Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Snow time like the present

For a school kid growing up in the snowbelt of the USA, there's just no day as beautiful as a snow day--at least before the days of universal Internet access allowed teachers to send in work via e-mail.

First, you got a day off from school without the unpleasant side effects of being ill, pretending to be ill or just missing the school bus.

Next, the fact that the weather is too dire to keep you from traveling to school doesn't mean you can't go out and play in the snow. Or stay in and watch TV. Or read.

Plus you got an extra day to continue to neglect the homework you neglected the previous night.

It's basically a free day that simply falls from the sky.

So how come Riyadh kids don't get the day off for a Dust Day?

Sandstorm images were taken March 19, 2010 in Al Malaz district of Riyadh.
Top set -- looking north; bottom set -- looking west toward King Abdulaziz Rd.
All photos by the author.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Caption, My Caption

Saudi students at the “prep” (beginner) level learning English as a foreign language were asked to write a caption for a picture as part of their first quiz of the session.

We had spent a fair amount of time during a recent class writing captions for a series of story pictures from the textbook, such as “Francisco plays baseball”…“Maria listens to music”…“The Garcia family lives in an apartment” and so on. I could have selected one of those pictures to test whether they could remember what a caption is and write a complete sentence about it. But my Saudi stude
nts often just memorize answers from their text. And, if they don’t remember the correct answer they’ll simply write down anything they do remember, even if it’s a totally different picture. So I wanted a picture that they almost certainly would not have seen, one with ambiguous circumstances, but with enough identifiable language elements—men, papers, table, room—to give them something to go on.

I also reckoned that the messy papers on the floor would give me a chance to reinforce the idea of the process of revision and editing from the previous unit.

I would have accepted captions such as “Three men in a room are looking at papers.” In truth, I was ready to accept just about any sort of description that was remotely readable. And as expected, the range of answers followed a bell curve from “it is captain” to “three old men, one standing, two sitting.”

However, there were three extraordinarily perceptive responses.

Here’s the quiz item:

Q3 Write a caption for the following picture (3 pts)




And here are the top three answers, verbatim. Family names have been removed for privacy. I left the original spelling errors intact as a reminder that these are beginning English learners.

“There are three took [talk] about community thing. They try to solve or find the answer for community problem.”
(Ali, Group H)

COMMENT: Not only is this right, it’s exactly right. The picture of three founding fathers of what was to become the United States meeting to draft the Declaration of Independence is in essence a community problem-solving meeting.

“Three people planing [planning] to makes a war. The leader is reading a message.”
(Ahmed, Group F)

COMMENT: I have no idea how the student came up with “war” from this ambiguous historical image but one could say that the logical conclusion of drafting the Declaration of Independence is a call to war.

“Three men trying to write some kind of a law or doing a research. And they look like they are lived before 100 years ago.”(Mishaari, Group F)

COMMENT: Again, spot on. During class discussion, most of the students said that the men were British or French. Technically, “British” would be correct but as I pointed out, this image shows the very point in time at which these Brits were becoming Americans.

I’m not sure if it was a bit of moistness in my eyes and catch in my voice or simply a desire on students’ part to get on with the more exciting business of subject pronouns and gerunds but they were strangely silent as I described this moment of transformation in history.


Other responses that I think are interesting in their own right:

“They are looking for an old papier.” [paper]
(Abdullah, Group G)

“3 people I think old. They are write something. I think they are prences.” [princes]
(Hussain, Group H)

“Ali read the paper. Ahmed listen to Ali. The room isn’t clean.”
(Mohammed, Group H)

“They look befor[e] hundreds year. I think they’re writing letters for money and take a letter and read it. I think they help who can’t read or write a letter, but not free. It’s a job.”
(Saud, H)

I certainly don't mean to make fun of beginning students of English--I'd certainly hate to have my own meager Arabic scribblings exposed to the public eye. Rather, I wish to honor the difficult and rewarding process of writing, reading, revising...and declaring.

Image: Benjamin Franklin reading a draft of the Declaration of Independence. John Adams is seated and Thomas Jefferson is standing, holding feather pen and paper.
Original painting by J.L.G. Ferris. Source: Library of Congress