussion with other students who had chosen the same topic. They also had teacher input for their second drafts. The most advanced students wrote only one draft in class and had to do their own editing at home. The most successful papers were submitted for review by the TOPICS editors, who performed the final editing in consultation with the student authors via e-mail.

Of course, all our students had direct experience with the topic. Many graduates of California high schools are non-native speakers who were mainstreamed in the K-12 system when their English skills were still very weakly developed. When they move to community college, all students have to take an English placement test, a discrete-item computerized test.

Often ESL students who have years of oral practice in English-only classes are placed into intermediate level (or lower!) ESL classes with recent immigrants and international students who have very limited oral fluency. The "long-timer" students sometimes feel frustrated by their ESL placement, while the international students and recent immigrants can be intimidated by having to work with students who seem fluent, at least orally. Writers in Sarah's classes focused on these issues.

There's another wrinkle to this issue of mixing students. Most general ed classes have no enforceable language skill prerequisites, so both international students and long-term resident ESL students are able to enroll in content classes regardless of their level of English. ESL students, eager to complete their transfer requirements, often plunge into regular college classes while they are still only at intermediate levels of fluency. This is essentially a self-selected immersion experience. What's that like, and how is it different from being in a more sheltered ESL class? Writers in Greg's class focused on that question.

Generating ideas on the topic was pretty easy for students, but what about the technical issues of the online project? Luckily, Orange Coast College has tremendous computer lab facilities available for students. The high-intermediate and advanced classes already had scheduled time in computer labs, complete with e-mail access. The intermediate level class was able to walk over to an open lab, fully staffed with endlessly patient assistants.

The project required all the students to sign-up for system-wide passwords, apply for free email accounts, and learn to e-mail text documents. The more advanced students already had accounts on the system, but for many in the intermediate level class, this was their introduction to the computer resources at the college. Because they were working together with familiar partners, their transition to the college computer lab was exciting rather than scary.

Working with this topic has increased the students' awareness of the learning histories of some of their fellow students. It's easy for students who are strong in a particular area to be less than patient when other students don't move as fast. The gulf between international students and many less privileged, long term U.S. resident ESL students can be very wide. This assignment forced students to consider the relative strengths of their fellow English language learners, which has helped the working dynamic among students within each class.

An unexpected benefit of this project for us as teachers has been an increased awareness of how ESL students see themselves. College-level ESL teachers have to serve a gate-keeper function, making sure students only move to "regular" English when they can demonstrate an appropriate level of mastery. Naturally, many students are frustrated by what they see as bureaucratic roadblocks to their degree goals.

Reading these student essays gave us insight into how many students feel about their placement in ESL classes: They want access to regular classes so that they can compete and interact with fluent English speakers, but they also appreciate the supportive, constructive environment of their ESL classes.

View their students' writing project

Sarah Sarkissian
ssarkiss@mail.occ.cccd.edu

Greg Conner
gconner@cccd.edu

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