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in a New Place

There's more to language class
then parsing sentences.

By Bobbie Green Scheff

OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM windows the Evanston, Ill. night was cold and dark, but inside there was an inviting bustle and sense of purpose. Fifteen strangers from all over the world were about to begin their class in English as a Second Language (ESL). I was to be their teacher, and I was nervous. My only other experience teaching ESL had been 20 years earlier at a language academy in Madrid. Fumbling for a sentence to illustrate the third-person-present tense, I found myself saying, "The teacher wants to go home."
As I rose to begin, the door opened. The teacher for the class next door had called in sick, and his class had been told to join us. Thinking of the books and materials that now had to be shared by 30 students, I divided the class into pairs. Then I asked them to interview each other about the last time they'd had an argument with someone and to report the findings to the class.
Antonio, a Mexican man with a mustache and a Chicago Bulls cap, had won an argument with his eight-year-old son at dinner about whether or not the boy could have his ice cream before he ate his beans and chicken. His son often claimed that his stomach hurt too much to finish his main course, then recovered miraculously for dessert.
Chantal, a French au pair with blond hair and tortoise-shell glasses, had just lost an argument with her host family. She'd asked to be driven to class, but had been told to ride her bike, even though the half-hour trip would be cold and dark and scary.
Lee, a short Indian woman whose hair was pulled back in a bun, was involved in a running argument with her husband over what she considered his neglect. She had interrupted her own graduate work to accompany him to the university here. Now he spent so much time on his studies that she felt lonely and at loose ends. Their marriage had been arranged by their parents. She had met her husband only three times before the wedding -- and hadn't liked him.
I knew that everyone was curious about "Teacher" (as they chose to call me), so after everyone else had reported, I chipped in with an argument I'd had with my husband just the evening before -- a ridiculous one about whether the seat on the couch next to him would be taken by me or the stack of newspapers he was reading.
By the time the class ended, I realized that the infusion of an extra roomful of students had been fortunate. Sharing books and materials had obliged people to interact more than they would have otherwise. It's all very well to parse sentences and conjugate verbs, but to make people feel like doing those things the teacher has to promote a little social interchange. This is the key to a successful ESL class -- a truth I've seen borne out over the four years I've taught since that evening.
Fortunately, given the cultural variety typical of an ESL class (35 countries are represented in our program), there are plenty of compelling social opportunities. Recently, I asked a class to produce a how-to paragraph -- a set of instructions for doing something. Among the resulting titles:

    bullet "How to Catch a Fish in the Lake," by Rita, a perfumed, blonde teacher from Estonia;

    bullet "How to Program an Equation into a Computer," by Shingo, a skinny, gum-snapping Japanese engineering student;

    bullet"How to Make a Gypsy Doll from a Pattern," by Ramona, an expectant mother from Rumania with a soft voice and dimples;

    bulletHow to Make Copper-Colored Paint," by Henri, a curly-haired artist in his sixties from Haiti;

    bulletHow to Cook Rice in Coconut Milk with Spices," by Laura, a poet from Indonesia with long dark hair.

I'm intrigued by my students, and look for ways to learn their histories. One trick I devised -- also a successful reading-and-writing activity -- is based on a story about penguins I read over my son's shoulder in a news magazine for fifth-graders. (These magazines have lively articles that make good starting points for discussion or composition.)
Emperor penguins, I learned, are exemplary expectant fathers. After the female penguin lays an egg on the ice, she swims away, leaving the male alone to warm the egg with his belly. He stands with other fathers-to-be for more than two months, eating nothing. When the egg finally hatches, the mother returns, and the father eats for two weeks to gain back the 25 pounds he has lost. The parents then bring up the baby together.
After my students hear this inspiring description, I ask them to write something about their fathers. Their responses are often poignant. Dan, a heavy, gray-haired Korean man who always jumped up to help me carry stacks of books or move tables around, wrote:

    I never saw my father very much. He was a doctor. He always worked all day and was very busy. He was never home. When I was growing up I stayed with my grandparents in their house. At that time my country was in a war. Living was difficult and it was dangerous. I felt afraid when my grandfather died. He had brought me and my brothers to a safe place to study.

Rita, the Estonian teacher, had married a man 14 years older than she, which had angered her father. Yet, she recalled him fondly:

    My father is a very handsome man with thick black hair. He is a fisherman and likes to go to the lake. When I was a child, he took me and my cousin to the lake to fish. Usually we went there in the morning when the sun was just rising. Sometimes we also went to the forest with our horses. A forest ranger was a friend of my father's.
When the students produce vivid little stories like these, I type them and hand them out as an anthology. Their work looks better "in print," and reading these stories is a good way for the students to get to know each other.
Friendships made in the ESL classroom can be a lifeline for people who are lonely or in need of diversion and new associations. I remember how I felt in Madrid when I said, "The teacher wants to go home." After finishing college, I spent a year in Europe learning languages. I taught at the language academy in Spain, picked cauliflower in Germany, and worked as a secretary in France for a company that made antennas for police radios. I was an adventurer, not a refugee from an oppressive regime or from an impoverished country, but still I was lonely.
So I try to draw out new students to make them feel at home. I used to ask about marital status and number of children, until I learned that this could be risky. When I met Jeanne, a petite Haitian woman, I asked if the two little boys with her were her only children. Her voice shaky, she told me that she had two teenaged daughters in Haiti for whose safety she feared daily. She had been waiting two years for approval of their passage to the US.

ONE EVENING I BROUGHT some fruit and nuts for the class. We snacked on these while we read a passage I'd prepared on the subject of chocolate. Chocolate, we read, originally referred to a kind of hot drink that Hernando Cortez brought to Spain from Mexico in the early 1500s. We learned about sweet chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, and chocolate liqueur. We learned about the use of chocolate in bars, in molded Easter bunnies and eggs, and as the coating around a piece of candy. Finally, I produced a bag of Hershey kisses, which the class devoured while writing a paragraph about their favorite foods.
Yoshio, a quiet Japanese man whose dark hair curled around his ears, wrote that on a trip to Europe he enjoyed eating his friend's German cousin (that's cuisine). A broad-shouldered, deep-voiced Argentinean named Mario said that he liked to eat corn's ears (ears of corn).
Sometimes I give the class exercises that work as mixers because students must pool their knowledge. A fifth-grade science test that surfaced one day on our living room floor was the basis for a good exercise because it was about weather, a topic that invites people to make educated guesses. The students put their heads together to figure out what an anemometer is (it measures wind speed) and to match cloud types with their definitions: cirrus=feathery, stratus=layered, and cumulus=puffy. They feel masterful when they succeed in answering such questions, so I usually suggest we go on to repair dangling constructions, correct misplaced modifiers, or tackle some other intimidating bit of grammar.
Another test was on the workings of the solar system. Most people don't know as much about this as the average fifth-grader does, but I've found a way to get around that. I go to the children's section of the library and get a bunch of books called The Planets in Our Solar System or A Book of Planets for You. I throw them on the table along with the test questions and tell the class to pick a partner and get to it. After a bit of skimming (a skill people learning English need to hone, anyway), they can answer such questions as:

    bulletWhich planet is second from the sun?

    bulletThe sun is a medium-sized yellow star -- true or false?

    bulletWhich planet has a famous storm called the Great Red Spot?

After completing their research, the students usually discover that the second planet from the sun is Venus. Only a few people correctly answer that the sun is indeed medium-sized, most thinking it is large. Many are also fooled about the Great Red Spot, associating it with Mars, the red planet, rather than Jupiter.
Of course, we don't just sit around eating chocolate, chatting about the weather, and reading children's books. We also do serious things, like read the newspapers. Pointing out that the opening of a news story answers the questions "Who, What, Where, When, and Why," I ask the class to consider this daunting lead sentence from a 1993 article in the Chicago Tribune:
    BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- An accord reached Friday on a cease-fire and the delivery of food and medicine to eastern Bosnia appeared on the verge of collapse Saturday as Serbian forces reneged on their promise to allow a UN relief convoy to reach the besieged Muslim-controlled town of Srebrenica, Bosnia.
Who? Serbian forces. What? An agreement about a cease-fire and the delivery of food and medicine seemed about to break down. Where and when? Srebrenica, Bosnia; on Saturday. Why? Serbian forces broke a promise to allow safe passage of a group of military vehicles carrying vital supplies. Not as impossible to decipher as it first seemed to be. (Alexander, a Serbian student, objected to this sentence, by the way. He said the American media are biased against the Serbs and it made him sick to follow their coverage of the war.) Throw in an Ann Landers column on "Naive in Missouri's" affair with Bob from "work" (the drive-in window of a bank) and students start to believe they can actually read an American newspaper and might enjoy doing so.
One day when I was reading Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" to my son, it occurred to me that the poem would make a good vehicle for identifying parts of speech. First the class reads through it to distinguish real English words from fake ones. Gyre? Whiffling? Galumphing? It's not that easy to tell. Then we classify fake adjectives (slithy, frumious, manxome, and uffish, for example), fake nouns (wabe, toves, borogoves, and Bandersnatch), and fake verbs (gimble and outgrabe). Finally, we talk about the characteristics of the words in each category.
The great leveler when it comes to learning English is pronunciation. A thoracic surgeon who scored 100% on his grammar placement test and a factory worker with a second-grade education face the same confusing rules and exceptions to rules. They both find it exasperating that a long "o" sound can be spelled as in no, oh, though, slow, toe, beau, soul, sew, depot, yeoman, and boat. On the other hand, why is there no common vowel sound among though, through, enough, bough, and thought? And should "th" be pronounced as in father or as in Kathy (not to mention as in fathead)? When things get too discouraging, I have the class practice their pronunciation technique by asking them to read aloud a passage from Fox in Socks, by Dr. Seuss: "Bim brings Ben broom. Ben brings Bim broom. Ben bends Bim's broom. Bim bends Ben's broom."

THERE ARE MANY paths to take to getting to know other people. One day, to the surprise of the class, we found ourselves taking a spiritual path. We'd just read an article about making lists -- not just everyday lists with items like "take chicken out of freezer" and "return library books," but a grander, more visionary "life list" that included "have a baby," "write a novel," and "visit the Eiffel Tower." As the students read aloud life lists they had composed, we heard many creative and ambitious goals, like "play the piano in a symphony orchestra," "see the Sphinx by moonlight," "read Les Miserables in French," and "build a beautiful house."
The last person to read her list was Laura, the Indonesian poet. It contained items such as "only buy what I need to live, don't ask for anything, don't judge other people." The class was awestruck and humbled. For the most part, we simply hadn't thought to look beyond ourselves toward higher spiritual aims. The noblest item I had managed was "volunteer at a soup kitchen."
One student actually did volunteer at a soup kitchen. Her luminous personality helped spark the class. She was Jane, a tall woman with her hair pulled to the side by a barrette. Her parents were caring for her four-year-old daughter in Taiwan while she stayed here with her husband, who was finishing his studies. Our ESL class was held in a church that served weekly lunches to the homeless. Some students were uncomfortable passing through the lunchroom on their way out of class, but Jane had signed up to help and left class early on Wednesdays to set up.
Vedra was another student whose sparkling presence enlivened her class. She was a fashion writer from Italy with dark bangs and a soft laugh, and she impressed her classmates by finding a job here as a photographer's assistant at weddings and bar mitzvahs. When it was her turn to teach the class something she knew about, she talked about photography. Never photograph people from the side, she told us her boss had said, because it emphasizes double chins. She also brought in a tray of beautiful slides she had taken to accompany her fashion articles. When Marisol, a slim-hipped, green-eyed woman from Spain, taught the class how to do the flamenco, Vedra was one of the few students not too self-conscious to jump up and try it.
Antonio stood out because he was responsive to people and ideas and wasn't afraid to try new things. He had been a biologist in Mexico; here, he worked as a gardener. Knowing that many people in his class were unemployed, I brought in sample resumes, cover letters, and some want ads from local papers. I gave Antonio an ad for a job in a hospital lab. Henri, the painter from Haiti, got one for an artist; two grandmothers from Iran got baby-sitting ads. I brought in ads for drivers, cooks, and factory workers. The next evening, Antonio was the only one to come in with a resume and cover letter fashioned in response to his ad. We waited hopefully for a reply from the company, but none came. He rebounded by going to the library and getting a book on writing resumes.
Although the students' new friendships here can provide fun and distraction as they struggle to adapt to life in a new country, most still badly miss their homelands. Given a writing assignment, they often have trouble setting down their thoughts, but when the topic is "A Beautiful Place in My Country," I have to tell them more than once that time is up. Their love for their countries shows through even when they are mindful of troubling political or economic conditions.
Jean-Claude, a short, gray-haired Haitian man who liked to play soccer, could hardly decide what beautiful spot to choose for his description:

    There are many beautiful places in my country. If I had the vocabulary for one of them, I would tell you about it. It's a quiet place where coconut palms grow. But now I'll describe a beach that I went to once in my father's home city. It's a famous swimming place. When there are political problems, you can't go there. It's dangerous. But in this place you can feel the power of nature. If you look in the distance, you can see people in boats. They are free. (They are not escaping to the United States.) Close by, people are swimming and enjoying nature. To the left, different fishes join people in their jubilation.
Jane, the soup-kitchen volunteer, knew right away what she wanted to describe:
    There is a beautiful place that I remember in Taiwan. It is Yu-San Mountain. Its height is 3,997 meters, and it is the highest mountain in Taiwan. My parents took me and my friends there once on my birthday. The day was cold, and the air on the mountain was even colder. But it felt so good, we all felt peaceful. The sky was such a bright blue, and the clouds seemed within reach. Some birds flew down near us, and everyone was still. We were so still. Then we made a circle and sang songs. After dinner, we looked up at the stars. They seemed closer to us than usual. We passed around hot coffee and chocolate. We were so happy in the quiet. I had a beautiful time on that mountain.
Some students couldn't write about their countries because they were illiterate. But they could talk about home. Pierre, a large Haitian man with wire-rimmed glasses, spoke of violence, poor housing and schools, but also, how you could step outside your house and there would be delicious fruits right there to pick. One evening he was identifying the vowels in a list of words when he started to cry. Just before he'd left for class he'd learned that his 15-year-old nephew in Haiti had died of appendicitis. There had been no doctor available to attend him. Pierre told me he was anxious for then-exiled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to return to Haiti.
Pierre was working to master vowels because he was eager to pass the United States citizenship test. Twice he'd paid the $90 fee for the test, but had failed. He'd studied up on the father of our country, the number of stars on our flag, and the names of our three branches of government, but stumbled when it came time to write a sentence dictated in English -- "The train is fast" the first time and "My aunt lives with me" the second.
Although the students in Pierre's class had been in the United States for a few years and could converse in English, they couldn't read or write well. Some couldn't use a clock or a calendar. Teaching them to use these items wasn't the straightforward task I'd thought it would be. Our frames of reference were so different. When faced with "Name: ________," for example, they were confused by the blank line. They would write their names below it, in the margin, or above the word "Name." And when I once pointed out Florida on a map, they could not then find Florida on an identical map placed alongside the first one. Doing a jigsaw puzzle of the US helped.
My family loves to hear about my students, and I sometimes tell my students about my family. Several times I've brought my children to visit my classes. They've given me good project ideas. My seven-year-old told me to bring in crayons and teach the names of exotic colors like fuchsia, magenta, cerise, turquoise, and cerulean -- and perhaps red and blue for the beginners. My 11-year old gave me a map exercise involving latitude and longitude for my advanced class. My 14-year-old suggested that I play a recording of a weather report and see if my intermediate class would be quick enough to catch the details. And my husband has agreed to be a guest speaker on the topic of labor unions.
My family happened to be on hand one day when I had two rewarding encounters. We were at a resale shop hunting for the makings for Halloween costumes when Antonio, the Mexican biologist who was doing gardening work, recognized my children first and then saw me. He had his son by the hand. "They called about my resume," he said. "I'm a lab assistant now." On our way back to the car, a man waved to us from across the street. It was Pierre, the Haitian man who kept flunking his citizenship test. He said, "Teacher, I'm so happy. My president is back, and I passed my test!"
On the way home, we dropped off my daughter at a friend' house. She took along the beret and oversized men's shirt she'd found to use for an artist costume. I heard her friend say, "My mom's an artist. What does your mom do?"
"She teaches English to people from foreign countries. And she helps them feel at home in America."

BOBBIE GREEN SCHEFF, CW'72, has been teaching ESL for four years and has done freelance translating from Spanish, French, and German into English.
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