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By Talat Altayyar

The difference between my first and second semester at JMU

My first semester at JMU wasn’t an easy semester for me. As an international student who has English is his second language, it was really hard the shifted between being a student in an English school to an academic student at JMU. I was the kind of student who is just took notes and kept any questions that I wanted to ask in my mind in order to avoid saying it wrong or not clearly. I was very concern about my English, especially my writing, which was one of the hardest parts and the most uninteresting part for me. In the first semester, I wished that all the quizzes are just multiple choice, so I will avoid the writing. One day I just decided to improve my writing skills because as an academic student, writing is the one of the most important things that I have to not just know how to do, but to be perfect at. Writing in a university is more than just write papers or essays, but it also taking notes. Moreover, it’s very important as an academic student to know how to write good emails when I communicate with the professors. So, I found that the writing is really taking a big part in the university life and I have to start working on it.

I stared to improve my writing by many ways. First, I went to the multilingual writer’s community, where I can write whatever I want, share it with other students, and help each other to improve our writing skills. I also went to the writing center at JMU. By that time, I became interested in writing and wanted always to learn about how to be a better writer. When I finished my first semester, I was very surprises that when I chatted with people I started to chat in English all the time, which makes me felt that I really began to love the writing especially writing in English. So, when the second semester started and the time to decide which classes I should enroll in came, the first class that came to mind was a writing class. Thus, I enrolled the writing class and I really felt the improvement that happened to my writing skills. My writing is not too perfect, but is much better than what it was before. I also notice that I became not worried about quizzes or exams that required me to write sentences to answer the question or to fill in the blank, instead of just wanting to have multiple choice questions.

 

by Shirley Yang

Because of the mid-term pressure, we have noticed some of the students are too busy to join our conversation. However, there are students still coming here consistently talking about their study, exam and daily life. During our recent conversation, I have noticed a few of interesting topics so I am gonna list a few of them to share with you:

 

  • Party hard? Or study more? When? Friday night?

JMU has the “party school” reputation. I heard this from a man who helped me to fill out the declaration form in Dulles Airport when I just came to America. A girl from China shared her story with us. She acted different than her roommates on Friday night because she refused to go to their party. Instead, she chose to study that night because she had to prepare for the coming week’s exam. Her roommates thought that was unusual and goes “girl! Friday night suppose to be a party night! Saturday is party all day. Sunday afternoon is for study!” In most American views, Friday night is supposed to be for relaxing. Studying or working would considered as abnormal. However, it may not be true for everyone.

 

  • What do you do for exam? What’s your preferable study environment?

We kept the slang cards from a week ago. We still use them as a tool to practice into conversation mode. We found some students choose “pull an all-nighter” for the exam because they thought it’s more effective. Also, no students would “play hooky” anymore if their teachers have study session for reviewing exam. In terms of study place, we just realized some of them can study wherever they want. However, studying in Starbucks is unbelievable for most of students because the smell of coffee and noisy chatting are easily distracting.

By Kristen Shrewsbury

Shirley and Talat are back in my office, clicking away on their laptops, processing their thoughts in written English. I love this sound. I love the feeling this evokes in me, the communal effort toward individual creations. We all write what we want, how we want. We write what’s on our minds, what’s lingering in our periphery, what we left out in the hallway. As we write, as we tickle our keyboards or pause to consider what comes next, we almost imperceptibly lose awareness of the chatter that came in with us. We start to notice that what we first thought we wanted to write doesn’t seem so significant now that words are pouring onto the screen. “I’m writing now about my writing,” remarks Talat, smiling at the shift from his intended topic, a comparison of freshman year to sophomore year.

Writing about our writing, we begin to see how far we’ve come. Talat finds joy in writing this year, a new and unexpected sensation. Shirley explores her study abroad experience through a taxing cultural encounter with American education. I have over 40 blog posts to consider as a legacy for this group, and a great imagination for what is yet to come. When the clicking around me slows down and the brows furrow with concentration, I am reminded that I am, in fact, writing in community and that this community is perhaps one of my favorite creations.

By- Shirley Yang 

  • Why you coming here every week to practice writing? How’s the experience writing with other peers as well as professionals?

 

At the beginning of my freshman year, I was worried about my writing class. My classmates are all American, the first language user. Every time when the professors asked us to write something, I was frowning because I was hardly ever write down more than few lines while my classmates already have done one page. I told my concern to my professor. Luckily, she recommended me go to this place to meet Kristen. After class, I came back to home and sent her an email right away.

 

When I met with Kristen, I realize the writing community is such a great place to practice writing. In China, we have this saying, “practice makes perfect”. After I came here several times, I feel writing session is the place where I can practice my weakness to improve my writing skills. After I finished my writing piece, everyone will read aloud, I feel when I read them, sometimes, I could automatically correct mistakes by myself. That’s the nice thing when I practice more. Another reason I wanna mention is most of my peers in the writing community are international students. When I practice writing with my peers, I don’t have too much pressure unlike my American classmates. Sometimes, students from other culture group may offer an unique idea.

 

  • What’s the motivation you post online? Some students feel fear about posting online.

 

Actually, I don’t really feel fear when others see my posting online. I think it’s a place to share your work. It’s a place to recognize my writing. I have written so many posts so far. Some of them are about my class experiences, some of them are about culture differences. One post was even about how I was shocked about the way american eat veggies. It’s  a casual place to express my ideas from a different perspective.

 

  • How work online impact other students?

The impacts can be different forms. For example, it may encourage more students like us to work online. Hopefully, they will join us. Also, the posting content could give readers a view about how other students think about JMU or America overall. I remember one day, my friend said to me that she read my writing online on the blog. She said it’s a great post. I suddenly feel a sense of accomplishments. That encourage me to practice more.

by Jose Morales

I just watched one of the best TEDed videos I have seen so far. It is about spelling, but more so about the meaningful structures of language that we as speakers take for granted. Whether we’re learning a new language from scratch, or just speaking our native language we rarely think about the nature of words. As it turns out, once you break up words into morphological constituents, you realize that words are ideas combined to create a larger idea that transcends immediacy and situational boundaries.

The video (that will be linked below) shows the true beauty of simple words like one, and how from this simple numerical concept many other words such as alone and onion flourished into existence. I think this video is great as a follow up, to the English Conversation Club meeting we had this p0ast monday, in which our special guest Kelly Giles (a librarian at Rose Library), showed us the visual nature of Asian characters to descibe words like mountain and mouth. Language is a beautiful invention.

By- Shirley Yang

Language is not just a tool to connect with others. It has the cultural definition in it. As an English language learner pursuing college, how to master second language effectively is a challenge. For example, I want to describe a pulley or truck traveling on an overhead track and serving to support and move a suspended object. If you ask this to an American, they will answer you, cart. But the British may say trolley. That would be very confusing for an English language learner. When this language comes to a paper in an academic form, the mistakes are exposed everywhere. After all, it is not our first language, sometimes I don’t know why I should write “can” instead of “could”? They are so similar.

Before I came here, I need to pass an English language test. I took IELTS test which is the International English Language Testing System. It tests on four skills: listening, reading, speaking and writing. Overall, I think writing is always considered as a barrier because it needs correction from others. I can practice listening and reading by more individual practice, such as listening to news or even listening to others talk. In the same way for reading, sitting on the couch with a newspaper in hand would be ideal way to practice. Speaking, it may sound like you need other people to practice with, but I don’t care about too many details, the listeners may ignore the small mistakes as long as the conversation goes smoothly. However, when practicing writing, you need a person to read it so he or she can point out which parts you are weak in; it needs practice and correction. People have to sit down and look at what you wrote. That is not easy and it is hard to find this place.

Actually, there is a place that writing can be practiced. Multilingual Writers’ Community is not just one person who can look at the writing. It is a community where writers share about their writing based on a certain topic. The topic can vary from daily life or even the favorite food. It is a relaxing environment and no grade will be given. It is just practice without stress. What writers need is only pen, paper and a willingness to write. Practice always makes perfect; no one will improve ability without frequent practice.

So, don’t hesitate and finding an excuse anymore. Writing Community is an ideal place to improve our academic achievement.

By Kristen Shrewsbury

Using Skype and Google Docs, ELLS reached around the world!

Summer consultations have taken a new shape for ELLS this year.  When a few students were heading abroad and taking online JMU classes this May, I was excited to try using Skype and Google docs for consultations.   We set up times to meet via email and then both logged onto Skype for the appointment.

The sessions were interesting because they were often held first thing in the morning for me to adjust for time differences.  My students got to see my extensive collection of coffee mugs!  We had a coffee mug toast this morning to commemorate our last consultation of May session.  My mug boasted Chinese traditional calligraphy and the student’s mug said in English, “Behind any successful woman is large amounts of coffee.”   Once we decided to reschedule because our appointment time was on Friday night in China and there was a pop concert that the student really wanted to attend.  What dedication to even make a Friday night appointment to begin with!  Of course, I did not mind rescheduling as I then got to sleep in Friday morning :)

An interesting challenge we did not anticipate was that the Chinese government has blocked access to Google accounts for people in country.  After one session of frustration using an emailed Word Doc, we felt motivated to find a way to access Google.  The JMU VPN download allowed the student from inside China to access the JMU server and then from there log into Google.  Our tech savvy might not have improved much overall, but our achievement made our consultations a lot smoother.

Thanks to ambitious students and technology that allowed us to connect, I had the unique opportunity this May Session to facilitate 9 virtual consultations with students in China and Saudi Arabia.  I love the flexibility this allows me to continue to support our awesome JMU students taking online classes from home.  Though I am closing up shop for the summer vacation, I look forward to more virtual consultations next May!

by Kristen Shrewsbury

Writing – the MWC is a group that brings people together for many reasons and at many stages as writers.  I am consistently surprised about how my students get here and what they want to do.  This morning I am happy to have a native English speaker here, a bilingual student who wants to be a better writer to “impress” her professors, and a writer new to this culture.  Seeing interest in writing as a community brings me great joy as I try to meet the needs of students and to offer them something different from their traditional academic pursuits.  I also appreciate the opportunity to dialogue with other student writers as I realize that in my doctoral pursuits I am also a student writer.

Getting to the heart of writing without teachers is what this effort is all about.  I see myself as a third party, a guide.  I am neither these writers’ teacher nor peer, but a facilitator of academic life experience.  So, what do I do?  I share my life experience and lessons acquired over years of trials and joys.  One fact that I want to think about further is that I was not a stellar student when I was in high school and undergraduate study.  Yet here I am mediating learning experiences and skills development for students seeking to cultivate their own learning.  It could be that I am now someone I wish I had met in 1996 when I started college.  How would my school life – my life – have been different?

For one thing, I probably would have benefitted from feeling like I belonged to an academic community.  To have the attention of an experienced learner, an expert would have guided me through rough patches.  Of course, most of my undergraduate experience was spent searching for community, so an academic focused community would have played to different interests and strengths than where I ended up finding community.  As it was, I found a social community which I would be remiss not to acknowledge for the benefits of learning how to be a leader among friends and peers.  I learned to listen to what people really need and to organize relevant events.  Both of those skills have provided stones in the foundation of my career.

My time with writers in the Multilingual Writers’ Community setting has been primarily satisfying as a witness to the depth, breadth and motivation of the writers’ interests.  Coming from diverse backgrounds, the writers met her by way of writing – arguably one of the most critical skills in academic self-expression in US education.  The role I see for myself is cheerleader and developer. Developer sounds like I shape some untouched landscape into my own vision – so I will revise to claim that I caretake.  The writer has a unique vision and bring experiences, tools and goals.  I caretake the process of actualization.

I remember the Idea hitting me with an air of promise. It was last year’s spring when I went to George Mason for a quick tour about their ESOL programs. I had my mind set, ready for learning and brainstorming. At GMU, I learned about the various services they provide to English language learners. They had it all, including a “conversation group” which basically aimed to facilitate English-language learning through the most effective communication medium of all: conversation.  I knew I wanted to start something new. I wanted to help students in the position I was in merely five years ago, when I left Guatemala and moved to America.

The idea of Conversation Club appealed to me from the moment I saw it in action. I envisioned myself engaged in interesting conversations and cultural discussions. Both fortunately and unfortunately, JMU lacked any program as such geared toward non-native speakers. It was my calling, my opportunity to begin something on my own. Thus, I began the process to incorporate a Conversation club for students here at JMU. I started a pilot of Conversation Club a few weeks after I began the planning. It took place in East Campus Library in a rather forgotten corner in the second floor. The first meeting I remember, set the record for the least attendees, you guessed it, zero. Though my expectations were damaged a little, I decided to advertise it more until I found the first conversation group in the history of the English Conversation Club. Two weeks later and my first two-students made an appearance. I continued the English Conversation Club  pilot until the end of that semester and I left with the motivation to expand the idea further.
Now, I have a tremendous sense of accomplishment. From one semester to the other, the club grew exponentially. An average of six students come to every meeting. As the group grew, I thought It would be a good idea to also expand on the meeting days. Conversation Club now meets two days a week for an hour.

The way in which the club has evolved and progressed has struck me. As we keep meeting, I sense an air of confidence, friendship and trust building with every conversation that takes place. Even native speakers now are eager to join and help me out with the task. I definitely want to keep doing this program as long as I’m at JMU. I love teaching students things that you can’t learn in a well-structured semester-long course. As for the future of the club, it might be a little uncertain what my next step will be.  It could be anything. Of what I’m sure is that mo matter what students might need or want from the Club, I will be there to talk about it.

By Kristen Shrewsbury

I check my phone for the time and see a text from Ahmad, “I am running 10 minutes late.”  Rain and late busses don’t touch my good mood: we are writing today.  Pulling up the blog site, checking over the posts from last semester, I find myself grinning and giddy.  I have always loved starting the semester off for the sheer joy of possibility.  What will we write?  What new connections will be made between writers and their work, each other?  The anticipation is part of the process.  I look forward to seeing old friends, writers who have spent the past 3 years with me in this space.  I am curious about new MWC writers showing up for a taste of what we do here.  I am energized by the writing that is about to flow out of us.  The electricity in the wait is addicting.

“Have you heard about the President of Iran giving a speech to the UN and a bunch of countries’ leaders walking out?” Ahmad asks.  He is bubbling with interest as he recounts the details for me.   Today’s writing prompt is born.

This creative space is precious to me for it’s social nature, it’s warm smile and trusting voice.  Writing seems to take better for us when we are in it together.  The practice has meaning and an audience that we know will speak the truth back to us.

Cheers to a new semester of the Multilingual Writers’ Community!

By Kristen Shrewsbury

Today we have a new writer, Cecilia.  I am happy that the bulk email generated interest in the community, as so many of our writers have graduated recently.  Her arrival has inspired me to reflect on the iterations of this community.

The founders in spring 2009 wanted to work on writing by giving voice to their experiences in English, experiences they would otherwise only process in their native language.  The group of writers became friends, sharing personal information and supporting each other with compassion and camaraderie.  I was surprised at their bonds, delighted that an academic endeavor could generate opportunity for community.  I was also gratified that they could support each other from the first person – an empathetic “I understand,” versus my sympathetic, “that must be a challenge, here are strategies and resources you might try.”  I am a white native-English speaking woman from this region, and though my trips abroad give me insight into what it would be like to be outside cultural privilege, I cannot speak from the first person when my students talk about racial discrimination, negative associations Americans hold with the students’ accents, or how complex it is to go to college in another country, language and culture.

As the writers who began the community entered their majors and began to write more urgently, wanting to explore their educations with a great sense of adventure, the time we spent together focused more on developing ideas and arguments.  Inmar wrote provocative critiques of the actual state of first-world aid to third world countries, specifically Ecuador, where his lived experience did not match the picture painted in his political science textbooks.  Kanar wrote a detailed thesis posing solutions to Iraq’s environmental crisis based in politically driven destruction of natural resources, vital to human existence and in direct response to his current concerns for his family, still in Iraq.  Patrick wrote heart-wrenching prose about shutting down communication in a team for a class where he had been ignored and treated as if his contributions were insignificant – possibly because of his accent or his deep skin tone, he didn’t know.  Ahmad wrote determined briefs on the state of women’s health in countries where birth control is culturally unacceptable and causing further oppression of women.  Koko wrote personal narratives sharing his family history as healers in Cote d’Ivoire.

In time, our community welcomed Songmi and Jingjing, both focused on developing their fluency and accuracy in English writing.   Rebecca joined us to document in English her first semester in the United States, chronicling her impressions and experiences while she learned the campus and the culture.  Dre began writing with the group to be part of a dynamic community centered on language and writing.  We had a few folks drop in when their schedules allowed, each bringing a new, valuable voice to the table.  We added additional group meeting times to accommodate the growth spurt.

With a strong desire to promote literacy through honoring cultural and linguistic difference, we decided to try writing in other languages.  Phoebe enthusiastically wove into her doctorate in psychology studies a group meeting to be conducted in Mandarin or Cantonese dialects of Chinese, whichever the situation merited.  Andrea expanded her Spanish Writing Center in the Department of Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Cultures to offer a group meeting conducted in Spanish, where she engaged students in writing poetry.  As time and marketing go, the groups have all been subject to the fluidity of changing schedules, needs and priorities.

Today, as I meet with Cecilia and Ahmad, I am struck by the richness of the words yet to surface from these writers, a gift they will share with me and with those who read their posts.  This blog opens our circle to resemble a net, cast widely over the writers who have shared this sacred space with us, who continue to post, and who will read the stories of our community of writers in search of inspiration.

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