Crossing the Curriculum
Vivian Zamel, Ruth Spack, Eds. (2004)
Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
$24.50 (also available in hardcover $49.95)
Crossing the curriculum offers some fascinating observations and insights into what goes on in the minds of faculty and ESOL students as they learn to adapt to the changes and challenges that they face in linguistically diverse college classrooms.
The book explores the controversial issue of ESOL learners with language difficulties in college classrooms in a refreshing and captivating way through letting us hear a wide variety of frank and personal accounts from the different players involved: from researchers and faculty who have learnt to break down prejudices and to separate grammatical accuracy from assessing academic competence, and from students themselves, who talk about some of the problems they encountered while trying to negotiate different styles of learning and teaching together with new fields of academic discourse.
The book is highly readable and easy to navigate, with clearly titled chapters paged and numbered on the contents page at the front of the book. The book is divided into three parts: Part 1, "Investigating Students' Experiences Across the Curriculum: Through the Eyes of Classroom Researchers," consists of chapters written by ESOL and composition researchers who have investigated multilingual students' experiences across the curriculum; Part 2, "Learning Across the Curriculum: Through Students' Eyes," consists of chapters written by two multilingual learners who chronicled their experiences during six years of their studies; and Part 3, "Engaging Students in Learning: Through the Eyes of Faculty Across the Curriculum," consists of chapters written by different faculty who discuss how they address the needs of multilingual learners in their classrooms. The theme of learning across the curriculum runs throughout the whole book, but the chapters are in themselves self-contained accounts that can be read and enjoyed selectively, or in order of print.
Part 1, "Investigating students' Experiences Across the Curriculum: Through the Eyes of Classroom Researchers," consists of five chapters written by five different ESOL and composition researchers who have investigated different experiences of multilingual students in undergraduate courses across the curriculum. The authors in their various texts, (1) recount some of the problems that students face in trying to acquire multiple academic literacies and how different individual students have managed to overcome them; (2) argue that a student's achievement in a college courses depends on the complex interplay between the student's abilities and background and the expectations and tasks of specific courses and that consequentially ESOL and composition classes cannot prepare ESOL students for all of the discipline-specific demands they will encounter; and (3) remind us that language and literary acquisition is a long-term, evolving process and that since language is also acquired while students explore and engage in subject matter, faculty are also inevitably involved in the process of ESOL students' language acquisition.
Part 2, "Learning Across the Curriculum: Through Students' Eyes," consists of two thought provoking chapters written by two different multilingual learners who recount their learning experiences across the curriculum in compelling narrative styles The students began the project to chronicle their learning while they were studying in Vivian Zamel's first-year ESOL composition course, and then continued to record their experiences in different courses they took across the curriculum during a six year period. These two chapters offer the reader the chance to look at teacher- student relationships from new perspectives and serve as a unique resource into the nature of teacher-student relationships as they allow the reader to hear an often unheard voice, the student.
What caught my attention as a reader in these two chapters was the idea that a student's sense of engagement or alienation towards a course has more to do with how the course is taught, than with the actual course content itself. For example, it was clear that the students believed that good feedback on their work and easily accessible professors to discuss and resolve learning problems was vitally important to them and to their learning success, and that they also believed that they performed better with professors who taught in more interactive ways and who explained new and difficult terms as this helped them to negotiate and better understand new styles of academic discourse. Although the weakness of these longitudinal studies lies in the fact that they are personal and qualitative in nature and therefore cannot be easily extended to the broader ESOL population as a whole, the ideas and insights in these chapters should not fall on deaf ears, they merit further debate and research, and in the very minimum they should serve to at least prompt certain professors to question the effectiveness of their current pedagogical approach before they blame any lack of learning in their classrooms purely on the language ability of ESOL students.
Part 3, "Engaging Students in Learning: Through the Eyes of Faculty Across the Curriculum," consists of six chapters written by different faculty from a variety of academic fields - Anthropology, Philosophy, Nursing, Literature, Sociology and Asian American Studies - who discuss the various ways they attempt to address the needs of multilingual learners in their classrooms. These chapters are melodious with the previous sections of the book, in the sense that they also emphasize the relationship between a student's progress and success with course specific factors and conditions and that they also acknowledge that faculty members do have a role to play in (ESOL) students' language acquisition. What is interesting to observe in this section of the book is how the different faculty members have approached and tackled similar issues in different and sometimes novel ways, which suggests that there is not a one-fits-all solution to the ESOL problem, but rather there are certain underlying principles and conditions that when if met, can promote greater learning and acquisition in ESOL students in multilingual classrooms. These chapters also collectively demonstrate that when faculty recognize the difficulties students face and acknowledge the efforts students make, and when faculty value students' insights and make knowledge accessible and meaningful, faculty not only promote subject learning but also help ESOL students further their language and literacy acquisition.
One of the strengths of this book is its variety, a variety of voices speaking from a variety of different angles, which allows the reader to look at the ESOL problem in multilingual college classrooms in a more rounded and holistic way. More importantly, it forces the reflective reader and educator to question their own pedagogical approach to see where it fits in relation to aiding not only subject matter learning and acquisition but also language learning and acquisition in the classroom.
This book is highly recommended for anyone teaching multilingual classes and especially for educators encountering difficulties with the performance levels of ESOL students in their classes. The book is also a must for all self-reflecting educators who constantly ask themselves, "I wonder how students feel about learning in my class". Part 2 may give you a good idea of what a really honest answer to that question would be like.
CLL Language Institute, Brussels, Belgium
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