Children of all cultures know story. Whether they’ve been read to, read on their own, or listened to a storyteller – people connect and learn through the familiar tool of story.
In 2010, the US Census reported the United States had over 40 million foreign-born people. The National Center for Education Statistics cited an increase in students speaking a language other than English at home, from 4.7 million in 1980 to 11.2 million in 2009. Needless to say, English as a Second Language (ESL) programs are offered in most public school systems.
Typically, foreign-born students come straight to school barely knowing much more than a few necessary words to get them through the day. They learn the language and culture of their new country through various methods taught at school.
We have a small percentage of foreign-born students in our school system. George was born in Vietnam. His parents, also native Vietnamese, came to America knowing only a few English words. How they ended up in my small town in New Hampshire is anyone’s guess. George’s parents signed him up for my after-school enrichment creative writing program, with the intent of helping him learn English.
I was nervous. I don’t know a lick of Vietnamese. I can’t even pronounce the menu items at a Vietnamese restaurant, and here I was, expected to teach this little boy how to write a story? In English?
On George’s first day of class, he was quiet. He doodled a lot. When I sat down with him and asked if he understood the lesson, he nodded. But, when I asked him to explain it to me in pictures, he couldn’t. Admittedly, I was stuck. He went through the first class having written nothing.
Not only was he challenged, but so was I. The chance he would write a story that made sense from beginning to end was not exactly in the realm of possibility. So, I focused instead on making him want to write. Even if he never completed a story by the end of the session, I would consider it a success if he enjoyed himself and learned at least a few English words.
The next week, I asked George his favorite movie. He knew the words to this one: Star Wars. I asked him to draw pictures of his favorite scenes. I wrote the words that applied to each picture (i.e., Main Character, Problem, Place, Bad Guy) to help him grasp the concept of what goes into a story.
He started his own Star Wars story, which was pretty much like the original. But, that’s expected from kids learning to write. They’ll imitate something they love first, even copying it scene by scene. This isn’t anything to worry about. They’re getting the feel of story into their veins. When they’re ready, they’ll move on to writing their own stuff.
He got frustrated easily, because he had to struggle to write words he didn’t know. He was happiest when he could tell his stories by pictures, so we did a lot of captioning instead of narrative. When I wouldn’t let him goof off, he made faces and sighed loudly.
Despite the obstacles, he came to and left class with a smile on his face. He never forgot his notebook or pencil, and he never refused to write.
By the end of the session, he’d written half a story, drew lots of pictures, and played all the writing games. I feared it wasn’t enough because most kids accomplish more than that. But, I had to remember my original goal. Even if he didn’t complete a story, he did learn and write new words. He knew the difference between ‘hero’ and ‘villain’, he knew what a ‘problem’ and a ‘solution’ meant. Through coloring his pictures, he learned ‘blue’, ‘green’, ‘black’. Through games, he learned all kinds of directions and rules.
Plus, he had fun, because he asked to take the next class. And, he asked in English.