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More White House Support for Community Colleges

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If you’re in the USA, you’ve probably heard about the various disasters befalling the California college and university systems. In light of that, it’s particularly nice to hear about more support for the community college system coming from the White House. Previously, I wrote that Dr. Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, is a community college English teacher. Recently, she spoke about the importance of community colleges in her keynote address at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 2009 World Conference on Higher Education in Paris (read more at the White House blog). Even better, however, is the just-announced American Graduation Initiative. It’s supposed to lead to more funding and additional community college graduates. I hope this leads to real action and genuine support, not just verbal support. Here’s where you can get more information:

Among the highlights in the latter:

  • “A new national goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world”
  • “An additional 5 million community college degrees and certificates by 2020″
  • “A new research center with a mission to develop and implement new measures of community colleges’ success so prospective students and businesses could get a clear sense of how effective schools are in helping students — including the most disadvantaged — learn, graduate, and secure good jobs”
  • “Create a New Online Skills Laboratory … The Departments of Defense, Education, and Labor will work together to make the courses freely available through one or more community colleges and the Defense Department’s distributed learning network, explore ways to award academic credit based upon achievement rather than class hours, and rigorously evaluate the results”
  • Various financial reforms including expanding Pell grants, reforming student loan programs, simplifying the FAFSA, expanding the Perkins loan program, improving 529 savings plans, etc.
  • Much more–go read it, and let me know what you think, community college instructors and administrators!

A Voice for ESL and Community Colleges in the White House?

I confess that during the election, I didn’t read anything about the Democratic vice-presidential candidate’s spouse. However, I would have been happy if I had, because Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, is an ESL teacher! She seems to be serious about her job, too: she has two master’s degrees (English and education) and a PhD in educational leadership (with a dissertation on community college student retention, 2007). In fact, this Washington Post article reports that she has just accepted an adjunct position teaching ESL and developmental English at Northern Virginia Community College. Of course, I don’t know if she has any real training in TESOL (many English teachers don’t, but teach ESL courses anyway). Still, just the fact that she’s hoping to be an advocate for community colleges is a good thing for ESL teachers, many of whom work in community colleges. While the Bidens won’t actually be living in the White House, Dr. Biden should at least be able to communicate with President Obama through Vice President Biden.

Of course, it’s not as though having Laura Bush (a librarian and former teacher) in the White House did anything for the cause of literacy or education in the United States, so there’s no guarantee of anything. Still, I’m choosing to be hopeful at this point.

Comparisons and Politics

Sorry I’m still not blogging much. Some family health issues have popped up and I’m very short on time and energy. In a couple of weeks, things should clear up.

Briefly, though, if you have students who are interested in American politics or if you’re teaching compare-contrast writing, now’s a great time! I’ve had a couple of Japanese clients ask me for some insight on the current elections. Our system and our political reality is very different from theirs. One client remarked that he finally understands why Americans get so worked up about politics: because our presidential election is likely to result in direct effects on our lives. He doesn’t feel that the Japanese elections do much of anything, and for that matter, their prime ministers aren’t elected by the people. They’re appointed by the party in control–not to mention that the last two have resigned after only a year in office! Right now Japan doesn’t have a prime minister at all.

Because of these big differences, I guess, some of my clients are pretty interested in the process. One asked me to explain Obama’s and McCain’s positions simply. That’s a tall order! I directed him to the Summary Chart at procon.org, but many of the questions are hard to explain. Some I don’t quite understand myself. Today’s USA Today had a nice comparison of the candidates’ energy positions, though. Each subtopic is written in a classic mini-essay style, complete with a thesis statement. I rarely recommend journalistic writing to students–for some reason, many teachers use newspaper articles as models for students who are learning to write academic essays. I think this is a terrible idea because most newspaper articles are written in a style that simply does not match up to the style of essay that students are expected to produce. (Students should get to see expert student essays as models, but that’s a rant for another time.) This article is also not a perfect model for student essays; for example, one introductory paragraph includes the sentence “But Obama’s plan is more aggressive.” Most academic writing instructors wouldn’t allow this kind of sentence.

Anyway, “To Win The Race, It Takes Energy” is available online. The comparison part really starts under the subheading “Oil Drilling.” I hope the other topics are online and are as useful! I’ve underlined the thesis statements and paragraph topic sentences, so we’ll be talking about that today.

Since I have my own tutoring business and am not in a classroom, I’m totally free to talk about my own politics. I try not to emphasize that, and I don’t try to convince students that I’m right. However, my clients know that I have political opinions and that I will share them if asked, since they’re sometimes curious. I make sure to preface my statements with phrases such as “In my opinion…” and “I think…” and “It seems to me…” I also remind them that many other Americans have totally different opinions.

I agree with critical pedagogy theorists who feel there is no such thing as a politics-free classroom. Even if you try to avoid all explicit mention of politics, your politics and the surrounding politics will manifest one way or the other. (For example, teachers who spend a lot of time unquestioningly teaching pure test preparation are endorsing a certain political attitude. Other teachers subconsciously choose readings that only reflect their own worldview.) Although the discussion on this topic got very heated and angry in my MA course, I feel that politics are unavoidable to some degree, and thus are better if they’re somewhat out in the open. This lets students know you’re human; that these are real issues; and that it’s normal to be informed and have an opinion. It’s also easier for students to reject a position if the teacher acknowledges that she has that position, rather than trying to conceal it–does that make sense?

Of course, this assumes that a teacher can make herself be fair, and won’t really push her own views or punish students for expressing different views. It’s a delicate subject, but when handled carefully, I think it’s fine for politics to come in one way or the other. You can always leave it up to the students to decide, such as when my husband gave a word problem to his math students in which they examined the initial cost and possible future savings in buying a hybrid car. He encouraged students to take into account all possible factors, not just purely numeric ones–would they need to then buy a second car because they need more cargo space? Would it be different if they mostly drive in town as opposed to their classmates who commute long distances over the highway? What if the cost of gas goes up to $5/gallon next year? This semester he’s also assigned a graphing problem in which students look at when women’s wages for equal work will be exactly the same as men’s if past trends continue. This lets students look at information themselves. If they ask him what he thinks about these topics, I expect that he’ll tell them. But I don’t think they’ll be intimidated into changing their positions because of his answers, because he has established an open and safe classroom environment (unlike a couple of my undergrad professors, who were definitely doing the politics thing the wrong way!).

Okay, back to preparation for me! Feel free to leave your thoughts on this thorny issue in the comments.

Afraid of Other Languages?

Ruben Navarrette, Jr., is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune; today I read one of his columns printed in the San Jose Mercury News. It’s an excellent column addressing the ridiculous “controversy” over two Vietnamese-American valedictorians in Louisiana who included snippets of Vietnamese in their speeches thanking their parents. Their speeches were almost entirely in English, mind you; they just included a single line or so each in Vietnamese. School officials hit the ceiling, apparently, and are considering banning anything other than English in future speeches. (If this school has a Latin motto, like many schools do, then this consideration becomes even more hilariously wrongheaded, on top of already being racist and xenophobic.) As far as I’m concerned, the two young women demonstrated their commendable virtues of intelligence, multilingualism, good judgment, and respect for their parents.

Anyway, Navarrette’s column does an excellent job of responding to the controversy. He quotes a Louisiana school official who said “I don’t like them addressing in [a] foreign language,” and responds eloquently and forcefully:

Here’s what I don’t like. I don’t like it when busybody officials think that because they don’t like something, they have to outlaw it. I don’t like that language has become a proxy for the immigration debate and the anxiety that some people feel over a changing cultural landscape.

I don’t like it that some American teenagers barely speak proper English, much less a foreign language, and that they will eventually be outmatched in the global job market if they come up against someone from Europe, Asia or Latin America who speaks two or three languages. I don’t like it that some of these same American kids resent the very notion of competition, and that English-only policies enable them by making everyone the same so that no one has a leg up because he knows more than one language.

Well, I think Navarrette may be engaging in some misplaced value judgments of his own in the last paragraph quoted–I presume he’s referring to the slang and “txt” speak of teenagers, or something along those lines. Many teens are fully capable of expressing themselves in more than one mode, so they shouldn’t be scolded for that. Other teens have been raised in text-poor environments with drastically underfunded schools and few opportunities to cultivate a love of reading and self-expression. Adult voters and politicians are to blame for that. If, however, he is referring to those teens who have plenty of opportunities but simply ignore them, then I can agree with him. And I definitely feel that English-only policies reflect a stunning belittling and devaluing of the notions of communication, cosmopolitanism, and genuine literacy, as well as a peculiar kind of entitlement-based blindness about the rest of the world and the future.

Despite my nitpick above, I was moved by Navarrette’s column and I feel that it’s worth reading and sharing. You can read the rest of the piece, “Afraid of Anything but English?”, at the newspaper’s website.