Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Introduce Cambodia to the World: Student Writing



            I was recently at the Camtesol event (an international conference for English teachers hosted in Cambodia) and the opening speaker at the conference (Dr. Yilin Sun) was talking about how it’s important that we never forget our purpose for teaching English in the first place.  She said that if we spend all our time teaching our students grammar, but never give them a purpose to communicate, then our work is meaningless, and that we should never lose sight of the purpose of teaching English as an international language: to foster international understanding by giving our students the means to communicate about their country to the world.  The purpose of teaching English, she said, was “To introduce the world to Cambodia, and introduce Cambodia to the world.”

            I was inspired by this, so I decided to try this out in my classroom. I decided to give my young learner class (students age 11-15) the opportunity to write something introducing Cambodia to the world.
            For better or for worse, I went about this in the most uncreative way possible.  I just went in to class with a worksheet that literally said, “Introduce Cambodia to the World” and told the students that I would be posting their essays online for the world to read, and that they could write whatever they wanted.


Introduce Cambodia to the World


Imagine you are writing to someone who knows nothing about Cambodia.  What do you want them to know about Cambodia?  Write down all of the important information about your country. 

You may write anything you want to write as long as it is related to Cambodia.

You have 30 minutes to write. You should write at least 120 words, but you may write more if you like.
            It may have been better to give them more guidance on this, but I was worried about influencing them too much, and I was curious to see what they would write if I gave them absolutely no guidance.
            (If I do this again in the future, I may try to adjust the prompt a little bit so that I can get some writing that reflects their personal experience more instead of information that sounds like it comes directly out of a guide book.)

            The students handwrote the essay in class, and then I re-typed all the essays up onto the Internet. They can be viewed here.



A few notes:
            First of all, in an ideal world, I would have liked to do this activity as homework so the students had more time to think and reflect.  But unfortunately experience has taught me that if I give writing homework in Cambodia, most of it will come back copied off of the Internet.  So in order to get them to write their own words, we did this in class.  (The exception is students who were absent for that day, and who were allowed to do this writing task as homework instead: student 42 and student 43.)
            Also, in order to get them to take it seriously, I told them it would be an assessed writing.  I did this exercise in lieu of one of their normal writing tests, and the pressure of the test may be the reason some of their essays came out with so fragmented and had so many random sentences thrown together.  Or it could just be their natural writing style at this level.

            When typing up their essays, I corrected their grammar.  This was my way of giving them feedback on their grammar.  They were then encouraged to compare their original piece of writing with the corrected version that I had typed up.
            However in order for this feedback to be meaningful to them, I tried to preserve as much of the original sentence as possible so that they could recognize the parts that I did correct.  So the essays still read somewhat idiomatically.
            (By the by, I’m rather pleased with this new way of providing feedback on student writing.  It seems like a gentler way of correcting grammar mistakes than marking up their papers with a red pen.  Instead I just write up the corrected version myself, and then they read my version, and hopefully notice the difference.)

           I corrected the spelling of English words, but I did not correct the spelling of Khmer words and place names, partly because I think there’s more than one way these words can be legitimately transcribed into English and partly because in many cases I wasn’t even sure of what the correct English spelling is.  So from student to student many different spellings of the same word can be seen.
            In order to preserve the student’s voices, aside from spelling and grammar corrections, I didn’t interfere with the essay.  I typed them up as written even if I disagreed with the opinions in them.  (For example I emphatically disagree with the statement that the traffic in Phnom Penh is very safe, but I didn’t change the student’s essay who said the traffic in Phnom Penh was safe).  Nor did I correct any factual errors.  (Oral Mountain is not actually the highest mountain in the world, but some of my Cambodian students are apparently under the impression that it is, and I didn’t correct this.)

            The worksheet I gave the students is on Google Docs here.  I also made up a generic version that could be used for any country.



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