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Review of  Crossing the Curriculum

Reviewer: Silvia Rossi
Book Title: Crossing the Curriculum
Book Author: Vivian Zamel Ruth Spack
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 16.1217

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Date: Wed, 13 Apr 2005 10:24:09 -0600 (MDT)
From: Silvia Rossi
Subject: Crossing the Curriculum: Multilingual Learners in College

EDITORS: Zamel, Vivian; Spack, Ruth
TITLE: Crossing the Curriculum
SUBTITLE: Multilingual Learners in College Classrooms
PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
YEAR: 2004

Silvia Rossi, Department of French, Italian and Spanish, University of
Calgary, Canada


This volume is a collection of thirteen essays exploring the issues
surrounding English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students'
experiences in mainstream college classrooms. Three perspectives -- the
researcher's, the student's and the teacher's -- are represented and
account for the division of the volume into three parts.


PART I -- Investigating Students' Experiences Across the Curriculum:
Through the Eyes of Classroom Researchers

Co-editor Vivian Zamel begins Chapter 1 by contrasting two faculty
responses to a survey she conducted about working with non-native speakers
of English. The underlying assumptions of each response are brought to
light, and their implications discussed. Sample responses from a separate
survey of ESOL students follow, revealing the expectations these students
have of the faculty members who teach them. Next, Zamel summarizes the
experiences of two individual ESOL students with whom she conducted
longitudinal case studies. (These same two students describe their
individual experiences in greater detail in Part II of the volume.) Some
of the reasons why ESOL and other writing-based courses are often
relegated to the margins of academic institutions are then identified, and
to finish the chapter, Zamel comments on progress she has made in working
with faculty at different institutions. She states that "by looking for
evidence of students' intelligence, by rereading their attempts as
coherent efforts, by valuing, not just evaluating, their work, and by
reflecting on the critical relationship between our work and theirs --
opportunities are created not only for students but for teachers to learn
in new ways".

In Chapter 2, co-editor Ruth Spack reports on her three-year case study of
one Japanese ESOL undergraduate student. The student's progress through
different undergraduate courses is traced through descriptions of her
attitudes toward course reading, assignments and the marks she received.
During her first year, the student attributed her inability to manage
coursework, and particularly to keep up with readings, to a lack of
background knowledge. In the second year, however, she began to develop
new strategies for reading, partly thanks to her first-year ESOL writing
courses. By the third year, she was feeling more confident, and for the
first time recognized the advantages that came from having lived and
studied in more than one country. She also came to see the process of
teaching and learning as one involving the construction of knowledge.
After stating some of the implications of her research, Spack suggests
that a new pedagogical model be developed -- one in which the "more
contextualized and culture-based approach of constructive-developmental
theorists" is favoured over the traditional monocultural perspective, "the
cross-cultural implications of expecting students to produce a certain
kind of discourse" are questioned, and assumptions about the nature of
Western rhetoric are re-evaluated.

In Chapter 3, Marilyn Sternglass describes the experience of one
participant in her 6-year longitudinal study. Despite initially failing a
standardized writing assessment test, this student from the Dominican
Republic went on to succeed in her college studies and even to complete a
Master's degree in psychology. In each of the six years described,
special attention is given to the role of writing in the student's
academic development. Over the six-year period, the student used writing
in her learning in three main ways: "to help her remember facts, to delve
more deeply into ideas and theories from an analytical perspective so that
she could apply these theories, and to develop new insights that led her
to original research projects". Sternglass' eventual conclusion is that
both aspects of writing, focus on form and focus on content, need to be
nurtured over time. Instructors should praise content while
simultaneously encouraging students to improve their form.

In Chapter 4, Trudy Smoke revisits a 4-year longitudinal case study of a
Chinese student's progress in her college studies in order to focus on
five assignments in particular. Through the descriptions of these
assignments, the reader understands how the student "turned the
assignments, the feedback she received on them, and the problems she
encountered with them into learning experiences". An additional focus of
the chapter is the contributions of graduate students in the City
University of New York (CUNY) Writing Fellows program, who assist faculty
in implementing writing-to-learn pedagogy initiatives. Writing Fellows
often play the role of intermediaries between faculty and ESOL students,
helping faculty members to become aware of difficulties ESOL students are
experiencing, and helping students to better understand what is expected
of them on assignments.

The final chapter in Part I features a description by Eleanor Kutz of a
project she developed for her first-year composition course in which
students investigate the discourse of one of their college courses. The
rationale for the project is the conviction that the problems of advanced
ESOL learners are more related to discourse-learning than they are to
language-learning. Four ESOL students' assignments are discussed,
revealing the importance of "seeing the big picture" for academic success,
and demonstrating the process of moving from outsider to insider status
within a discourse community. The emphasis is not so much on the
uniqueness of the ESOL student experience, but rather on the fact that all
students, regardless of language background, need to learn to negotiate a
role within each new discourse community they enter.

PART II -- Learning Across the Curriculum: Through Students' Eyes

Chapter 6 is a passionate and often poetic first-hand account of a
Colombian student's experience negotiating a freshman seminar and courses
in chemistry, literature and biology. Martha Muñoz discusses the
classroom practices which enhanced or inhibited her learning. Professors
who showed passion for their subject matter and a genuine commitment to
creating a bridge for students to get through difficult material were an
inspiration. Successful techniques these professors used were weekly
letters for in-class exchange among students, interactive journals and
presentations in which students taught each other. In contrast,
professors who lectured without making a personal connection with students
and who had unreasonable assumptions about students' background knowledge
were a disappointment. Particularly interesting in this chapter are the
sections in which the student comments on how she took skills learned in
her ESOL classes and applied them successfully to her other coursework.

Chapter 7 is another very personal student account, this time from
Japanese sociology major Motoko Kainose. Motoko first discusses the
prevalent stereotype of ESOL students as "neither writing nor speaking as
efficiently and effectively as other non ESL students" in the context of a
painful experience she had in one of her classes. Then, in a section
entitled "The Sounds of Silence", she traces the progress of a philosophy
class she took in which the level of student participation gradually
decreased over time, discussing how this situation puzzled her and
explaining why she found it so difficult to speak up in class. What
follows is a fascinating account of how Motoko eventually turned to some
of the learning strategies and traditional forms of self-discipline she
had used in her native Japan in order to succeed in a particularly
challenging sociology course. In the fourth section, Motoko shares her
observations of Chinese students' behaviour in a Chinese literature
course, helping to break down the common myth of the "mute" Chinese
student in the process. A final section highlights the importance of
teacher commentary on student assignments for motivation.

PART III -- Engaging Students in Learning: Through the Eyes of Faculty
Across the Curriculum

In Chapter 8, Tim Sieber emphasizes the "head start" ESOL students have
over other students in meeting the goals of his cultural anthropology
course. Their bi- or multi-cultural backgrounds give them an advanced
understanding of the subject matter. The chapter contains a strong focus
on the role of writing to promote critical thinking, and the author
explains how he moved from viewing ESOL students' tendency to discuss
their personal experiences in their writing as a weakness, to seeing this
practice as valuable because it contributes to the development of critical
thinking skills. The three types of writing used in the course --
spontaneous in-class responses, a weekly ungraded critical reading
journal, and more formal, longer essays -- are each justified. Several
examples of student writing are provided, illustrating both the nature of
connections ESOL students make between their personal experience and class
material, and the pressure they feel to conform to their largely
monocultural post-secondary environment.. Sieber comments on his personal
transformation from seeing his role as a "grammar policeman" in evaluating
ESOL students' writing to understanding that "this type of response to
student writing was not effectively recognizing and promoting students'
intellectual development". Some final remarks point to the danger of
idealizing ESOL students as all being gifted in balanced critical
thinking. Sieber notes that at times ESOL students' contributions are
ethnocentric and even racist. Still, he concludes that in general, his
experience with ESOL students has led him to raise his standards for all

Chapter 9 details the struggle of Neha Shah, a student from India, in an
introductory level philosophy course. It is written by Stephen Fishman,
the instructor of the course in question, and Lucille McCarthy, who had
regular interviews with Neha over the course of the semester. Fishman
describes Neha's early writing assignments and his complex reactions to
them, and the dilemma he saw himself faced with: "If Neha was unprepared
for my course, I, as a teacher, was equally unprepared for her". It took
measures such as Neha's quitting one of her part-time jobs, and spending
extra time in the writing lab for her written work to show signs of
improvement. A valuable section of this chapter is the conclusion that
writing-to-learn assignments were not, by themselves, helpful to Neha, but
that in combination with other pedagogical techniques such as student
letter exchanges, student-generated questions for class discussion, and
student-generated exam questions, the benefits of writing-to-learn did
emerge. In other words, writing helped learning when it was matched with
activities allowing students to interact with one another. Fishman also
underlines the importance of focusing on the content of students' work
rather than becoming distracted by surface errors in their writing.

Chapter 10 contains Kristine Alster's reflections on nursing students'
writing and on her own attempts at helping them to improve this skill.
She argues that although nursing students often believe writing to be
unimportant for their field, writing is necessary for communicating, for
learning, and for enhancing professional status. Working against the
positive development of nursing students' writing skills are poor models,
the overuse of jargon, and an overemphasis on form over content. These
can lead to a loss of confidence and a tendency towards plagiarism, and
Alster explains how these consequences can particularly affect ESOL
students. The author then provides some suggestions for techniques that
can help nursing students to develop as writers including acknowledging
the difficulty of the writing task, backing off when frustration levels
run too high and working from the simple to the complex. Alster notes
some of the reasons instructors may feel uncomfortable addressing student
writing problems: 1) they are often unsure of their own writing skills, 2)
it is commonly assumed that writing is the domain and responsibility of
the English department, 3) instructors are preoccupied with covering
nursing content and believe that this must take precedence over teaching
writing skills. Alster's solution for this last challenge is that
instructors must strive to "develop assignments in which writing promotes
content learning".

Rajini Srikanth, an English professor, is the author of the next chapter,
whose objective is to make the case for "placing the malleability of
literature in the service of ESOL pedagogy". Two of Srikanth's primary
classroom goals are to make students feel comfortable expressing their
ideas and to acknowledge multiple interpretations of texts. In order to
create a comfortable environment in which ESOL students feel free to
participate, instructors must do several things: acknowledge these
students' identities outside of their role as learners of English, avoid
giving the impression that texts are authoritative and untouchable, and
stimulate multiple forms of expression. Like the authors of previous
chapters, Srikanth underlines the usefulness of ungraded written responses
to texts, letter writing, and activities which ask students to teach one
another. She ends the chapter by emphasizing the need to see "the unique
individuals behind ESOL students' written essays".

In Chapter 11, Estelle Disch outlines some of the techniques she uses in
her internship in sociology course in order to make the classroom a place
where all students feel comfortable participating. The point is made that
when an instructor strives to create a democratic classroom where all
voices are heard, it is not only ESOL students, but all students who
benefit. Some of the strategies used to create this inclusivity are
writing activities designed to stimulate critical thinking in preparation
for class discussions, short ungraded quizzes after which students defend
their answers in small groups, and collaborative projects. In describing
ESOL students specifically, Disch refers to them as both a gift and a
challenge -- a gift because they "validate the importance of multicultural
awareness in human services" and a challenge because of the linguistic and
sometimes cultural gaps they often possess. Linguistic gaps, however,
must not be overemphasized. According to Disch, instructors tend to
attribute an ESOL student's silence or anxiety to linguistic shortcomings
too hastily, when in fact the source of these problems may lie elsewhere.

In this final chapter, Peter Nien-chu Kiang describes an assignment
called "The Meaning of Names", which students complete in his Asian
American Studies course. The assignment asks students to reflect on the
origins of their full name and their feelings towards it- in short, to
tell their name stories. Kiang outlines the interesting relationships
which exist between name stories and family expectations and educational
achievement for many ESOL learners. He also shows how names are related
to family legacies and to students' personal experiences of
discrimination. The overall framework for this discussion is the
problematic of student persistence in higher education and the idea that
persistence depends to a large degree on students' academic and social
integration. Kiang argues that assignments like "The Meaning of Names"
provide opportunities for just such academic and social integration.


This volume is a welcome addition to the literature on learning across the
curriculum. The fact that the perspectives of researchers, students and
teachers are all represented make it a uniquely balanced view of the
issues surrounding ESOL students and their experiences in college
classrooms. There are several key ideas which appear repeatedly in
different chapters of the volume. One is that informal response-type
writing assignments can be a key to helping ESOL students find their voice
and write authentically. Another is that instructors' comments on
students' work are of vital importance to motivation and success. A third
point is that more instructors are seeing ESOL students in their
classrooms as a valuable resource rather than a problem to be solved. A
final common thread running through the book is that pedagogical practices
which are good for ESOL learners are good for all learners. In this
collection, Zamel and Spack have brought together a highly readable and
insightful series of viewpoints which guide the reader toward a fuller
understanding of the complexity of ESOL students' situations and those of
the professionals who guide them. In fact, the value of this book extends
far beyond an audience interested in the ESOL student experience; it
contains important lessons for all those who research, learn and teach at
the post-secondary level.


Silvia Rossi is an ESOL instructor at the Languages Institute at Mount
Royal College in Calgary, Canada and a graduate student in French and
Spanish at the University of Calgary, Canada. Her research interests lie
primarily in the area of third language acquisition, and she is presently
investigating lexical transfer in L3 Spanish production.

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