Taban came to school on his first day of third grade as the only Amharic-speaking student in a class full of English, Spanish, Arabic, and Tagalog-speaking classmates. Everybody but him shared the common language of English, and I found myself in the position of struggling to find a way to both communicate with and teach him at the same time. In her book, Making it Happen, Patricia Richard-Amato states that “If we expect language and cultural minorities to do all the accommodating and fail to reach out to students and meet them where they are, then many of our best minds will be doomed to failure” (2010, p. 155). I realized that Taban’s efforts to learn English would be best served if I also made an effort to learn his own language.
I didn’t personally know any fluent Amharic speakers, so I sought out language mentors in Ethiopian restaurants. During the three months that I had Taban as a student, I made numerous visits to two Ethiopian restaurants, getting to know the waitstaff and each time coming with a new list of words that I found myself needing assistance with in order to facilitate communication. Unfortunately, these limited training sessions were enough only for me to attain some very basic vocabulary, but not enough for me to grasp the language with all its inflectional and syntactical complexity. Unlike Taban, I was not immersed in a linguistically foreign environment. I had only one person with whom I was struggling to communicate, while Taban was struggling to do so with virtually every person he encountered at school. Richard-Amato tells us, “Motivation is an extremely important affective factor. Without it, learning any language, first or second, would be difficult, if not impossible” (2010, p. 159). I simply lacked the same motivational imperative driving Taban.
However, I was not the only person in the class making efforts to help Taban to understand the material. In the beginning of the year there was another student, Alec, sitting at the same table as Taban. Alec could easily have been considered this class’s resident overachiever. He was always one of the first, if not the first, to raise his hand in response to questions. He picked up the material fairly easily, and he took it upon himself to be a mentor to Taban. I noticed this on the third day of school and made a decision in my reflections that day to encourage such mentorship. Alec by this point already seemed to me to meet the qualifications that Richard-Amato suggests make for a good peer mentor, “have the necessary skills, enjoy helping others, have a lot of patience, be supportive, and be willing to work hard” (2010, p. 378).
However, there was only one more day of school before the school year was interrupted by the longest teachers’ strike Chicago had seen in a quarter century. We returned from the strike with both teachers and students exhausted. The classroom dynamics had been disrupted, and it wasn’t until much later that another student stepped forward in a mentorship role toward Taban. I discovered over the course of my time in the classroom that Taban’s family also understood Arabic, and one of the Arabic-speaking students, Yousef, found that he was able to hold some simple conversations with Taban.
At first glance, it would seem that Yousef is the opposite of Alec in many respects. Yousef was a rebellious underachiever and often acted as a class clown. However, a closer examination of Yousef revealed that he and Alec had a great deal in common after all. They both sought attention, Alec through striving to be the first to answer questions posed by the teacher, Yousef through behavioral antics. They both cared about their classmates, with Alec focusing on their academic needs and Yousef focusing on their affective needs. They both put a great deal of outside effort into their classwork, Alec because he wanted to perform above and beyond the work assigned, Yousef because it took effort for him to keep up with the work assigned. Yousef, it turned out, made an excellent mentor for Taban.
One daily activity we engaged in in the class was to dramatize stories written by the students. Richard-Amato reveals that, “Storytelling, role play, and drama allow students to explore their inner resources, empathize with others, and use their own experiences as scaffolds on which to build credible action” (Richard-Amato 2010, p. 274). Taban was one of the children in the class who was not required to do the writing homework because he was pulled out for language arts lessons. However, he nonetheless chose to create stories along with his classmates. The day that we dramatized Taban’s first story Yousef volunteered to portray the father.
Today is Monday. I woke up in my bed. I ate breakfast with my family. Then we went to school. In school we played in gym. I read a book. I ate lunch with friends.
Taban could be seen with a large grin on his face when he came up to dramatize his story. He continued to smile the entire time as his written word became transformed into spoken language when I read it to the class, and then to action as he and his peers dramatized the story. This activity clearly helped to reduce Taban’s anxiety level. While Richard-Amato suggests that “Whether the anxiety is an aid or hindrance often depends on the degree to which it is found in the individual,” (2010, p. 159), I have personally found that in early childhood it is usually best to reduce the anxiety level whenever possible, and the dramatic writing curriculum accomplished that goal.
Richard-Amato describes one UCLA study which found that drama “encourages the operation of certain psychological factors that facilitate oral communication, heightened self-esteem, motivation, and spontaneity; increased capacity for empathy; and lowered sensitivity to rejection” (2010, p. 285). In addition to these benefits, it would also seem that it can also aid in written communication skills as well, and Taban’s revised version of this story after peer feedback from the dramatization read as follows:
Today is Monday. I woke up in my bed. I ate breakfast with my family. Then we went to school. In school we played in gym. I read a book. I ate lunch with friends. I ate pizza and a cookie. After school I went home. I played at the park with my friends. At the park we played boll. After that I came home.
While he didn’t make any internal revisions to the story, he did extend the story a great deal, using additional vocabulary not included in the original. The dramatization of the story had revealed some confusion when they were at the gym, so when he added a scene at the park, he decided to expand on the activities for clarification, leading to his one spelling error, “boll.” This spelling error indicates not only that he was becoming more detail-oriented in his writing, but also that was most likely working independently on this voluntary homework assignment and that he also understands the traditional phonemes associated with the vowels of the English language.
At the time I left his classroom, Taban was making great strides in his English language acquisition, beginning to speak in two-word sentences and moving toward greater peer interaction. I, on the other hand, am still struggling to learn Amharic, and continue to do so even though I am no longer Taban’s teacher.
If you have a book that you would like to see me discuss, please comment on the Recommended Reading page. Next month I will most likely be discussing d/Deaf and d/Dumb: A portrait of a deaf kid as a young superhero by Joseph Michael Valente (2011).
Richard-Amato, P.A. (2010). Making it happen: From interactive to participatory language teaching: Evolving theory and practice, fourth edition. White Plains, NY: Pearson.
Valente, J.M. (2011). d/Deaf and d/Dumb: A portrait of a deaf kid as a young superhero. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.