Barbara Kroll

My name is Barbara Kroll and I’m from Cal State University, California State University at Northridge.

OK.  The second language writing, to me, has a more specialized meaning than it probably does to the people who are not in the area of second language writing.  Because I see writing as the a text that actually has a number of features.  That it’s complete, even though it may only be a paragraph long.  That it has some king of content that makes a statement or series of statements that the author wants to make, that it’s organized in some way.  Although I know that some people see second language writing as mere sentences that are written in a language that, um, second language for the person who’s writing them. So I just think that it’s inappropriate to talk about second language writing unless we’re talking about the production of texts, at what ever level that is, rather than the production of sentences that are meant to practice grammar, or something like that.

Well I think a one could look historically at this, at the a teaching of second language writing and historically a actually Olga Rivers is somebody who’s really talked about the fact that writing was kind of the handmaiden to these other skills.  And it was just a focused in earlier language learning on acquisition of grammatical competency.  So in order to learn the grammar of the language one could give students all sorts of exercises that would essentially promote grammatical learning and competency and so forth.  And writing was just one component that was meant to practice grammatical issues.  Uh, I’m a big believer in the fact that grammar uh doesn’t transfer to somebody’s writing.  That is to say the knowledge of something like verb tense, the fact that verbs should be written in the past tense when one is talking about past events to take a simple example.  But that particular knowledge, in and of it’s self, doesn’t necessarily transfer to a students written text.  So that the only way to really learn the information about past tense on verbs is from a writing perspective, is to have written text produced by students, and then to examine them to see what potential problems are surfacing.  Ah, so for example, students learn to say things like a, particularly foreign students as opposed to immigrants, where do you come from, I come from Taiwan, I went to school there.  And they have to learn that some how we have this idiomatic use of the present tense in a statement like: I come from because it’s always true no matter how many years ago you left this place.  Until the day you die you will never say I came from Taiwan or I came from Mexico, you always have to say I come from Mexico or I come from Taiwan.  But then everything else about your past life would shift into the past tense.  And so just teaching grammar by it’s self, in terms of something like tense um focuses simply on the manipulation of the actual pieces of the verb, where as teaching grammar through writing is to look at the kinds of issues that surface in a text that spans several sentences and paragraphs where there may be shifting tense, and very good reasons for shifting tenses.

Feed back is an inevitable a part of a, the writing that students do.  That is to say, I actually see the whole writing issue as a, the whole writing course, I should say, I call it the kind of the life cycle of the writing course, and I see that it revolves around the fact that the students are going to produce something which we can call an assignment.  They’re going to respond to an assignment and there’s preparatory activities before that assignment.  And then the student eventually has something to show for their work that we could call their, their text.  And I think that most writing teachers are not comfortable about the, today, about the notion that it’s a one shot deal, and that these texts should be worked on.  Um so that I, I think that there’s various options for feedback in these writing cycles.  One this is that not every text is necessarily lends it’s self to being examined by a teacher.  I think when students have many opportunities to write, for example in a class that meets everyday it’s quite possible that one could ask them to just go write something everyday, and then at the end of the week or periodically ask them to go back and pick out two of the things that they’ve written that the teachers never looked at, that they’re particularly interested in or want to pursue, and that that would turn into some future longer text or revised text.  So I think at the first level the revision or response should be on the part of the writer themselves.  That they are feeling invested.  That well, this is actually something that I want to work with as opposed to forced to working with this.  So I think that providing students with multiple opportunities for writing gives them a chance to pull from that something that they want to work on.  And then when teachers do see the texts that students have written, the teacher has to weigh whether this text is something that the student is going to be working on again, or is somehow needing to be judged and evaluated because the student is not going to be working on it again.  Ah the teacher needs to take into account whether this was prepared impromptu in class or without any discussion ahead of time, which would be kind of like a test, or whether the student had been given several preparatory lessons or opportunities to work towards his text.  Because I think that teachers have a tendency to respond to all texts as being equal and that my job as the teacher is to show this student uh where they went astray, and dribble in with the where they went astray with some praise here and there.  I think that a, a there seems to be a real shift, I think with the younger students, there tends to be this tendency on the part of teachers to only praise in order to promote a positive feelings on the part of the student and that is not something that I’m going to be punished for.  And then the occasional uh perhaps negative remark.  And it seems to me that this can be dangerous uh message to give to students because uh overly praising them just for having submitted something gives them a false notion that they don’t have to take any responsibility for the work that they do.  Um and overly criticizing them, and neglecting to find anything to praise makes them uh carry on the message that I cannot do this under any circumstances and there’s no point in even trying.  So I think the teacher has a really difficult task or job trying to match a response dio to the particular needs of the students in any given point in time.

(Noise) Uh, portfolios are certainly a, uh coming into use more and more, and more and more grade levels.  And um I think that um the real question is not so much that, are portfolios a passing fancy, and I don’t really think it’s a passing fancy, but I think the question is how to find the best possible way that portfolios can be used for students.  I think uh actually very early on in my career as a teacher, back twenty-five years ago, or thirty years ago even, um I just developed the idea that I wanted to keep all of the students work in a single manila folder, um simply because I doubted my own ability to remember what the students had done from one time that they submitted work to the next.  And so I went and bought folders for the students, thinking that they wouldn’t remember to bring them or something, and I had each student put their work in this uh fold, I mean I gave the first paper back to the students in the folder and told them the second time they submitted something it had to go in this folder.  And as the semester progressed they had to keep all their work in this folder.  And, while they, this, these early teaching days preceded, I have to admit, much work revision and drafting.  What this gave me, at least, was a track record of where the student had been because I could go back, and in fact if I had learned to comment appropriately on the students writing, I didn’t actually read the students writing, I read my comments of the students writing as a way of seeing where the student had been and so forth.  And I think that a portfolio a system where the students drafts are maintained and progress can be seen that way, is a wonderful a mechanism for the teacher to have some sense that the students are taking their writing seriously or not taking their writing seriously.  I think students, uh I’ve over heard various teacher trainers, trainees that I’ve worked with tell me that students are amazed, particularly in the younger grades, how thick these portfolios become, because they have the sense that they don’t do any work, or they don’t do all that much work, but the portfolios kind of counter evidence to the fact that they’ve done quite a lot of work.  Um I’m a little troubled about the use of portfolios, for assessing students at the end of some period of time.  Because it seems to me that creates all sorts of obstacles and problems, but I’m very much in favor of students tracking their work and keeping it together and finding some way that they can go back through stuff that they’ve done and see what kinds of revision work they’ve been capable of producing and not producing.  So I, I think that a portfolios play an important part in helping both the teacher keep track of what students are doing and students to appreciate their own growth in writing over time.

Yeah.  I think that the um, um portfolio, my concerns about portfolio grading uh,uh have to do with the various ways in which it’s a carried out, shall we say.  A, so for example, um I know it a, in the university where I work now we have mandatory portfolios assessment at the end of the freshman composition sequence, which is a one semester course.  And uh the student, on  top of everything else, the students have to write this cover letter, which is very much a part of writing portfolios.  In which they discuss why they have selected the particular pieces of writing uh to put in this portfolio.  And they talk a little bit about their uh so-called enlightenment that has struck them during the course of the semester.  A, and these letters take on a sort of a weird tone, to my thinking, in the sense that some of them a start off with a dear strange reader of my work.  I want you to know that I have spent two hundred hours on putting together my portfolio, or, you know, estimable, oh,  esteemed professor, uh where they look for these sort of weird uh title I don’t, honorifics, that they don’t really know what they are to sort of win, that they think that they’re going to win over the, the reader of the portfolio.  And then they explain how their life was a sort of moved from one disaster to the next at a, as a way of excusing what’s going to be soon read in their portfolio. And so I find that these letters, I think, are very distracting and they do not, they do not even the playing field because the students are pretty much given free reign to write these letters in whatever way they see fit, and I think the readers take them more seriously than others.  And so I wonder sometimes what value something like that adds.  I also feel that they’re very time consuming to read through a portfolio if part of your job is to read through, or at least look for the evidence that the student has actually made changes on the paper.  Because it seems to me one never knows to what extent the changes on a students paper were motivated by the teacher or were motivated by the student writer.  Um, I know in workshops I’ve done I’ve been horrified to discover I sometimes get a before and after paper uh, first or second drafts shall we say, and I print them out side by side uh to use in a work teacher, a training workshop to have people, well, you know, a which paper was written first by the student, which paper was written second.  And they, and then I ask them to look to tell me what evidence they find.  And, many times what they’ll say is, well, this must have been the first version because a this is cleaned up, or this doesn’t have as many grammar errors, or they, they, they use the evidence of trying to figure out which one was the first one, which one was the second one on ways that would indicate what did the teacher tell them to do, whether than the writer got better doing this.  So I’m kind of concerned about that, and sometimes, I know my, my one of my favorite examples that I use, I had this student that was writing about a computer program that he had to write, and he had a great deal of trouble doing this, and that he a kept on and on and on and he had this delicious chicken sandwich waiting to be eaten a in his backpack and he said, and I told myself I wasn’t going to allow myself to eat to eat this delicious chicken sandwich until after I’d solved this computer program problem.  And eventually I did, and I had my delicious chicken sandwich.  And then in the revised version, the chicken sandwich was gone, there was no delicious chicken sandwich to forward to and that whole, and people ask me, ‘well why did he take that out?’  And I reluctantly feel that I’d written this note in the margin saying, I’m not really sure where you’re going with this image of the chicken sandwich, because I felt that it was at a place that was a little, perhaps, incoherent. So this student decided, well I’ll just take it out.  She didn’t like it, I’ll take it out.  And everybody read the before and after versions said that they, even though they could see that the after version was better in some ways, they missed that chicken sandwich because it was so a much the students voice, and that in fact, I’d silenced that students voice through my commentary.  So it seems to me in the portfolio reading you’re, you’re ending up reading these papers that have been partially, uh as they say, appropriated by the teacher, who’s kind of taken over, what I would do if this paper were mine is, I’d get rid of that chicken sandwich and I’d be much more scientific about this because this, after all is about a computer program.  And then afterwards you see the result of your, or your feedback, and you’re sorry about it, but perhaps it’s too late to do anything about it.  So, so I’m a little troubled about the whole procedure of, of what it is the people are reading in these portfolios.

The, the problem with mixed ability groups in the same class, I think, plagues everybody uh whatever school they’re in, and no matter what the placement procedures are, because a it’s always going to be the case that you have people with different abilities.  A, I think that, a I’m also very much a proponent of a moving groups around.  A, at least periodically during the time that they’re going to work together, as opposed to keeping students in the same group for the whole a time that the course meets.  And part of the reason that I believe that, is because of this nature of different abilities.  I think sometimes um the, the question about whether the students who have higher ability can help the student with lower ability.  And whether the lower ability, though it’s clear that the lower ability students potentially get something out of this because they get extra instruction from the higher ability students.  And a what do the higher ability students get?  Well, they get the opportunity to teach, actually.  But I think sometimes it’s, for certain activities, it’s helpful to keep people in similar ability groups.  And that even if you have an all fairly low ability group working together, what that buys you is that you’re looking at, let’s say they’re looking at writing, that each one has produced a writing.  That they’re looking at writing that is not all that different than their own, so that the opportunity to think about getting this a little better is more realistic than putting them a, a let’s say a very weak writer with a very strong writer in this same pair, for example, than you’re looking at, the, the weaker student is looking at writing that they can’t possibly achieve, and gets discouraged and intimidated.  And the stronger ability writer immediately decides that this weaker ability writer has nothing to tell me, or to offer me about my writing, which is not necessarily true.  So I think putting extremes together, a can sometimes be counter-productive.  Uh, on the other hand, I think that many people have amply demonstrated that, a explaining something to somebody is a method of learning it for yourself, as teachers well know.  I certainly learned a lot from having to teach it multiple times myself, and now I’m sometimes amazed how I can present lessons on topics that used to require constant reference to the notes that I had.  And now I can just sort of spontaneously a give this lesson from having taught myself over the years.  And so I think that a strong writer who works with a weaker writer a actually does benefit by learning how to talk about writing in a way that they might not otherwise be able to do.  A, so I think that there’s um, a different reasons for putting people with like-minded writers, I mean like ability writers, and with differential ability writers, depending on the goal of what the individual task is right in the classroom.

I think that the writing instruction for first language learners and second language learners is fairly similar in that the writing instruction needs to focus on writing and certainly some reading plays a part, but it should not focus on a distracting issues so that the students lose sight of the fact that they’re really there to learn how to write better.  And by distracting issues I, I feel that um sometimes the use of a certain topics for reading a becomes in the students mind that this is now a coursery unit about the environment.  And it’s not really about writing; it’s about the environment.  And I think that’s kind of a danger sometimes.  But I think that, that a all writing courses essentially are about a learning to take responsibility for your own viewpoint towards something, and that you have to figure through, as opposed to figure out, what am I being asked to do, and what’s the purpose of what I’m being asked to do.  And how can I accomplish that task in a text that can meet those goals.  And that, it seems to me, that they all, all the pieces of writing kind of fall down into, or break out into a, areas related to content or substance, and to issues of organization and development.  That is how the text a, a arrays it’s self on the page, the content substance like: what is being said in it.  A issues of a grammatical accuracy and sentence structure, and sort of general adherence, shall we say to language or linguistic issues.  And then potentially some a higher wrapped up package of style, or voice, or something that’s a little harder to accomplish for a more junior writer, shall we say.  And I think that the difference, though, between first language writing course a second language writing course that delivers this package, is the a the second language writer has a (siren in background) predictable problems with, at the sentence level with these linguistic levels that many first language writers don’t have.  So one anticipates that there’s going to be problems with that, and needs to present various potential classroom lessons around that.  And that also second language writers, depending on their cultural background and, uh may have difficulty interpreting the topic in a way that’s similar to the intention of the teacher, shall we say, in giving the topic.  So that they find they can’t relate to the topic, they don’t have adequate cultural background to discuss the topic.  And so I think that a, it’s a dangerous sometimes to a, a just give people topics without making sure that it’s clear to them what’s being expected of them.

I think that’s it’s a very amazing how quickly teachers can find out the level that the students in their class a write at, shall we say.  A through a very short sample of writing that um I think that asking people to do any kind of writing task, very early on, in fact the first day if possible, a of even twenty minutes duration is enough of a sample to have some sense of what people do with their writing. Um so for example, just a, a any, any topic that’s sort of age appropriate and cause appropriate, whether it’s a memory like a what’s the favorite trip that you ever took, or the favorite, your favorite room in the house and why.  Or, or the more sophisticated level, what are you planning to major in and why, of where do you expect to be five years from now, or any anything that’s appropriate to the a level of the class.  I, I think that, that writers sort of sort themselves out pretty quickly into ones who have some general knowledge of what a writing, written text should look like, and those who are still a pretty early on learners.  I also think that you can create a, a sort of a profile instruments.  Questionnaires that ask students a particular things a that might be important to your class.  I, I know, for example, at the college level many people think that the notion of topic sentences is very important for students to know.  Um and one of my ways of testing out, I’d say, people I, I, I’ve come up with a list of things like topic sentences and thesis statement in transmission, and you could kind of generate a list of terms.  And I think for high school students also, as well as for college students, one could, what I’d like to do is ask them, I’ve heard the term before but I don’t really know what it means, or I’ve never heard of this term before, I’ve heard it before but I don’t really know what it means.  I’ve heard this term and probably could explain it.  I’ve heard this term and I could get up and tell the whole class what it’s all about.  As kind a range of how familiar we are as opposed to some of these things that are just, I know this, I don’t know this and there’s like a it’s not very clear to me whether students are honest in their response.  I’m trying to find a way of how knowledgeable they are and how comfortable they are a with various things that you think they’re bringing already, when it’s not the very first class that they’re taking.  Have they been exposed to this or a, I’ve worked a in pair or with other students in my writing before.  I’ve had feedback on my writing, how I value that or don’t value that.  I think all of that information should be gathered very quickly.  I know, for example, I tend to put people in groups of a optimally three or four students, to look at each other’s writing.  And I like to make sure that I put into that group at least one person who has a positive attitude about the work, and has prior experience in the hopes that they will help win over the reluctant student who has no, who either has no prior experience or has a hostile attitude towards the idea of peer interaction.  So I kind of have this a these army of helpers, although I don’t tell them that they’re my army of helpers.

I think that I’m very much believing that teachers need to know who their students are and to listen to their students.  Rather than to make assumptions about their students.  A, so I think, I think it’s very important to find a, an early opportunity to meet one on one with each one of your students.  A particularly, there a, when I say early I, I would, let me rephrase that and say that after they’ve done some writing a so that you can talk to them about a piece of writing that they have.  Uh I feel that I’ve learned a tremendous amount from meeting with students in this way that indicates that um they have completely different notions about whatever it is that they’ve done than I do. That whether it’s a some grammar point where I would say, well why did you make this, why did you write this sentence this way?  And they’ll tell you some story that shows that they, they actually thought about it, they had a system; they had a reason for choosing this completely wrong grammar form. And now you have this opportunity to help them unlearn what was previously learned.  Or they tell you, for example, I, I asked students to write a paper that was about their personal relationship to language.  Was like a first topic I gave in a course, number of years ago, and several people handed in papers that never used the first person pronoun I.  Although the topic clearly said what is you’re personal relation to language and write about what you think language means in your life, although I did not underline those words.  And then I called the students in who had written these papers.  Language is very important in people’s lives, and people will find that without language and so forth and “well my high school teacher told me that I could never use I in an essay.”  So they had to find a way into this topic that would not compromise their earlier belief system.  A, so now, I, I, when I recycle that topic, for example, when I say ‘there is no way that you could possibly write this paper without using the word I.’  “If you submit a draft without the word I you haven’t written about this topic, you’ve written about a different topic.’  So, and I would never have know to sell that topic if I hadn’t met with students who told me that that’s what motivated them.  They were completely conflicted between my instructions and instruction that they’d thought were the rules of the English language.  And this has happened to me over and over again, that it’s through one on one conversations with students that I’ve become alerted to what they a have learned or been taught or believe that is just in conflict with what we currently believe or how the English language works.  And, that there’s no ordinary occasion in which that information would be conveyed to me except in this one on one conference.  So my strong sense is that you can’t really be an effective teacher of writing a to the masses.  You can only be an effective teacher of writing if you make every effort to have some personal dialog with each and every one of your student writers.