Building Community While Learning English

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By Megan Donnelly, ESOL Teacher, and Elaine Pridham, Teaching Assistant
Portsmouth Adult Education Program, Southern New Hampshire Services

This spring, the Portsmouth Adult Education program applied for and received a book grant for use with the students in our Basic English class. We selected four books from the Connections program at New Hampshire Humanities around the theme of childhood memories: When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant; A Different Pond by Bao Phi; Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold; and The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi. The class is small, and most of the students are high beginning English language learners. We chose books with the students’ countries of origins and life experiences in mind. Because we have students whose speaking abilities range from working hard to form a complete sentence to those who can converse comfortably, we focused on talking about the stories in the present tense and our childhood experiences in the simple past. The process was magical.

We began our program with When I was Young in the Mountains, a book that repeats the phrase “When I was young in the mountains” to share the author’s memories of growing up with her grandparents and younger brother in rural West Virginia. The students could relate to so much of the setting and things these children did with their grandmother and grandfather. One student from Myanmar connected to the illustration of the water pump outside their house: “When I was young, our country used to be using that. A little different but similar. Pumped water by hand—before, no electric. America is a rich country; we are poor. It’s very hard.” Another student from Spain connected with the snake in the swimming hole: “I remember swimming in a river near your [my] town. I saw a snake. I screamed! I tried to catch it.”

Asking students what their favorite page was and why yielded rich and varied answers. A student from Brazil commented: “My favorite page is the second, with breakfast. It’s the same coffee. Everybody sit together, corn bread, it smell so good! I remember my grandfather make coffee for me, and my grandmother corn bread. It is the same as me—my family before.”

For each book, our discussions took place as we read the book out loud together as a class. To help students feel confident reading aloud, we first sent them a recording of the story being read out loud slowly. This allowed them to listen to how the words were pronounced as they read the book at home. Reading the book page by page together in class gave everyone the chance to practice reading out loud and to comment on the pictures and story. As teachers, we asked questions: When does this story take place? Where do you think the family lives? Who does the girl live with? Is their life easy or difficult? Tell why you think so. Do you remember your childhood home? What was it like? Who lived with you when you were growing up?

We used graphic organizers to help students make connections to the book, remember new vocabulary, and practice writing in English. For When I Was Young in the Mountains, for example, we used four. One was about our childhood homes. It was a fill-in-the-blank worksheet with space for students to draw their childhood homes. Another worksheet asked students to complete sentences that all began with “When I was young in X, …” and write sentences that were true for them. The third worksheet asked students to complete sentences about their grandparents using their five senses. This worksheet captured a lot of beautiful memories:

Student: When I think of my grandmother, I can touch her hands, and I remember when I have been sleeping touching his [her] wrinkled hands. When I think of my grandmother, I can hear music, traditional Spanish music. When I think of my grandmother, I can smell hot milk with chocolate.

The final worksheet asked students to identify five new vocabulary words for them from the story, provide a definition for each word, and make a sentence using the new word. For subsequent books, students were asked to find specific words in each text. In that way, we were able to teach parts of speech (adjectives, verbs, and adverbs) and target words that students would be able to use in their everyday lives.

For each book there was always an activity which had a text-to-self connection. While reading A Different Pond by Bao Phi, a story about a young Vietnamese boy and his father going fishing before dawn, for example, we used a “Double-Entry Journal” graphic organizer. It asked students to choose a quote from the book, write it in the left-hand column, and in the right-hand column, write about how the quote connects to them.

A student from Korea selected this quote from the book with her response:

“Dad tells me about the war, but only sometimes. He and his brother fought side by side. One day, his brother didn’t come home.”

“My mother was youngest. There was war between North Korea and South Korea. My mom’s hometown is North Korean. My mom has never even [been back] to her hometown.”

This student has been taking classes with us for three years, and this was the first time she shared something so personal about her family.

Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold is a book about the author’s favorite childhood place–the rooftop of her apartment building in New York City with a view of the George Washington Bridge. There she spent many happy summer evenings with her mother and father, younger brother, and neighbors. There she imagined she could fly, and in her words, “that means I am free to go wherever I want for the rest of my life.” We read and see what the author dreams of doing and becoming. Though the themes in this book were more abstract than the other book selections, students responded to the visual beauty of Faith Ringgold’s story quilt, whose central image is of her and her family on the rooftop together, eating, playing cards, and gazing up at the stars. Speaking about our memories of family gatherings with food, love, and laughter was an enjoyable part of our discussion.

Additionally, students made their own statements of affirmation and shared their dreams by completing an “I am…, I like…, I can… and English In My Future” graphic organizer. Then, we used Google Jamboard to each create our own story quilt, modeled on Ringgold’s. We used a quilt template and asked students to share a photograph of their family in the center and to choose images that reflected their “I am, I like, and I can” statements visually and place them along the border. The quilts turned out beautifully, and we all learned new things about one another. Jamboard was a tool that we used throughout the book grant to teach and review vocabulary and create class books about our childhood memories. It is an easy-to-use online tool which allowed students to participate actively in an online classroom.

A book grant from Connections provides a refreshing way to teach English. In each children’s book, the combination of simple, rich language and award-winning illustrations belies the complex ideas being presented by the author and illustrator. Each book invites you to enter a story, soak in its language and images, and make connections to the text and, ultimately, to one another. Students appreciate that they get to keep the books. For us, the conversations we had about these books and the Jamboard links we made will be lasting memories of our 2021-2022 Basic English class.