Instructor Reflection – The Smiling Star: Laybur (1.1)

By Felice Marcus

First year international students are the quietest, most unheard, bordering on silent, voices on our college campuses. At Miami University where I teach, we’ve rapidly grown more global in just the last three years by enrolling hundreds of students predominantly from Asia. These new students, who often congregate together in groups, have become a highly visible, yet, paradoxically, barely audible presence on campus. In classes with confident, fast-speaking US students, international students too often refrain from voicing their ideas out of self-consciousness over not-yet-fluent spoken English. ESL-composition classes provide, ideally, a safe, supportive, and encouraging environment for students to express their distinctive voices and to share cross-cultural perspectives orally and in writing. Through assigning a digital storytelling assignment, I wanted my first semester students use more modalities to continue to engage in this important activity of sharing experiences and perspectives with ESL classmates. But in addition, I also wanted to extend my students’ audience beyond the ESL classroom, to the larger campus community, and possibly even further, through social media, to reach people who had not heard the unique, powerful voices and individual stories of newly arrived international students.

In this digital storytelling assignment, my focus was overwhelmingly on developing and enriching students’ written and spoken voices in English, with the ultimate goal of changing (or preventing) patterns of silence, as early as possible, in their new lives at Miami. By pairing their spoken texts with images and music, audiences gained multiple pathways into students’ narratives. As Zi’s eloquent oral storytelling shows in “Smiling Star”, students rehearsed the scripts they’d written 20 to 30 times, discovering, then exploiting their newfound English language voices. I introduced vocabulary such as “pace”, “volume”, and “pitch” to discuss the role of voice in storytelling. We even talked about the strategic use of silent stretches, where appropriate, to enhance and heighten a visual passage, suggesting a more positive and intentional role for silence in communication. In front of the class, and in small study groups, students read aloud from storyboard-like picture books such as Sendack’s Where the Wild Things Are, and Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, checked out from Miami University’s Special Library Collections. I often encouraged them to exaggerate the emotions behind the story to break through their hesitancy with oral delivery; I reminded them to pause, to slow down, to raise and lower their voices, to whisper or yell, mapping and matching their voices to the images and passages in the text.

June Jang from Korea earned the class’s immediate respect when we watched his digital story, delivered in a commanding tone of voice, about his life for two years as a fire-fighter in the Korean military (national service is required by all young men), saving lives and taking risks, and becoming a stronger person, physically and mentally through the experience. June Jang’s fellow finance majors are unaware he’d run into flaming buildings. In another digital composition, a Tibetan student, Sonam, in a slow and sad voice, told of her mother’s exile from China to India, incorporating close-up photos of her mom’s tears on a wrinkled face, with penetrating, yet distant eyes, looking back toward her homeland. Sonam’s psychology classmates routinely mistake her for an ethnic Chinese. Digital stories can reveal these quiet students’ identities to the larger community, and furthermore, encourage the students’ to continue to use their voices to engage in conversation and share ideas with more individuals on campus and with the larger, even worldwide, community through social media platforms such as YouTube.

The piece selected for TheJUMP, “Smiling Star,” showcases Zi’s tremendous accomplishments as a composer with images as well as words. In working through the attribution page together with Zi, I was surprised and quite impressed that the grey faded-looking flowers (1:29), and the Japanese-captioned picture of the three friends (00:07) came from Zi’s own private collection. Her long-standing interest in photography has evidently helped to cultivate the sophistication with which she uses symbolic imagery in this work, and, to a lesser degree, transitions. In the introduction, she’s juxtaposed 20 small thumbnail pictures of herself and her best friend doing things together into one single image. That image stays on the screen for 5 seconds of the movie as her voice in the background reminisces, “All the memories … are like many pictures … passing through the front of my eyes” (0:16). To move to the next image, which represents one single memory, she uses a confetti-like transition, where the 20 photos separate and gently fall to the side, revealing a large photo of her friend Laybor drawing a picture on the ground.  Another instance of superb symbolism can be found at the climax of the narrative, halfway through the story. A small plane in the sky, heading from China to America, turns into a bird at exactly the same position on the horizon and on the movie screen. “Our plane was gone forever, like a bird in the sky” (3:50), Zi laments about not being able to spend her last day in China with her best friend, as they both had wanted so much to do.

“Smiling Star” exemplifies a common and interesting “non-US” genre I was introduced to from this project – the best-friend love-story, I’ll call it. My students are predominantly Chinese, and many of them wrote in this genre. A Chinese female student named Huizhi composed a compelling and heart-breaking story about her break-up with her high school “desk-mate.” The topic of the digital story in this assignment was open-ended, as long as it was a personal story. If I were to give this same assignment to a US first-year writing class, I would not expect to see platonic romance as a major theme throughout their compositions. In this case, at least half of my students wrote emotional tributes to family members, same-gender classmates current and past, and other friends, which had the same heavy romantic quality found in Zi’s “Smiling Star” piece.

As her genre is unorthodox from a US perspective, so are some aspects of Zi’s language. Naturally, Zi speaks in Chinese-accented English. Nonetheless, her oral delivery is still perfectly clear and captivatingly melodic. She uses non-idiomatic, yet extremely poignant phrasing such as, “In the time of a wink, we graduated from high school” (1:33), and “The time of waiting is too long for the short summer” (2:36). These ESL features clearly identify Zi as a non-native writer, and more specifically as a Chinese ESL-writer. Furthermore, the genre she chose to work in – the best-friend love story – contains Chinese ESL-specific themes, as I’ve discussed. While Zi’s project did require careful editing of the written script early in this assignment (from me and from classmates), I never insisted, nor do I even expect, that my ESL-writers should sound just like American writers. While “correctness” and working within standard conventions is a worthy goal – and necessary for students under certain writing circumstances which call for highly formalized genres, such as a lab report – I focus on the content, impact, and argument in my students’ writing, as I would with US writers in a composition class. Likewise, in my own occasional writing in Chinese, I invariably need to remind my editors, inexperienced with second-language writers of Chinese, that while my messages need to be clear to my audience, the text still needs to sound like me, an American, and keep my voice, otherwise the piece will lose its impact. So, I politely back them off from their efforts to make me sound like a Chinese rhetoricitian/orator, and get them back on task to focusing on things like clarity and meaning in my draft.

This semester in the second ESL-composition class required at Miami University, I’ve assigned an interview-based video composition. This multimodal, open-topic project has taken the students all over campus with their microphones and release forms, interviewing the manager of the Goggin ice arena, the members of Miami University’s Dance Theater, 20 different students in their residence hall, officers in the Indian American Student’s Association, a favorite dynamic Management professor, hockey players, and numerous others. Through these interviews, which they are designing and conducting as journalistic reporters, they are taking control of the direction of conversations that happen between international and US students and faculty on campus. Through the completed video interview projects, ESL students are defining the Miami experience in their terms, through their own lenses, with their own voices. The digital compositions that are emerging are rhetorically sophisticated, and uniquely their own. For instance, Wei Hao has intentionally chosen to mute the actual voices of a heated debate, focusing instead on the animated gestures and facial expressions against a background of the energetic, tense, music that he has selected. Finally, by sharing their movies through Internet web media, they can continue the conversations that they initiated between international and US members our Miami University community, and even with audiences beyond our Midwestern Ohio campus, such as you, TheJUMP readership. Enjoy.