This Summer’s Research Course for ESL

Once again this summer I am teaching a six-week advanced ESL project-based course that uses the writing of an abbreviated scientific research paper as its primary activity.  I teach this course with the support of a psychology instructor, Peruvian-born Dr. Marco O’Brien, who kindly volunteers six or seven hours of his time to talk to the students about issues in psychology and guide them as they develop good, narrow research questions of their choice into six-part scientific research papers.  Most of my students have never done research before and are intrigued and excited by the idea.   This “honeymoon” lasts about two weeks when reality sets in, and they find out how much work this project really is.

In previous summers, our class spent most of its time in the college library where my students and I had the availability of reference items and a librarian or two. This summer, due to budget constraints, our regional campus library is closed, so my students are only using the library databases to search for their information.  I use Blackboard to manage our course and am able to make many resources available to the students on the class site, including a link to our library online resources, so the students can continue their research from home in the evening if they are able (and willing).  A few students have gone to neighborhood libraries (hurray!), but most are sticking to the databases.

Also new this summer, along with writing the paper, I have asked the students to keep a research journal and maintain a collaborative vocabulary wiki. Students are assigned a minimum of two journal entries per week of free writing about their research, i.e., notes to themselves to follow up on, their doubts and anxieties about the project,  their frustrations about not finding what they need, and finally their joys and triumphs as they see the light at the end of the tunnel and the successful completion of this task that they thought would never be within their reach.

The vocabulary wiki assignment is to write a minimum of two new words a week with the definitions.  Other students can add to their definitions, correct errors, or write sample sentences using the words in context.  I am then taking the words from the wiki and putting them on online flashcards via Flashcardmachine.  This is what our cards look like so far:  Research Vocabulary 2011

Students also have to write their paper using American Psychological Association (APA) formatting.  Some students still hunt and peck at the computer keyboard.  “How do you set the margins?”  “I don’t know how to double space!” “How do I write a citation with six authors?” “Why do all my pages say page three?”  I don’t have Microsoft Word at home.”  Etc.  Part of this project is also that they have to use the tools they’ve been given to find the answers to those APA questions as well as their research question.  They can certainly help each other, and yes, I know it is a lot.  But, I also know they can do it.

Every summer at about the third week I tell myself that this is the last time I’ll teach this course.  It is too difficult.  The time is too short. What was I thinking?  Then a star student turns in a pretty good introduction of two to three pages in length.  Then another introduction comes in.  Then I get a paragraph or two from students who after two weeks told me they still didn’t “get it. ”  The second drafts come in and they are better than I imagined.  The final copy comes in for Dr. O’Brien and me to review, and along with it comes a look of trepidation, accompanied by a sigh of relief and finally a glimpse of pride as I tell them how proud I think  they should be of the work they did for this class.

At the end of this summer’s six weeks, I am confident that I will see that this has been my best class yet.  They’ll hand in their papers and give their oral reports.  Yes, we will lose one or two students along the way, and there will be another one or two who don’t get the paper done. Those will probably be the students who are not planning to go into the college and who are learning the language more for social and job-related reasons than for academics.  Will they learn something during the six weeks without completing paper? Absolutely!  Will they come back again next summer to try it one more time? Very possibly.  It wouldn’t be the first time.

After our six weeks are up and the students have finished this class and the two others they are taking concurrently, Test-Taking Strategies, and ESL Math, they take the college entrance exam, the Accuplacer. Some pass it; some don’t. Regardless, most see that they are much closer to being accepted into the college than they had dreamed.  Some will start their college studies immediately in August, but most will realize that going to college is a reality for them and that it IS time to start saving their money for those college courses they had dreamed of taking one day–and it will become a priority for them and their families.

Oh, one last thing…this summer my students and I are doing this class paperlessly! The students turn their drafts (and final papers) in electronically through Blackboard, they are checked for plagiarism through Blackboard, I review them via Microsoft Word, and return them to their owners also through Blackboard.  At the end of the course as usual, I’ll ask the students if I can use their papers as models for next year’s research students just like the models they have used this summer, and I’ll save those papers on Blackboard for next year’s class. Then in June 2012, I’m sure I’ll start this process all over again, and, no doubt, at least temporarily, that will be the last time I ever teach this course!