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Students can feel constrained by ways of communicating and learning that seem opaque and fixed because they are permeated with norms never made explicit, knowledge they do not share, or the language of others.

Janette Ryan and Rosemary Viete
Respectful interactions: learning with international students in the English-speaking academy.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

First Class - Introductions and setting the scene

I arrived this Thursday to meet the ten students arrayed at the far end of a long U shaped classroom. This group of students from a range of South Asian and Middle Eastern countries, aged 17-20, were comfortable in one another's company, and were laughing and joking together. One young man was playing his guitar while waiting. This made all the difference, I think, in putting me and them at ease. My usual class groups are quiet and reserved on day one - not usually having met one another.

A Wi-fi enabled laptop was already connected to a large plasma screen, loaded with an image to show them to begin our discussion about words.

My opening comments were to introduce myself. I sat not at the front behind a desk, but down close to the students on a chair between the U-shaped array of desks. I then asked the class if they had any knowledge about Literature. One student admitted she had no idea what Literature was. (I should mention that my classes are a compulsory subject in the English component of the program, so, these are not necessarily students who come to class with intrinsic interest. This group is undertaking a preparatory program before the main one.)

In my explanation, I focussed first on my own passion for Literature, and the personal dimension of that passion. Then I spoke about national literatures, and mentioned some of the great names in both Western and Eastern Literature - including the Persian poets Hafez and Rumi. I then explained some of the learning objectives for the course, and one particularly important goal, that I was aiming to learn as much from them about their lives, cultures and experiences, as they would learn from me.

To understand how to make connections between words on a page, and what they mean in the immediate context, one must have experiences to connect with the new words and ideas. So my next invitation was for each student to tell me what they liked to read - not just fiction, but something they feel excited enough to bother reading about. This discussion was fantastic - and there was a broad range of interests brought to light. It gives me information to refer back to.

In a few weeks, this reflecting on reading will hopefully form the basis of a presentation from each student, where they will need to "teach" the class the most significant, and personally meaningful aspect of a story (fiction or non-fiction) they know and understand. I'll talk more about this in later posts.

The image I showed then was of the top and underneath (photoshopped) of an iceberg (above). For a western student group, the "tip of the iceberg" is a familiar saying. Not so for these students, but the image made the point about 90% of something being "below the surface." Given that in Literature I frequently distinguish 'surface' and 'deeper' readings, this image was maybe unoriginal, but it made visible the meaning I wanted them to appreciate.

They all seemed to "get it" - but rather than assume understanding, I reinforced the analogy with an activity. Australia was a new place for all these students. With what did they associate Australia? They loved this opportunity: kangaroos, koalas, the Opera House, Uluru, boomerangs, the Harbour Bridge, beaches, deserts, footy, etc.

A visualisation was required here to reinforce - so I did a Google image search via the screen which showed, yes, maps, flags, (symbols); kangaroos, Aboriginals playing didgeridoos, the Opera House, Nicole Kidman in "Australia". The new Google Images interface was good, in that the images were able to be magnified. In short, the "surface" symbolism of a nation appeared. I asked how many of the students had "seen" any of these things since coming to Australia. None. What makes up the depth of a nation, I asked? People, history, customs, culture - came the answer. No-one, I pointed out, had mentioned any preconceptions or knowledge about Australian people, or history, or current events - the details which form the "depth" of any nation. What would they find after staying longer, looking harder? Again, a simple activity, but one I can do again later in different cultural / social contexts - maybe their own.

After this, I asked the group to think of a controversial topic, which elicited a few responses, but nothing everyone was equally aware of. So I fell back to a binary idea - an ultimate black and white debate - that of East / West. What did each student think defined "The West"? Free, vigorous discussion ensued as the group discussed their opinions, and listed some features of the west. They reported back, and the list was illuminating.

Behind each of the areas identified, will be a story. One of the students remarked that the West is synonymous with democracy - something his own country does not experience. One mentioned the laws and regulations which help control standards of health and safety - something with which her own country is still coming to grips. Another mentioned the West's waste, greed, cultural domination and world power. Another thought outside the box, and reflected on the "west" of his own country. These perceptions will have been shaped by human stories, and can be communicated to others using the same human stories.

Next week, these stories are going to be brought to life: made visible. The students will, hopefully, draw from the stories the words, and through the words the ideas which lie under the surface. Because this is a Literature class, the second part of the the activity will be to work in groups to fit their words, images, and ideas into a poem - one that already exists, but makes itself open to be filled with new words, images and ideas.

It occurs to me that this simple work must happen in primary school classrooms all over the world - but perhaps this is something these students have never done. I am going to be ramping up the complexity as I gauge the students' understanding, and the ultimate aim is to move from the tip to the bottom one step at time.

I can't wait for Thursday!

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