Drawing on Students’ Experiences, Cultures and Languages to Develop English Language Writing: Perspectives from Three Lao Heritage Middle School Students
Rassamichanh Souryasack and Jin Sook Lee, University of California, Santa Barbara
Lao students have not fared well in the American educational system. Raised in a home culture that emphasizes and values the oral tradition, the acquisition of academic writing skills has been especially problematic even for U.S.-born students of Lao heritage. Recognizing that writing is a critical component for academic success, this study examines the second language writing experiences of three long-term ESL learners of Lao heritage who took part in a nine-week writing workshop. Analysis of their writings, pre and post interviews, and observational notes from the writing workshops revealed that these students had been unmotivated to write at school. However, joining a community of emerging writers who shared similar social, academic and cultural experiences created a supportive environment for students to write about topics of personal relevance such as community, isolation, and their heritage language and culture. Participation in the workshop was associated with more positive attitudes towards writing, increased motivation, a clearer understanding of the writing process, and improved writing mechanics. Thus, we argue for the need to value, validate, and make visible students' personal experiences, including their heritage cultures and languages, as a critical strategy in motivating students to write.
Lao immigrant students are struggling academically in the American educational system. According to the 2000 Census, only 24.4% of the Lao population graduate from high school and more shockingly, only 7.7% go on to successfully graduate from college (Barnes & Bennett, 2002). Yet little is known about Lao students' academic experiences. In an attempt to gain a better understanding of why Lao students were experiencing academic difficulties, a preliminary study was designed to collect Lao students' writings of their personal school experiences at the middle school level only to find that, despite receiving K-6 education in the U.S., many of these students had great difficulty writing in English. Thus, it appeared that one reason for their academic difficulties may be connected to the inadequate development of their English writing skills.
In many Lao homes, where the oral tradition is highly valued and practiced, children grow up engaging minimally in writing activities. Furthermore, Lao students do not receive much literacy support in the home due to the low literacy levels among first generation Laotian immigrant adults (Fu, 1995; Um, 2003). Recognizing the critical nature of writing skills in students' academic careers, this study focuses on the English writing experiences of three U.S.-born, long-term ESL learners of Lao heritage who elected to participate in a nine-week after school writing workshop. This paper describes how the workshops were implemented as well as how the students' writing skills and attitudes toward writing changed throughout the program.
Critical Pedagogy and Second Language Writing
The development of writing skills involves not only the acquisition of language and its structural rules, but also self-discovery. Writing is a means through which everyday experiences and understandings of self are constructed and expressed. In other words, writing can become a tool for personal growth and social transformation by giving meaning, purpose, and value to the writer’s experiences (Darder, 1995; Shor, 1987, 1992; Spivey, 1996; Vygotsky as cited in Kozulin, 1986).
As involuntary immigrants, Lao adolescents represent a historically marginalized and silenced population (Ogbu, 1991). The invisibility of students’ cultural experiences and backgrounds in the mainstream curriculum discourages students from sharing their perspectives with others (Giroux, 1992; Moje, 2000; Willis, 2002). Furthermore, the cultural and literacy histories of linguistic minority students are often ignored or marginalized in teachers’ decisions about literacy lessons. According to Walqui (2000), the most successful instruction builds upon the strengths and previous experiences knowledge of students such as the experiences of their home linguistic and cultural systems. For example, Jimenez (2001) found that immigrant students succeed academically when their own backgrounds and national origins were recognized and when their bilingualism and biculturalism were acknowledged. In other words, students who were encouraged to connect their reading and writing in English to their own cultural backgrounds, and to value their communities’ literacies, including oral literacy traditions, had better outcomes in their English language development. Similarly, in examining the schooling experiences of four Lao students, Fu (1995) found that when these students were not given the opportunity to share their life experiences in either English or Lao, they developed feelings of marginalization and isolation. Under these circumstances, the students were unable to envision a place and a future for themselves in the educational system.
Despite such findings, rather than being provided opportunities to build on the knowledge and experiences they bring to the classroom, students are often expected to leave their “cultural baggage” behind and assimilate fully into the mainstream system (Cummins, 2003; Darder, 1995; Kincheloe et al., 2002; Nieto, 2000; Villegas, 1991). Willis (2002) stressed that “acknowledging the differences does not mean dismissing mainstream European American perspectives or contributions, but it does mean adopting a more inclusive, critical, and emancipatory approach to literacy instruction” (p. 312) that understands historically, socially, culturally, politically, and ideologically defined processes and the need for dialectical thinking in the development of identity as second language writers (McLaren, 1998). Thus, as part of an effort to challenge the power structures that attempt to silence them, linguistic minority students must share their memories, stories, and histories that can be reclaimed through their writing experiences (Giroux, 1992).
Critical pedagogy is based on critical theory and constructivist instructional strategies. It is known for its empowering, transformative, and liberatory pedagogy that requires both the teacher and the students to be critical agents in the act of knowing (Friere, 2000). The goal of critical pedagogy is to relate personal growth to public life by developing critical thinking skills, academic knowledge, habits of inquiry, and critical curiosity about society, power, inequality, and change. Lao students’ intellectual growth cannot be encouraged if they are not viewed as “critical thinkers who are capable of creating change in their own lives as members of a particular community and responsible for affecting change in the broader society” (Sotillo, 2002; p. 276).
Engaging in writing that critically examines one’s own experiences can be personally and socially transformative for second language writers. Shor’s (1987) problem-posing methodology is one way to achieve this transformative internalization. Students are asked to describe what they see before they define the problem(s). Then, they are asked to share similar experiences and question the reason for the problem(s). The final step is to strategize what they can do about the problem(s). In addition, learners can engage in critical thinking through the use of a cultural circle (Shor, 1992). This strategy provides a structure whereby learners and teachers initially co-construct questions until students become comfortable enough to share and ask questions on their own. According to Shor (1992), critical pedagogy situates the curriculum in issues and language from daily life. Thus, to support the development of their identities as writers and bicultural beings, Lao students benefit when they are given the space to talk about their cultural and linguistic experiences, which can be accomplished through writing activities. Toward this end, a writing workshop program based in critical pedagogy, which promotes critical thinking and self- discovery, was designed to support Lao adolescents in a collaborative and participatory writing context. (Cummins, 1989, 2003; Friere, 2000; McLaren, 1998; Shor, 1987, 1992).
Developmentally, middle school is a time when students start to question their everyday experiences, relations with their world, and sense of identity (Tse, 1998). This study was conducted through an after-school enrichment program designed to focus on the development of writing skills for Lao students. Although seven students initially participated in the program, the analysis of the data is based on three seventh grade students, the only students to have completed the program. The participants of the study, Davanee, Nathida, and Samuti (pseudonyms), were referred to as long-term ESL learners by their teachers. All three students were conversationally fluent in English, but they were unable to demonstrate proficiency in academic language skills. They were born in the United States and had attended public schools in the same district since kindergarten.1 Davanee and Nathida were children of ethnic Lao heritage, whereas Samuti was of Lao, Cambodian, and Thai heritage.
Davanee, the younger of two girls in her family, was 12 years old. She spoke only Lao at home and English outside of the home. She lived with both parents, and her older sister lived nearby. Davanee did not have a particular interest in going to school: “I feel lazy and don’t wonna come to school.” 2 She reported spending most of her time at home on the computer or telephone. She also attended a Thai Temple to learn and perform Thai dances every Sunday.
At the beginning of the writing workshops, Davanee remained quiet and reserved. She was observant, but did not share her thoughts and comments with other students. She looked bored, sad, and unmotivated to write. Davanee commented that she was unsure why she was participating in the workshops other than to please her parents. Her parents wanted Davanee in the group because they believed that the tutor would be a good academic role model for her. Although her attendance was inconsistent throughout the program, she did stay through its completion. The tutor noted that she wrote colloquially and that her writing consisted of run-on and fragmented sentences as well as spelling and punctuation errors.
Nathida, the youngest of three children, was also 12 years old. She spoke Lao and some Thai at home. She lived with her parents and two high school age siblings, a brother and a sister. Nathida had attended three different schools in the same school district since kindergarten. Though she liked school, she felt that the school day was too long. Her favorite subjects were English, Math, and Physical Education. Nathida reported that she liked to study with friends after school and that her career goal was to become a singer. During the first few writing workshops, Nathida was shy and reserved. She hesitated to share her ideas. However, once Nathida felt comfortable with the tutor and other students, she was talkative and open to seeking feedback on her writing.
Samuti, the youngest of 10 children, was a 13-year old seventh grader. She spoke Lao and Thai at home.3 She lived with her parents, four siblings, a brother-in-law and a niece. Her extended family members live throughout the country, which afforded her opportunities to travel frequently. According to Samuti, she was doing fairly well in school and her goal was to become an attorney. When asked about how she felt about school, she wrote, “I feel happy about school because without school you will not learn new things and what had happen. I like school because edgacation can help you get a job and don’t have to worry about what’s going to happen. So if you are in school take your time and don’t rush things before it turn bad.”
The tutor of the writing workshops, who is also the primary author of this paper, is a 1.5 generation Lao. She has near-native proficiency in English and fluent oral proficiency in Lao. She was born in Laos and came to the United States at the age of 5. At the time of the study, she had seven years of teaching experience in public schools, half of which was at the middle school level and was working on a master’s degree in Language and Literacy Education.
The study was conducted at an urban middle school in a northern California low-income neighborhood with a high concentration of Southeast Asian students in the school district. All ESL learners in the school were mainstreamed, regardless of language proficiency levels, and they received minimal, if any, ESL services.
After gaining permission from the principal to conduct the study as part of
an after-school program for the Southeast Asian students at the school, the
primary author (hereafter referred to as the tutor) contacted seven Lao students
and their parents by telephone asking for their participation in a study examining
the writing experiences of Lao adolescents. The tutor explained that the after-school
program would last nine weeks and would focus on English language writing activities.
Every student contacted initially agreed to be a part of the study; however,
all but three dropped out in the first week because of lack of interest or conflict
with their home responsibilities such as helping out at their parents’
workplaces or watching their younger siblings.
During the nine-week period, the tutor met with the group of three students on an average of twice a week for two hours each session. To get an idea of the students’ writing abilities, the first session was used to ask the students to write about any topic they wanted to. In the first two sessions, methods of critical pedagogy were not incorporated. Although the students were given the freedom to write about anything they wanted to, they all chose to write about their personal childhood and home experiences, which created a natural transition for incorporating aspects of critical pedagogy to support students to become more critically aware of themselves and their surroundings.
The first 10 minutes of every meeting were spent on a mini-lesson to introduce various writing strategies such as brainstorming, responding to each other’s writing, writing transitions, genres of writing, paragraph construction, and a review of the workshop’s guidelines. After each mini-lesson, the participants wrote for short periods on a topic chosen from their personal writing territories listed in their notebooks (Atwell, 1998). These quick writes were writing exercises to help students develop fluency and a sense of authorship as well as to explore and connect ideas to articulate their cultural and social perspectives (Kincheloe et al., 2002).
Initially, students expressed reluctance to share their personal stories, something they were unaccustomed to doing; however, as they began to discover the commonality in their experiences, they developed trust in one another and began to build a sense of community as writers. In every session, each student spent 30-40 minutes writing on a topic of their choice from her list of writing territories. During this time, individual conferences were conducted to assess students’ needs and provide feedback on their writings. The writing conferences focused on the development of fluency and expression rather than on grammatical and spelling corrections.
The tutor used readings from current newspapers, selections from poetry reflecting Lao experiences in the United States, and chapters from the tutor’s personal writings that discussed Lao cultural values and beliefs. In addition, the tutor arranged for field trips to a university campus and the Asian Art Museum to give students first-hand experience with Asian culture as represented in the U.S. and to stimulate students to write reflectively about their observations and experiences in social exchange with others (Friere, 2000). The tutor adapted techniques from Shor’s (1987) problem-posing and Shor’s (1992) cultural circle strategies to guide the students’ development of their writing and critical thinking skills.
Data Collection and Analysis
The tutor recorded field notes of activities and her interactions with students during the program. In addition, home visits were made when the students did not regularly come to the workshops, which afforded a different opportunity to gain insights into the realities of the students’ lives. At least four writing samples were collected from each student. The writings (e.g. quick writes, rough drafts, and final versions) served as windows into their experiences as developing ESL writers. Information about students’ demographic and educational backgrounds and their attitudes toward the writing workshops and writing process were collected from the pre- and post-participation interviews and the writing survey, which included questions such as “Are you a writer? How did you learn to write? What does someone have to do or know in order to write well? How do you decide what you’ll write about? Where do your ideas come from? What kinds of response help you most as a writer? How often do you write at home?” (Atwell, 1998). The students’ responses were analyzed in light of how their experiences seemed related to their writing development in English. Each student’s writing samples were analyzed separately to track their progress over time. A combination of descriptive and thematic levels of analysis, as well as cross-case analysis, were used to identify common themes from the dialogue, interviews, responses to the writing survey, and students’ writings (Merriam, 1998; Yin, 2003).
The following section examines each student’s writing development over the course of the workshops. Each student’s case reveals a different and critical aspect about the process of learning to write in a second language. Presenting each writer’s experiences with writing and interview responses separately allow for their individual identity to emerge throughout the analysis.
The Case of Davanee
Davanee entered the writing program with an attitude suggesting that she felt distanced from writing and the need to write. In the writing survey, Davanee wrote "I don't write much and plus I really don't express my feelings much a lot." She also wrote that people "learn how to write by reading and writing about what they like so they can learn as they write." For Davanee, learning to write involved writing and reading about personal interests. Her initial distancing from the act of writing and her response that people learn to write about what they like imply that if provided opportunities for her to pursue literacy from a personal stance rather than through a pre-structured lesson, she may experience a closer connection to literacy. Although Davanee seemed to understand that people learn through writing, writing for her was mainly limited to "spelling, reading, writing, and making sense". In other words, she was focused on the mechanics of writing, which was the focus of her school writing lessons, and had yet to discover the power of writing for expression. The following text is her first writing sample, which she struggled to produce for over two hours:
When I was young I had fun. Before I use to have lots of fun but now I don't know cause everything just happening at one time and you gotta think whats gonna happen and what you gonna do. (2/19/03)
Davanee struggled not only with deciding on a topic to write about, but also in expressing her ideas through the medium of writing. Based on this first quick write, Davanee continued to write on the childhood theme; however, she decided to change the genre from an essay to a personal letter. The letter genre seemed to allow her to write more casually without feeling pressured to produce correct punctuation, spelling, and form.
Dear Family & Friends, When I was a little girl it use to be really bad. It's bad cause when you're the youngest you don't really get to do N-E-thing and don't get to do N-E-thing. Before it was hard for my life because didn't really get to do anything when I was young. But I had a hard time cause my (2/24/03)
Because she continued to struggle with her writing, the tutor intervened with scaffolding questions such as: “What do you mean by ‘it’s bad’”?, and “Do you have examples of things you wanted to do as a child?” to guide Davanee’s development of her ideas. What was striking about Davanee’s writing was her attempt to convey feelings of restrictions and isolation in her childhood as revealed through her emphasis on “N-E-thing”. Unfortunately, after the second workshop, Davanee’s attendance was inconsistent and it took her the whole nine weeks to finish this letter. With the support of more guiding questions and mini-lessons on grammar, she was able to produce longer texts that described her family and social contexts, which were saturated with feelings of isolation as can be seen in her last draft of the letter. Although she improved somewhat over time, she relied heavily on the phonetic sounds of the words when spelling and frequently misspelled words that she knew already knew (e.g., “dere” for there and “an” for and).
Dear Family & Friends, As the youngest child in a family of 2 daughters, I didn't get to do much of anything. For example, I stayed home a lot I didn't have friends over my house. Dere wasn't a lot of laotian kid around my neighborhood. In my neighborhood, there were a lot of stores and there was a park near by. My house was white and brown. It had a upstairs and it was pretty big. I had five bedrooms. I had one room. My sister had one room. And my parents the two rooms we had left was one computer room an the other is a extra room. The reason why I stayed home a lot was because I had no where to go. In plus my parents would go drop me off at my grandparents house. (4/12/03)
Davanee’s emphasis on feelings of isolation and lack of interactions with other Lao children (“Dere wasn’t a lot of laotian kid around my neighborhood”) supports findings from Fu’s study on Laotian immigrant students. Without a visible and vibrant co-ethnic social network, it is often difficult to experience the sense of power that comes from being a part of a larger group. Furthermore, her lack of experiences in varied contexts (“I didn’t get to do anything”) may have created difficulties in understanding the ways of life of the mainstream culture, which are the experiences that school curriculum is based upon. Moreover, the experiences of writers often provide food for thought for the content of their writings. Having restricted experiences outside of the home may have resulted in a lack of opportunities to mediate and negotiate the boundaries of her two cultures and languages as well as in a limited pool of experiences to write about. Thus, initially Davanee had difficulties finding a topic to write about and feeling a need to write about it.
Davanee’s responses in the post-participation interview focused on the social and cultural benefits of writing with and about people with similar language and cultural experiences. In her words, she shared that “Laotian people are interesting because the more you learn and listen about Laotian people, they are really common from other people and it’s cool in a way when you get to know about Laos more.” She also said that she sometimes kept her knowledge to herself, because she believed that she would sound “stupid” and “besides I just think I’m not as good as other people from what they are saying.” Davanee was uncertain of the value of her knowledge and experiences and felt that she did not have anything important to contribute. The interactions with other Lao students in a space that fostered the sharing of personal experiences created a level of comfort for Davanee to write down her thoughts without worrying about whether she would appear “stupid” or “strange”. Furthermore, interactions with her peers gave her an opportunity to hear what other students had to say and validate and broaden her own perspectives.
Davanee also responded well to experiential instructional approaches. She was provided with relevant contexts from the readings and field trips that made connections to her heritage, and from films (including Refugee), and her willingness to write increased dramatically. Davanee wrote the following reflection during a fifteen-minute writing session: “Refugee”:
What my feelings about is that it was sad. I felt like what if it was me or what if it did happen to me its like Im thinking about what would I do or what would happen or what would I be thinking about you know. The movie really touched me because I cared and I wonna know like is there things like that about Laos peoples. I think there is but Im not really sure because not much a lot of people know about Laos or Laotian peoples. So I was just making sure that asian people really do care. Because some asian don't really care or they would just forget about it. (3/17/03)
Davanee’s writings reflect her concerns and questions about her Lao heritage and the Lao community. In the group discussions, she posed more critical questions about the societal position of the Lao community and appeared to be more aware of her relationship to society and to the world. As a result, she started to talk about the importance of writing and developed many topics to write about. Davanee’s case shows that the development of writing skills is not only dependent upon the acquisition of the rules of writing, but on having a purpose to write and a willingness to write about something. For Davanee, establishing a connection between her personal background and interests and writing motivated her to begin the process of writing. She will need to continue to acquire the forms and rules of writing academically; however, an initial breakthrough was made in that she now has come to see herself as a writer and has found a purpose for writing.
The Case of Nathida
In the beginning of the workshop, Nathida indicated that she perceived herself to be a writer. She stated that “people write because they want to entertain people and to show emotions.” Moreover, she believed good writing skills are based on a knowledge of “good vocabulary words in order to write well.” In comparison to Davanee, Nathida appears to be somewhat more comfortable writing in English. The following writing sample was written during the second week. She did not write during the first week because she wanted more time to think about her topic. She stated that it was the first time she was asked to create a list of topics she wanted to write about. The following is an excerpt from Nathida’s first writing sample:
Singing To Myself
I like singing alot because it's a good feeling inside. The person that inspire me to sing are J.Lo and Ashanti. They're my favorite singers I like to be a singer because they get nice stuff and they travel alot. The thing I hate about being a singer is because they don't see their family alot and my family is real important to be because they are always there for me. I hear that the singers don't see their family alot because of traveling. (2/24/03)
Nathida attempted to produce more complex sentences than Davanee, but still needed assistance with sentence structure, vocabulary, verb tense, punctuation, and spelling. Her writing style was also reflective of the way she spoke. However, as she became increasingly aware of the writing process, the more she realized how much she did not understand about writing. At the end of the writing program, Nathida commented that she was not a writer "because I don't know much about writing…the program [the writing workshop] was the most I ever wrote." Nathida came to understand that there is more to writing than what she knew before her participation in the writing workshops. Nathida also expressed that the most important aspect she learned about writing was that: "I mostly wrote about what I know because it is a story. I want it in writing so I won't forget it. Besides, I never wrote about myself…It means so much to me because it shows how I was growing up. It allows me to re-experience my childhood." Nathida's understanding of writing had changed. Nathida was beginning to see that writing has different purposes and functions and that vocabulary was only one aspect of developing good writing skills.
Nathida's response indicates the importance of giving students the opportunity to write about relevant topics that a student has expertise in. She stated that she wrote more in this writing workshop than at school because "I experience it so I could say a lot of things like describing the places, what was happening. Unlike writing at school where my teacher gave me a topic, I had to choose topics…the topic was mostly what I knew." The opportunity to write with the authority of an expert affords beginning writers the space to focus on other aspects of their writing development. The voice of authority is often formed when a writer has had direct personal experiences with the topic of choice. Although the students did not discuss their topics in advance of writing, all three chose to write about themselves. The following writing sample reveals Nathida's struggle with her identity as a Lao and her desire to please her parents. Her story, and Davanee's as well, support Schapiro's (1998) finding, showing that many Lao students are relatively isolated from their Lao peers:
When I was little, I used to go to XXX at XXX. I used to be the only laotian girl over there except for 1, 2, or 3 girls that was laotian and of coarse my brother and sister. When I was little, I wished that I had friends that were laotian because I wanted to practice how to talk it, but I couldn't. I had to practice talking laotian at home with my parents and family members. Now I know a lot of words in laotian because my family and relatives taught me. My mom was teaching me how to talk and write in Thai. I know a couple of Thai words but I still don't know how to write in Thai. The reason my mom was teaching me because she knows how to speak Thai and want to pass it on to me and also, my mom works at a Thai cusine Resterunt and people there talk in Thai to her there. That how she learned some Thai. She says that she wants me to be a good person and make her proud by being the President. but I told her I wanted to be a singer and she still o-kay with it but as long as I get good grades and go to collage. If I get a chance to be the President, I'll be very happy with it too! (3/19/03)
The theme of isolation again appeared in Nathida's writing, which emphasizes this experience among Lao heritage students. For Nathida the lack of a co-ethnic peer group had additional consequences, in that she believed that she did not have opportunities to develop her language proficiency outside the home. She was concerned about knowing how to speak her heritage language because it was a way to connect with her heritage culture and community members. Nathida's case shows that even at this developmental age, children are figuring out their social relationships to others and are aware of the linguistic and cultural qualities that enable them to make connections. Thus, supporting and acknowledging students' linguistic and cultural characteristics is the first step toward empowering students to express their thoughts and ideas in their writings.
After five weeks of struggling to develop her essay, Nathida synthesized her ideas in her last draft titled: A better life. The title was the main point that she wanted to convey about her childhood and her parents' life. Nathida reported that writing about her family background was a way to access her personal history and make sense of her childhood experience. Although her writing was still speckled with errors, she was beginning to produce a coherent text that expressed deep cultural beliefs and expectations about who she was and where she came from. Her story represents the sense of responsibility and pressures that many children of immigrants carry of having to compensate for their parent's sacrifices through their hard work.
A Better Life
When I was five years old, I didn't see my parents that much. I didn't get to see my parents that often because they had to work. They wanted to work because they wanted a better life for their children. Everyday except for weekends they went to work at B.K. Thai cusine restaurant. I would go to day care and would see them after day care and weekends. I was happy that my uncle was moving in because that means I could stay home. Now, my parents are spending more time with us and now their proud of me because I get good grades. I don't want them to waste their time working on a child thats does nothing thats why I want to do good in school and not waste their time. I don't want their time because if I do bad in school then I shouldn't be getting all these good things I got that they bought me and they worked for because if I was a failure then why should they be working. (3/26/03)
Before the writing workshops, Nathida’s understanding of writing was mainly associated with a school activity that she was forced to do rather than a medium to express her ideas and stories. As the result of guidance in recreating past experiences and memories through writing, Nathida found a motivation to write. She stated that she had produced more writing in this program than she had in all her preceding schooling. Nathida’s willingness to write and improve her writing skills seemed to grow as she realized that writing was meaningful to her.
The Case of Samuti
Of the three students, Samuti was most advanced in her writing skills. Her understanding of the functions and purpose of writing was more developed than Davanee and Nathida’s initial understanding. Samuti saw herself as a “beginning writer because writing is a way of creating a dialogue and expressing myself and I am comfortable with doing both.” Furthermore, according to Samuti, “people learn how to write by reading and responding to others’ story and understanding what they feel then you write what you thought about it.” However, she felt that writing was one of the most difficult tasks in school.
The following is Samuti’s first writing sample (2/19/03). Samuti tried to produce a paragraph with a coherent idea. Her writing style was colloquial and had errors in areas such as preposition usage, verb tense, and pronoun usage. However, she did not struggle as much as the others did to choose a topic and to complete the text.
It was fun when I was young because family members love you very much but as I got older all they want is me to go school and don't do drugs. It was fun when I grew-up because I get to go to places and worrying about getting sick. But now my parents think I'm older and might do something stupid and mess up my life. I wonder sometime if I just told them don't worry because I'm the youngest and I have to show my older sisters I can make it. (2/19/03)
In this initial open-ended writing activity, Samuti chose to write about her parents’ expectations. In general, the students’ willingness to write about their personal experiences facilitated introducing aspects of critical pedagogy such as describing their experiences, identifying problems, sharing experiences, and questioning the reasons for problems and fashioning strategies to solve them. All these prompts led to rich discussions about topic development.
Samuti had a critical realization during a field trip to San Francisco, where
she discovered that the Lao arts and culture were not represented in the Asian
American Museum Exhibits. Witnessing the invisibility of her heritage culture
was a transformative experience for Samuti. After this field trip, which critically
raised her awareness of the inequities and marginalization of certain groups
in our society, Samuti was eager to write about homelessness and poverty in
her community. During a brainstorming session, she decided to write a letter
to the Governor discussing her concerns about the community and environmental
pollutants. Samuti wrote with a strong sense of purpose and awareness of her
audience, and she revised the letter substantively several times. This letter
provided an opportunity to bring into her writing the everyday life, language
and cultural experiences that to her were most relevant and salient.
Samuti’s First Draft:
Hi! My name is Samuti Saisan and I'm in the 7th grade, 13th years old. I'm Cambodian, Thai, Laos these are the languages I speak, can you help us with the community.The reason why I'm asking because young children are outside playing next thing you know there gone cas in kidnapped. Can you save the commuity by coming out and talk to us about safety? I know your dealing with others things that is important but our commuity is not safe because of the crime, crazy people are doing. It's bad because someone from another state might talk bad about Urban City and how high the killing is. I'm worried about others because there to young to die and its too much here and no one is stopping it. I wonder if you can help us safe it by cleaning the streets when we walk and donated money to built shelter for the poor in needed. Sometimes the school need money to take us (kids) to the field trip because we need to learn outside and not too much in side class learning. (3/5/03)
It was interesting to see that Samuti foregrounded her introduction of herself by mentioning her three heritage languages. When asked why she included this information, she replied she was attempting to make known her depth of knowledge about her community. Samuti attempted to use the knowledge of her heritage languages as a strategic resource to position herself as an expert on the community. However, in the latter drafts, Samuti deleted her reference to her heritage languages after coming to a realization that although still a prominent defining characteristic of her identity, using examples of problems in the community would be a more effective way to get her point across. Samuti's third draft of the letter consisted of longer and more coherent paragraphs than the first. Her confidence as a writer advocating on behalf of her community was beginning to emerge. For example, Samuti stated in the first paragraph that she needed help to improve the conditions in her community. She began to plan her paragraphs with examples to support her topic sentences and also sought extra assistance outside the weekly meetings to work on correct spelling and punctuations.
Excerpts from Samuti's Third Draft:
As a seventh graders in Urban Middle School in Urban City [pseudonyms], I am very concerned about my community. I am sure there are other people in the community who share my concerns about the safety, pollution, crime, shooting, gang, drug dealer, littering and health issues effecting the community members. I am writing this letter to you because I need your help to make my community more inviting and safe to live in. My community needs your help because there are too many crimes. Everywhere I go I see so many drug dealers at corners selling drugs to young teens that don't even go to school that need to get an education. The other crimes I want to talk about is gang shooting, a young man died last week on Tuesday at Urban City Park and he was only 12 years old. He was too young to die and police officers need to be around that park in case of more shooting goes on. I may not know many reasons that my community have all these problems. They do it because they don't have a life and wanted to be notice by doing a crime and being on t.v. They do it because they dropped out of school of what they didn't understand on there subject or they wanted to flow there friend foot step. People do these thing because of stress and peer pressure from family problems. There is not lots of job offering and not activity to do when there is no job to work on. And now every job is offering with an education or diploma to see what goods you did in school. Sometime the cost of houses is pretty high and they can not afford it. High taxes and low income rate and sometime not enough to pay bills in need. The possible solutions to the community is that volunteers and helpers should get paid for the job they did. The way to volunteers is if they get paid and that young at a teenage should have jobs to save the community and be respected for the great work that they did. (3/12/03)
Despite the fact that Samuti still needed to work on her grammar and formulation of expressions in her writing, over the course of the workshops, Samuti, who initially stated that she did not feel that she had anything valuable to share, developed the courage and willingness to speak up for her community. She even expressed an interest in starting a school newspaper as a way to provide information to her school community. Samuti's experiences as a writer empowered her and helped her to realize how she can use her writing ability to affect change (Friere, 2000; Kanpol, 1994). During the post-participation interview, Samuti said that the writing workshops led her to ask questions and not be afraid to share her opinions with other group members. While she felt that writing on a topic selected by her teachers, such as "shopping," was safer and less threatening, the opportunity to write about personal experiences was more empowering. She hesitated to write about personal matters for people who did not know her well: "I don't write my personal stories because they [teachers and peers] can't relate to me…they may judge me." She felt more comfortable sharing her stories with the Lao students in the writing workshops "because we understand each other and you [tutor] understand me." Samuti's case shows how the sense of community, understood as the creation of a safe space to share experiences, is critical.
The greatest benefit for each of the writing workshop participants seemed to have been an enhanced understanding of the writing process. Unlike formulaic approaches to writing in schools for ESL learners that often lead students to view writing as a de-contextualized tool to accomplish school tasks, this workshop offered the participants an alternative understanding of writing as a medium for self-expression and communication. It guided students to draw upon their experiences and to explore the functions and purposes of writing. The individualized support from the tutor in a non-threatening and familiar environment made it possible for them to ask questions and learn about the writing process. By the end of the workshop, the students’ writing had became more organized and laden with examples from their cultural, social, and emotional inner worlds. The students’ writing samples also improved in terms of fluency, the expression of ideas, coherence, and the mechanics of writing such as punctuation, form, and grammar. These improvements can partly be attributed to the increased practice they had with their writing. All three students pointed out that they wrote more during the workshop than they had written in their entire school career.
Having full control over the content of their writing may help diminish the anxiety and fear that unmotivated writers experience. The opportunity for students to write about themselves and what they believe is important serves to validate their experiences and views as funds of knowledge (Atwell, 1998; Peregoy, 2001; Spivey, 1996; Vygotsky as cited in Kozulin, 1986; Willis 2002). More specifically, these students’ motivation to write started with the opportunity to write about themselves as Lao adolescents and their experiences, as shown in Davanee’s reflection about the importance of her heritage language and culture after watching the Refugee film, Nathida’s memories of her childhood attending a school where there were no other Lao students, and Samuti’s self-identification as a speaker of three languages in the first draft of her letter.
Being part of a community of writers with a common heritage also provided a context in which students could develop a sense of collective identity as Lao adolescents. All three students stated that the small group structure, guided by group talk strategies (Moller, 1996) with their peers from the same cultural background, allowed them to learn from each other. The students commented that “it’s different writing with you [tutor] because you understand us. Our regular American teachers don’t ask us about our lives.” When the tutor asked why the students did not share their heritage culture with their classroom teachers, Nathida said:
"They won't understand us like you do. When we talk about tum mah hoon [papaya salad] and family relationships, you understand what we are talking about without us having to explain, or you judging us. You are one of us."
Samuti added that her teachers would look at her strangely if she were to share the things she had shared with the tutor-- “My teachers don’t teach me about my history or culture. We learn about Chinese history, but nothing about Cambodia or Laos…” The students’ responses suggest that teachers who do not understand the students’ political and historical background may unintentionally perpetuate the marginalization of linguistic minority students, which may lead to low self- esteem and disrespect for one’s heritage (Scarcella, 1990).
During the post-participation interviews, the students expressed that they felt empowered and motivated to learn about and share their experiences and identities as a Lao student. Davanee said that she would continue learning about her heritage by engaging in activities with other Lao adolescents. Nathida commented that she would participate in community and school events to help bring pride to Laotians, and Samuti wanted to continue writing to advocate for her community. All three students expressed that their heritage language and culture were central to their lives, affecting their personal, social and academic spheres.
This study emphasizes the importance of drawing upon students’ experiences, cultures, and languages in teaching writing. For ethnic minorities like the Lao students, a history of oppression or a disregard for students’ personal and social histories may work to restrict opportunities for self-expression, which in turn can inhibit the development of writing skills. Students are likely to greatly benefit in their writing development from teachers' efforts to promote their personal experiences, cultures and languages as resources upon which to build successful learning opportunities.
When given the chance to focus on writing with students who share similar language and cultural experiences, three Lao heritage middle school students negotiated the expectations and norms of two cultures, which helped them to see themselves as writers with bicultural perspectives. The students’ heritage language and culture provided them with the stimulus and motivation to write as a means of self-expression.
We are not claiming that participation in the writing workshops was the sole reason for the students’ improved writing skills and changed attitudes toward writing, but we are arguing for recognition of the importance and relevance of the students’ heritage language and culture as they make the connection between their personal backgrounds and academic schooling. The writing workshops provided opportunities for students to write on topics of personal relevance, which led to increased engagement in the writing process and provided support for them as developing writers.
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1. The tutor had no access to student records.(back)
2. All students’ writings are represented exactly as the students wrote them. In some instances, the authors have included notes in brackets to explain the context of the statements and to clarify some words.(back)
3. Although Samuti was of a mixed heritage background,
she saw herself as dominantly Lao, and identified herself as a Lao student with
Cambodian and Thai heritage. (back)
Published: Thursday, January 11, 2007