Friday, May 15, 2009

How My Parents Learned to Eat

I read this book to the ESL class where I have been volunteering, and it was a hit! I was very pleased. This class is at a community organization that runs a "welfare to work" program and the students are learning English in preparation for jobs. Over the course of the semester, I have seen them get much better at speaking and listening. The idea of reading children's literature to ESL students came from my friend Lynne, who teaches ESL. The teacher said I could do a presentation on a day when she had to do testing, so I did some research and came up with this book, which works well for a number of reasons. The story is told simply, but it's a story with more levels than just the child's point of view. The author tells about how her parents met, when her mother was a Japanese schoolgirl and her father was an American sailor. Each of them is anxious about eating properly according to the other's culture (using chopsticks vs. using a knife and fork), but they practice on their own and figure out that they can do it. I see it as a metaphor for becoming comfortable with another culture. The subject matter is of interest to these students, and the book is not too sentimental for adults.

After I read it aloud, we talked about it a little, and I was impressed that one of the students pointed out that the book never says whether the characters are speaking in Japanese or English. I asked them what they thought, and they said they thought they were speaking a mixture, sometimes Japanese, sometimes English. I had assumed the characters were speaking English (shows my prejudice!). Then one student raised his hand and asked, "Teacher, can I come up and read the book?" I wasn't sure what he meant but then I figured out that he wanted to practice reading aloud. So he came up to the front of the room and read a page, and each student in turn came up in front of the class and read. One of the others said afterward, "I need to do this every day!" It was really great to see how they were proactive about their own learning.

One thing I've learned from doing this volunteering is that it is not easy to speak slowly and simply but still show respect for the students as adults and not insult their intelligence. Also I discovered that it is a skill to choose ways to say things that are simple and avoid convoluted constructions and idiomatic expressions.

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