How Congolese Women Sing the "Glory" and more discoveries of a Connections Facilitator

Readers in a Connections group can be graduate students learning English as a third or fourth language, or incarcerated fathers using literature to connect with their kids, or first generation new Americans who've come as refugees. The latter is the hardest group to facilitate; some have not had the opportunity to go to school in their home countries and have not studied English. How do you work with books and brand new adult learners of the English language?  Carolyn Hutton is a new facilitator with Connections. She had taught ESL at the University of New Hampshire, but she had not worked with a class of recent refugees before. She describes how her first program unfolded, what she learned, and her respect for the teacher she worked with. We want to share her journey. Pictured is master quilter Lorraine Morong of Madbury with a student in Carolyn Hutton's Connections program. 

Leading the Connections discussions with Johanna Young's literacy level class at Ascentria in Concord was an experience in exploring how a book might be a guide to creating a meaningful language experience for people who have not had many encounters with books. Johanna has experience and empathy in working with the refugee communities and she gave me both ideas and inspiration. She was very patient with me!

The first time I came to the class, we were reading Langston Hughes’ poem My People illustrated by Charles R. Smith Jr. I had planned too many activities--we would sew symbols of “our people” on quilt squares and we would write about these. My friend who is a quilter would accompany me and show her own quilt full of images that represent her family. We would sing a blues song and talk about how Langston Hughes often read his poetry with a background of blues music. In all my years of working in ESL, this was my first experience with a refugee community and I realized that I needed to think and plan differently. This is what happened the first day:

We got there early; it was cold and the doors were still locked. Soon though, a student dressed in a bright and beautiful long dress and purple coat arrived. She looked cold, and I invited her to come sit in the car and have a cup of tea with us and she did. She said her name was Gloriosa. She saw the quilts lying on the back seat of the car and smiled and held them close to her and closed her eyes to show us she understood what they were for. So, by the time the other students began to arrive, I felt like I had at least made some kind of connection with this one woman. I realized too that all of my activities were over-planned and the explanations and connections I wanted to make were geared toward an audience with much more literacy skill. At least I had my guitar and decided to start by playing Jingle Bells which would be a fun song to get everyone engaged, and it did relate to the book somewhat with words like “happy” and “bright.” Students did enjoy singing. Then we turned the pages of the beautiful book and talked about the faces, the words. I had not thought about how students might not know which way to turn a page, that spending time and not hurrying through this “preliminary” step was not just all right, but necessary. After that, my segue to the quilt squares was not so smooth--I realized I simply did not have language to adequately explain the connection. But still, we did make quilt squares and many students were deft with their hands--many sewed crosses; some put jigsaw pieces of fabric on the square; some women from Nepal sewed small tunics and trousers and sewed those onto the squares, so in the end the squares did represent “people,” and we could use the word “beautiful” from the book to point to the creations. There was not time for the blues tune and not time to write.

I came to the second class with the story One Green Apple, by Eve Bunting. this time having a better sense of who the students were and knowing from the first class that having something to touch is one way to connect. I cut an apple in half so they could hold it and take out the seeds to look at them. Everyone understood seeds. Also, after thinking about the most basic vocabulary students would need to better understand the picture book, I made a simple  list of words in empty spaces;  girl, sad, apple, tree, boy, dog, friend, happy. Together we pronounced these words and drew pictures of them--I loved how students drew two people side by side for “friend.” Then when we read/talked through the story; we focused on pointing out the words they had already drawn and practiced. Two children from Nepal who were out of school for Thanksgiving break helped us; their English was quite good and they were very happy to model the drawings on the white board. Our time ended with an activity, inspired by Johanna’s method of call and response. It was to form a circle and create a kind of Thanksgiving chorus where a student read his writing, “I am thankful for _______ (ie apples)" and everyone chorused, “We are thankful.”

As an aside, I was surprised at how interested students were in the machinery of the apple cider press; I wished I had dusted off and brought our old fashioned apple peeler (another time!) and felt that if I did this again I would focus more on the machine, which I had not thought much about at all.

The third time I came to Johanna’s class, we read Joseph’s Big Ride, by Terry Farish. This time instead of Thanksgiving we were thinking more of Christmas and other December holidays. This story in some ways might be a way to talk about what a child wants in relation to what a child needs, so we began the day with the words “want” and “need.” I brought some objects to class--a party dress and a coat; a carton of eggs and a bag of candy; a toothbrush and bottle of sparkly nail polish and I held up two dollars and asked students to choose which thing they would buy (most people chose the toothbrush and the eggs) and we kept talking about “want” and “need.” Then when we read, it was nice to read that Joseph wanted a bicycle. That was an understandable sentence--everybody got it. We looked at the pictures of school and said “Joseph wants a bicycle; Joseph needs school." Later, when he meets Whoosh we can say “Joseph wants a bicycle; Joseph needs a friend. (Note--I did this exercise with a more advanced group in Portsmouth who were also able to say that Joseph needs to feel like he can do something, i.e., fix the bike, Joseph needs to not give up, etc.--this idea of want/need around this story created good discussion in that group.) Other activities planned for this lesson were to give students a word list, like before, and this time instead of drawing words, they circled them as we came to them in the story. I should have included the word “whoosh” in the list because they loved that word, liked to say it!

My favorite page in this story is where Joseph is in the kitchen with his mother, looking out the window and hearing/smelling/seeing this new place and thinking of home; I found a diagram of a window online and planned to use it to ask students to draw what they saw out the window here but also in their own country. We did not get time to do this exercise, but Johanna planned to use the windows for a follow up exercise.

We ended the class by looking at the last picture in the story where Joseph and Whoosh are taking turns riding while the moon comes up--a peaceful night--and then singing together "Silent Night." This singing led Gloriosa to begin singing the Gloria (in Latin) chorus of “Angels we have Heard on High." To my surprise, a small group of women joined her on the chorus suddenly, singing the weaving harmonies and counterparts to that carol. Then Gloriosa sang the verses in Lingala. After this astonishing performance, a student who has a little bit more language skill told me that all of the women came from different parts of the Congo; they had not practiced this song together, but they all knew it. It was a beautiful moment when they were united. In English, no, but in community, yes--the Nepalese women did not know the song but were listening.   

by Carolyn Hutton, Connections facilitator