Aiko edged her way towards my desk many minutes into a vocabulary quiz. Several other students had finished and were working on the after-quiz assignment. She usually finished without much trouble, though, as an ELL student, she was learning not just words from the week’s vocabulary unit, but also some of the words that comprised the fill-in-the blank sentences. I had chosen these sentences from the software program that accompanied the workbooks the English Department used to build a 9-12 vocabulary program. Her ELL teacher and I had agreed that Aiko could use an electronic translator during these test for the words (other than the unit’s vocabulary words) that she did not know. She rarely had difficulty, so when she approached my desk and not the “turn-in” desk with a tray for her finished quiz, I was a bit surprised.
She pointed at a sentence, tracing her finger across three specific words: “juggling the books.” The sentence had been designed to portray a dishonest accountant, so the students could use that context clue to choose a word synonymous with “deceitful” (I’ve long forgotten the actual word) to complete the sentence. Apparently, Aiko’s translating device gave her a literal translation of the word “juggling,” leading her to picture a man repeatedly tossing and catching books in rotation. I smiled and reassured her that I understood her confusion and explained the American English idiom. She smiled, too, immediately understanding the correct word for her to choose to successfully answer that quiz item.
I had chosen that sentence without giving a thought to the one student in the class who would be absolutely in the dark, to use another idiom, regarding its meaning. Since then, I have been careful with sentences I have chosen and written for vocabulary quizzes. I have tried to avoid sentences with expressions that would be more foreign than foreign to non-native English speakers, and I have been careful not to choose sentences containing references to cultural and historical events and figures that would fail to have meaning. This is only a small part of what it means to write and teach English with a more global mindset.
I taught at a school where I had the opportunity to work with many Asian (and Asian-American) students, as well as several students who were born in (or whose parents were born in) Africa, Europe, and South America. A high percentage of these students were in AP classes and had worked for many years at learning English—many of them had been educated in American, having been born to, or themselves becoming, first-generation Americans. Fewer had immigrated to America in their teens as Aiko had.
Regardless of their backgrounds or the situations that led them to America and eventually to my classroom, these students became special to me. Some related hardships their parents endured in their old countries or the tireless efforts they were making in their new homes, so their sons and daughters could have a life better than their own. Many maintained connections to countries and cultures and languages that most of their classmates would call “foreign.” Others, though their parents kept some of their mother countries’ customs alive, also saw the lands of their heritage as unfamiliar, having only seen pictures or visited distant (literally) relatives a handful of times. But here they were, in my AP English Language and Composition class or in my 11th grade “college prep” class, mostly taking on the same assignments as American students.
In the past quarter century, much has been made of increasing trends towards globalization. In a speech on the subject, Noam Chomsky discussed how “more capital” was moving across borders, but that fewer humans were. I am fortunate that these students and their parents were able to make the move since I learned so much from them. But more on that in a moment.
Globalization and American classrooms have a changing relationship. American educators traditionally have tended to think about how to teach foreign students to fit into or succeed in their new country. Increasingly, more teachers now also think about how to help their American students succeed outside the geographic borders of their homeland. Commentator Deborah Cameron puts forth the idea that, to do so, we need to teach them communication “norms” that, though they seem to derive from Western expectations, represent universal values. She cites psychologist Judith Kuriansky’s ideas in presenting these norms as including “speaking directly” and “positively” with an aim towards “negotiating” and “sharing feelings,” while displaying empathy (68).
As a writing teacher, I understand these traits as part of good rhetoric, specifically, developing a strong ethos. When we write for students (whether to provide examples or to give instructions or to form test questions), directness and positivity are allies. Even if writing an argumentative essay for them or illustrating through a professional example, we can show some spirit of willingness to negotiate, or at least acknowledge the credibility of the other side’s position. As much as we want to assert our “rightness,” a very American trait, we earn more influence using the types of communication skills that show the spirit of Kuriansky’s thoughts.
Consider one of the greatest and most American arguments ever presented: Patrick Henry’s “Speech to the Virginia Convention,” in which he argued that the time for negotiating with the British was over, that it was time to take up arms. Before he passionately declared “give me liberty or give me death,” Patrick Henry began his “Speech to the Virginia Convention” with kindness and respect towards previous speakers who disagreed, who sought reconciliation.
Teaching practical communication skills—written and oral—should be part of any decent English teacher’s curriculum. But teachers who commit to globalization in the classroom extend these efforts beyond teaching students to compose their arguments in a palatable manner. Teachers can encourage students to read about and write about topics that matter on a global scale. I write “encourage” because I firmly believe students should choose their own topics (if you need me to defend that belief, I direct you here).
Consequently, I have read papers about countless subjects, many that touch on global concerns. In my students’ papers, I have read about why Mubarak must be removed (months before he was), about prejudices against Islamic-Americans and against Jewish-Americans, about grandparents in a rural Chinese village, about the need for environmental and economic and judicial reforms, about flight from war, about identity as an outsider in America, about international soccer players and controversies, and countless other matters, too numerous to name or remember with certainty.
The point is, through writing about and discussion of a variety of topics, students can become more acquainted with a world in which we are all increasingly connected. Students and teachers must be aware of a global audience, and they should be encouraged to write about global issues that matter to them.
Cameron, Deborah. “Globalization and the teaching of ‘communication skills.’”
Globalization and Language Teaching, edited by David Block and Deborah Cameron,
Routledge, 2002, pp. 67-82.
Chomsky, Noam. “Globalization.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube 20 Jul. 2015. Web.
28 Mar. 2018.