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GLOBAL ISSUES IN LANGUAGE
EDUCATION NEWSLETTER
September 1995 - Issue No. #20 (p.11)

Essay Exchanges for EFL

by Martha Iancu

I am very happy because while reading the American students' answers I felt them so close to us, I felt them understanding us, not rejecting us. There were very warm responses and I felt all the people who wrote them are my friend, even if I don't know them. Thank you for offering me the possibility to have such friends and to communicate with them.

This was the response of a Romanian student who participated in a student essay contest designed to open a channel of communication between students in Romania and the United States. This essay contest opened up an opportunity for contact between American students and my EFL students in Romania, where I taught as a Fulbright lecturer in 1992-93. It encouraged Romanian students to express themselves in English to a real audience and for a real purpose, and helped students in the U.S. gain insights into what life is like for young people in another country.

I decided to use an essay contest format in Romania because l wanted to encourage students to participate voluntarily and to feel rewarded for their writing efforts. I selected the theme "Our Generation" so that the students would reflect on similarities and differences between themselves and their peers in the United States. Their instructions were:

Write a short essay addressed to an audience of American university students on the theme "Our Generation". You are encouraged to use this as an opportunity to inform Americans about your point of view as a Romanian. Do not put your name on the essay. Essays will be judged "blind". Essays will be judged on how well they develop the contest theme, their originality, clarity of expression, technical quality, and suitability for an American student audience.

Essays were to be no longer than 450 words. Prizes -- a dictionary, textbook, and crossword game -- were designated for first, second, and third places. Submitted essays were judged and three winners selected. I met with each writer to clarify or correct problems in their essays before publication. Each writer received several copies of the essay collection.

Upon my return to the US, I worked with a history professor to distribute the Romanian students' essays to American students at our college and to obtain their responses. As a reading assignment in the unit about the end of the Cold War, the professor gave the students the essays and had them respond in writing. In class, l gave a presentation about the situation in Romania and led discussions where students shared impressions of the essays. Here are two examples of American student responses:

I was surprised at the severity of how the Romanian government controlled the people while it was still a communist nation. Living under a dictatorship, people didn't have much personal freedom. The government told what they could and couldn't listen to, watch or wear. What l found hard to comprehend is that spies for the communist government were everywhere. One writer mentioned that his former classmate was an informer. In this way, the government had a way into people's personal lives, thoughts and desires. No one had any privacy. For all they knew their best friend could have been an informer. - M. C

After reading these essays by Romanian students my age, I felt like I have much in common with them. Their feelings and thoughts are not much different from most Americans of my generation. In one essay, the writer talks about the generation gap between Romanian youth and their parents. She seemed proud it was her generation which challenged the communist thinking in her country and felt the parents of her generation can learn from these new ideals... We are in a world today that is advancing at such a rate that each country needs to have contact with each other. I feel there is so much that Romanians can learn from Americans and so much Americans can learn from Romanians, now both our countries have this opportunity.- A.P.

I sent copies of the American students' responses to the Romanian writers. Some of the Romanians sent back responses. One such response stands at the beginning of this article.

Results of this project were positive. Possible variations include giving students more responsibility in publishing essays and having classes communicate through e-mail. But no matter how it is done, having students in different countries exchange ideas is beneficial to all. I urge TEFL teachers to seek ways to provide communication for their students with students in English countries.

This article is based on the presentation "Building Bridges Between Two Worlds" that I gave at TESOL '95 in Long Beach. Copies of the handout, including the collection of Romanian students' essays, are available upon request from:

Martha Iancu, George Fox College
414 N. Meridian #2165, Newberg, OR 97132, USA.
Tel: 503-538-8383 ext. 2641. Fax: 503-537-3834. E-mail: miancu@foxmail.gfc.edu

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