What started as a learning tool for students working on their English turned into one of the newest publications on campus. Director of English Language Learning Rachel Toncelli launched the International Writers’ Blog to make working on written English more exciting for her students. Toncelli holds workshops through the Writing Center to help English language learners become better editors of their own writing, and she also works with the students individually on class papers.
“I was realizing that while that’s valuable, it’s more interesting to be editing something that you plan to share — a real authentic communication,” she said.
Toncelli tells her students’ stories as though they were her own, stressing their passions as well as their frustrations with adjusting to a new culture and missing their own. She is quick to share the story of Julmar Carcedo ’16, who identifies himself as “a gay Filipino from a low socioeconomic status and a broken family in Mindanao” in his piece titled “You shouldn’t have to be this lucky.” — the first piece published on the blog.
“I felt like that was a really important piece to launch with and a really important piece for him to write,” Toncelli said. “He said he wanted his community of friends at Brown to know where he came from, to understand who he was, because he felt like nobody really knew him.”
Beyond developing innovative ways to help make learning English more accessible and fun, Toncelli aims to help her students find their voices and the confidence to use them, she said.
“I think that sometimes, unfortunately, people look at people whose first language isn’t English and they see that as a deficit, or they hear an accent that isn’t English and they make a judgment,” she said.
A piece on the blog titled “Tongue Tied” written by the blog’s current Editor-in-Chief Devika Girish ’17 deals with this theme explicitly. In the piece, which she submitted before joining the blog, Girish writes of her Indian accent, recounting the moment she realized language was tied to her identity. “My oratory skills had been the defining trait of my high school persona,” she writes in the piece. “Yet, here I was, standing in that dark corner of the classroom, nauseous with anxiety at the prospect of speaking for a couple of minutes in front of a handful of people.”
Girish reached out to Toncelli after reading a post by the International Mentoring Program about the International Writers’ Blog on Facebook. She had previously published “Tongue Tied” in post- Magazine, but she and Rachel decided the piece embodied the ethos of the blog so well that it was worth publishing it again.
“It took me a semester and a half to be confident that I can write as well as anyone else in this community,” Girish said, adding, “Being able to articulate yourself in a public space is very empowering.”
Girish’s intimate understanding of the power of expression, combined with her interest in writing, led her to consider assuming a permanent role at the blog with Toncelli and Toncelli’s intern Olivia Mansion GS, who together launched and ran the blog last semester.
“When I saw it I was like, ‘This is awesome. This is what I’ve been thinking about,’” Girish said of her first meeting about the project with Toncelli, gesticulating with palpable enthusiasm.
Girish met with Toncelli over coffee and pitched the idea of creating a board of student editors. By the end of the meeting, the International Writers’ Blog had a new editor-in-chief . At the end of last semester Girish launched a process to form a team of five student editors and two artists.
“When (Girish) came on board, it really exploded,” Toncelli said, crediting Girish with helping her and Mansion strike a balance between serving ELLs with the blog and providing fluent students with a space to tell their stories.
“We want to raise the volume on international voices,” Toncelli said, adding, “But what does international mean? … It depends on where you’re standing.”
Mansion demonstrates that the term ‘international’ can retain personal relevance for people who grew up in the United States, too. She is in her first year studying English language acquisition and cross-cultural perspectives as a master’s student at Brown. She and Toncelli met at an orientation for international graduate students at the beginning of the year.
In the same vein, one does not have to be international, or even a student, to contribute to the blog. If a story focuses on navigating culture or language, it is fair game. With this mindset, Mansion invited fellow student and United States native, Benjamin Fancy GS, to contribute a piece about his experience teaching English in Toulouse, France as a cross-cultural perspective.
In his piece, titled “Une Belle Rose Rouge,” Fancy writes of his experience teaching English in southwestern France. “Now, here I was in France, teaching English to native French speakers … but as I found out very quickly, few of them actually spoke my English,” he writes in the piece. He notes that both his “textbook French” and American accent in English, as opposed to their southwestern French and their acquired British accent, made him feel like an outsider in his new community. He arrives at the conclusion “that there’s a lot of beauty in deviating from so-called ‘standard’ pronunciations.”
“One of the reasons I wanted to be part of this project is to show that American students can be interested in international issues,” Fancy said. “The wonderful thing about the blog is that it brings different voices together.”
Additionally, the blog also features a piece by Esperanza Godoy, visiting teaching associate in the Department of Hispanic Studies, and it will soon include a piece by a Brown employee who grew up in Rhode Island. “The author writes about how working at Brown is like being in a foreign country within Rhode Island,” Toncelli said of the upcoming piece.
“We are super excited that we have faculty, staff, graduate students, undergraduates, even a post-doc. We have a really broad section of writers,” she added.
Toncelli views the blog’s campus-wide presence as an opportunity to bring Brown community members together in person for conversations sparked by the pieces on the blog. At the top of a few pieces is a note from the editors: “Let’s continue this conversation. We invite interested members of the Brown community to an IWB Luncheon to discuss multicultural identity.”
In addition to these luncheons, Toncelli and Mansion return to the roots of the blog by hosting workshops in order to serve ELLs and to further foster community around English acquisition. These workshops aim to allow students to engage in activities and write reflections that are posted on the blog. In a workshop post entitled “Smile and Wave … or Maybe Not. Reflections on Greetings Around the World,” Toncelli and Mansion asked students how people say “hello” in their native countries and how these greetings differ from American ones. Attendees were then instructed to record greetings from multiple people, producing a video for the blog.
Many of the posts on the blog are collaborations. A comic strip series entitled “FIRSTS” recounts amusing situations the students have encountered in America. For this series, students pitch their ideas to the editors, and once their ideas accepted, they are paired with one of the two IWB artists — He Ri Kwon ’16 and Bonny Cai ’17 — who help bring the stories to life.
The longer pieces on the blog are also paired with illustrations. Kwon, who illustrated a piece titled “Karma,” said she made some sketches after receiving a draft and then met with the author in person to discuss her ideas.
“I didn’t expect to become really good friends with her,” Kwon said. “The good thing I didn’t really expect is the community made by the blog.”
At an IWB workshop earlier this month, Kwon and her new friends played food-related Jeopardy! with a group of 10 international students. Toncelli said the idea for this workshop came out of conversations she had been having with many ELLs about their struggles to decipher American menus. Questions included “What does ‘combo’ mean?” and “If you order apple pie ‘a la mode,’ what will you get?” The three teams deliberated on each question for a minute or two before Toncelli called out for an answer. When no one knew, each team made a guess and laughed at others’ outlandish answers.
“What are four ingredients in Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie?” Toncelli asked.
“Chocolate, fudge, brownie and … chickpeas!” one team yelled out, spurring smiles from everyone in the room. Kwon’s team quickly pulled away due to her superior menu knowledge. At one point, she even gave a full set of instructions for making French toast.
At the end of the workshop, after distributing Ben and Jerry’s gift cards to the winning team, Toncelli asked everyone what their favorite American food was, sparking lively conversation. She went around the room, checking in with every student and mentioning various foods, including clam chowder and scones.
“One misconception about my job is that it is only to help with writing, but I’m really charged with taking care of ELLs,” she said. “We didn’t write that much at that workshop, but we had great conversation, so I call it a win.”
For Toncelli, success comes in many forms, which is evident on the blog.
“We don’t really have limits,” she said, adding “We like to say we’re only limited by our own creativity, and there’s just so much to say and see and understand about the world.”