Sunday, February 17, 2008


For almost as long as I have been teaching the class, I have required my ESL Reading students to do a weekly current events journal. They have to read an American newspaper, magazine, or Web site (although the article itself can be about another country). They then have to write two paragraphs: the first a summary in their own words, and the second, their commentary on it. I want them to read in English outside the classroom, as well as get a feel for various American perspectives. (Understanding American culture is part of our program.)

I realize now that I have probably had a cavalier attitude for how complicated, if not difficult, this is for them.

In my Academic Libraries class (even though I'm specializing in School Media Specialist, my adviser helped me arrange this to expand my options), we don't have a required textbook. Instead, each week, we have a theme such as scholarly communication, personnel,budgeting, etc.We then must look in the professional literature (which can include literature outside the library profession) and choose two articles. We have to write an evaluative abstract of about 250 words for one of them, and give an annotated citation for the other. Sounds simple enough, right?

My database searching behaviors have become more efficient and precise, but I almost always end up printing out more than two articles before determining which ones I will use. I tend to start this assignment toward the end of the week (Wednesday night or Thursday; my class is Saturday). That's because the beginning of the week is spent preparing for work and my Tuesday night class. Similarly, my students have two or three other classes to prepare for, as well as the stuff of life we all have to deal with.

I almost always (well, OK, always) end up finishing this assignment very early Saturday morning. I need to turn the information over in my head, mentally consolidate what I was reading, then try to evaluate and cover the main points concisely. While one gets a little more leeway regarding paraphrasing when writing an abstract, I still like my work to reflect that I have processed the information as well as I could.

Where I run into difficulty is when I get into unfamiliar territory, such as budgeting. The accounting vocabulary is unfamiliar to me, and many articles are quantitative, so I must also deal with the vocabulary of statistics. Paraphrasing and summarizing becomes so much more difficult, and I edit both as I begin to write the abstract in longhand on Friday night (which seems to help my thinking process), and as I edit it on the computer on Saturday morning. It is not quick, though. It's like a stew I have to let simmer for days.

I finally understand that my students probably have a similar process for their current events assignment. They have to search for something that interests them and that they can absorb, process it in a second language, then summarize in their own words and provide some commentary. Because it's fairly easy for me to grade (I read fast and provide comments and minor proofreading/editing), I have been assuming it's not that hard for them to do.

I won't stop requiring it because I think it's valuable. I also enjoy this approach in the class I'm taking. A couple of classmates and I agreed yesterday that this procedure made us feel like "real" graduate students. Although I have had to read lots of professional/scholarly literature specifically assigned or that I found for papers, essentially creating the text as a group by choosing our own theme-based articles (supplementing our instructor's prepared lecture) is quite satisfying.

I will now approach my students' work on their current events journal with much more appreciation of the time and thought they had to expend to do the assignment well.