Dwell in Possibility: Discussing Books Enlivens ESL Classes

“A word is dead when it is said, some say.
I say it just begins to live that day.”

Emily Dickinson

Cheap pleasures can sometimes be the most satisfying.

Reading, an activity that often costs nothing, falls into that category. Reading provides many pleasures and many insights. So does talking about reading.

Following a December ritual, I’ve been reviewing the year and find many reasons for satisfaction. Co-writing a monthly column called “Instant Conversation Activity”  in the newspaper Easy English Times makes the list for the third straight year. Each monthly newspaper column in the Easy English Times, modifies and expands a thematic chapter from Compelling Conversations, an advanced ESL textbook, for lower level English language learners. The August issue, for example, talked about watching television and favorite programs; the November 2010 issue celebrated the American tradition of choosing leaders in elections. (Immigrants, refugees, new citizens, and potential citizens often appreciate voting while too many American citizens fall into apathy.) It’s an honor to have the lessons used in ESL, EL/Civics, and literacy classes.

In reviewing the 2010 clips, however, my favorite column this year remains “Reading Pleasures and Tastes.
Reading can be a great – and overlooked – pleasure. Reading allows us to imagine life in distant lands and times – and better understand our own lives and climates. It broadens our imagination, highlights absurd situations, shows new possibilities, and can deepen our sympathy. Since urban Californian classrooms often resemble a mini-United Nations, reading provides a passport to better understand our classmates and our ever-changing world. .

Yet too few American adults – including adult education students – allow themselves the pleasure of reading books and newspapers in English. We can see and hear on adult school campuses how the inability to read causes real problems. We know the many studies that document the links between illiteracy, poverty, and criminal activity. One reason might be that reading builds empathy and instills information. Reading can also provide solace, inspiration, and perspective. Celebrating the pleasure and power of reading to the Easy English Times column audience, including adult immigrants, GED students and some prisoners, seems appropriate. Perhaps it could have been called “Three Cheers for Reading – Even if Life is Hard.”

Yet I also like the Reading Pleasures column because discussing books has created some of my most poignant classroom moments. During a decade of teaching advanced adult ESL, we often read short stories, memorized proverbs, and wrote about living in Los Angeles and Santa Monica. Many ESL students also demonstrated their passion for literature. A Polish student sought help translating romantic poems, a Mexican immigrant constantly recited lines from Cervantes, and an Iranian woman journalist discussed her fear of reading banned books – even while in the United States.. Reading matters and transcends borders.

Let me give another example from a global classroom with a dozen or so different best languages. Each evening we would have a “brave volunteer” give a short oral presentation at 8:30 as a closing activity.  I wanted everyone to be a volunteer, but I left the choice of presenting to students. Some students introduced their hometowns, a few  gave product reviews, and many recommended movies. Topics and styles varied.

One night an older Korean woman gave an eloquent, moving book review of To Kill A Mockingbird that combined personal biography and literary criticism. Chloe, not her real name, began smiling because she had just finished rereading her favorite book in its original language – English. She joked about how long it took, but she had patience. Chloe went on to confess that she often had racist feelings like some ugly characters in the novel. “But I learned from the noble character too”. Chloe stated that living in Santa Monica and studying English she had learned to overcome racism. Her daughter was going to marry a non-Korean – something once unthinkable. Then, returning to the novel, she concluded by quoting her favorite character. “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks. ” Her daughter visited our class that night, and cried. She was not alone. Powerful. Poignant. Unforgettable.

Reading remains a great pleasure and a helpful guide. Literature can also enliven our ESL classrooms, and discussing our favorite books opens up new possibilities. The humanities should be for everyone – including English language learners. Let us, as Emily Dickinson advised, “dwell in possibility” and bring more literature into our English classrooms.

Ask more. Know more. Share more.
Create Compelling Conversations.

One comment

  1. Amanda Clark

    I found this article extremely useful as it provided me with the lots of valuable information.

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