ESL Book Club – Thunder Cake

Our book club read several books by Patricia Polacco last spring and we all fell in love with Patricia Polacco. I was not familiar with her book Thunder Cake when I found it at Half Price Books a few months ago. It looked like another good one, plus it included a recipe! If you are not familiar with the book, it is based on events from the author’s life and tells the story of how her Russian grandmother helped Patricia overcome her fear of thunderstorms.

Of course, I had to bake a Thunder Cake for book club. The skies were clear and sunny as I baked, so I guess it didn’t really qualify as a Thunder Cake. Oh well…

I didn’t have any secret-ingredient-fresh-off-the-vine-overripe tomatoes either, so I drained some canned tomatoes and pureed what I needed in the food processor. I made two single layer cakes instead of a two-layer as I thought it would be easier to transport and serve. The cake tasted just like a chocolate cake should, but I thought it was a little dry and crumbly. Maybe it was lacking the humidity and electricity a thunderstorm would add to the mix. It rose very nicely – maybe due to the acidity of the tomatoes?

As I was preparing a few discussion questions, I realized what a good lesson in verbs this book provides. Patricia Polacco gives us so many verbs to help us hear the thunder and see the lightning and hear her grandmother’s voice. I made a list of most of the verbs used in the story and added a few discussion questions just to have some talking points to fall back on if needed.

The cake was a fun surprise and no one could taste the secret ingredient. As we settled in with our wedges of cake, I went over the list of verbs as a pre-reading activity. Many, if not most, of the verbs were unfamiliar to my students.

As expected, everyone could relate to the story in one way or another. One student (from Ukraine) is Babushka to her grandson. Another student was reminded of her husband, who was a nervous, nail-biting child. Instead of helping him with his fears, his parents focussed only on his bad habit. A wife told how, during an eight-year war with a neighboring country, her husband would take their son to the basement when the daily bombing began. He had the gift of entertaining their son so that he was never afraid. Meanwhile, she was frozen with fear. Everyone agreed that Patricia’s Babushka is awesome and aspired to be like her.

This time I added a rating system at the end of the discussion questions. As I expected, everyone gave it 5 stars – because they always swear they love every book we read. After class, a student who had read the previous Patricia Polacco books, told me she loves her books so much that all of her books will get 5 stars from her.

There was one piece of cake left, so I took it over to my friend, Pastor Cathy. She knew that the cake had been baked under clear skies, so not really a Thunder Cake. She asked what fear I contemplated while baking it. Uh … None? In true pastor fashion, she “invited” me to give it some thought.

Here is what I prepared for discussion:

Thunder Cake
by Patricia Polacco

So many verbs! As I reread the book, I noticed how many different verbs the author used to make the story interesting and to help the reader “feel” and “hear” the story.

Instead of just using the verb said:
cooed
stammered
crowed
exclaimed
croaked
whispered

Instead of just saying the thunder was loud and bright:
shook the house
rattled the windows
flashed
slit the sky
crashed
bellowed
growled
rumbled

Instead of using the verbs walk or run:
strode
scurried
crept

Other verbs of interest:
drew a deep breath
grab her close
surveyed
fingered
penned
gather
peck
spread out the tablecloth
beamed

And a few interesting adjectives:
loud clap of thunder
worn hands
creased spot
jagged edge of lightning
secret ingredient
overripe
luscious
glistening

Discussion questions:

What is your first reaction to the story?

Does the story remind you of something in your life?

How did Patricia’s grandmother help her overcome her fear of thunderstorms?

Was Patricia only afraid of thunderstorms?

Has someone helped you overcome a fear?

Have you helped someone overcome a fear?

Have you overcome a fear on your own (without help)?

Do you have a recipe with a secret ingredient?

Is this a book you would like to share with a child you know? Why or why not?

How do you rate this story?

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*****

ESL Book Club – The Relatives Came

I am a volunteer teacher of English as a Second Language at the church I attend. I started a Book Club that meets for one hour once a week after our regular class to read and discuss books written for children that adults can enjoy.

I read the book to the students first so that they can just listen or read along and hear the book read with expression and correct pronunciation. After sharing initial reactions to the book, we read the book page by page around the table (if it is short enough). Then we discuss questions I have prepared or comments the students want to make. At least that’s what usually happens.

Even though it is fall, I thought that summer travels would still be fresh on our minds and chose a book about visiting relatives. This week’s book selection was a 1986 Caldecott Honor book, “The Relatives Came,” written by Cynthia Rylant; illustrated by Stephen Gammell.

Before reading the book, I gave the students a little background information about the author and illustrator to set the stage, including this quote from CliffsNotes: “Rylant’s grandparents’ four-room house was on a dirt road away from the main highway. They had no running water or electricity. The house was often shared with cousins, aunts, and uncles. Rylant’s grandparents grew and hunted most of the food they ate. Because the family had no car, Rylant never traveled very far from home.”

Students initially responded by sharing similar memories of family visits. Most looked back fondly on these occasions, but a couple had less than fond feelings about their experience visiting relatives when they were children.

One student paid particular attention to the illustrations and pointed out some things that we hadn’t noticed. Her favorite was the one that included a boy getting a haircut. I had not noticed the unhappy boy walking away who had already been in the barber’s chair. This was particularly funny to me because my husband’s grandfather was a barber and my husband and his brother and their boy cousins always got a haircut when they went to his house – whether they wanted one or not!

As we read around the table for our second time through the book, we stopped to discuss vocabulary and questions about meaning. These included:
station wagon
why did their station wagon smell like a real car?
ice chest
bologna
all the uses of “up” – up from Virginia, ate up, traveled up …
wrinkled
after a big supper two or three times around until we all got a turn at the table
in twos and threes
particular
tend the garden

One student had read the book ahead of time and said that the first time through, he thought it was just an easy story and wasn’t very impressed. He read it a second time and paid more attention to the illustrations. By his third reading, he decided that it is a very good book.

The author writes this story with no proper names, no specified family relationships, and no dialog. It is the perfect vehicle for each of us to enter the story with our own memories, our own family names and relationships. We can recall the words and hugs we have experienced. And maybe even remember the smell of the station wagon as we traveled to visit relatives.

We gave “The Relatives Came” a thumbs up.

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I brought a short list of questions for discussion and, since we had not been over any useful vocabulary for discussing books in over a year, I added a few of those too.

Discussion questions:

* Does the story remind you of an experience in your life?
* This book was recognized as a Caldecott Honor Book. This award is for books that combine excellent illustration with a story. How do the pictures help to tell the story?
* What is your opinion of the author’s writing style – no names, no dialog?
* Is this a book you would read to your child or grandchild? Why or why not?

Vocabulary for talking about books:

Author – a person who writes books, stories, or articles.
Illustrate – to explain or decorate a story or book with pictures
Illustrator – a person who adds pictures to explain or decorate a book or story
Fiction – written stories that are about people and events that are not real
Non-Fiction – writing that is about facts or real events
Characters – the people in a book or story
Setting – the time and place in which a story takes place. The setting can also include the mood and social environment.

 

Kid’s Lit Book Club for Adult ESL Students

Not family history, but it’s my life…

I’ve been a volunteer English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher for about 10 years at the church I attend. Our students are adults and come from all over the world, which is perfect for me because my only language is English! I love children’s books and believe that they can be a great vehicle for increasing vocabulary, improving fluency, increasing cultural literacy, and prompting discussion. You have to choose well, but there are so many good books to choose from! Others have written about the value of using children’s literature in the adult ESL classroom, so I’ll just say, “I agree!”

My first experience using children’s literature in an adult ESL class was several years ago. I knew that teaching fairy tales and folk tales is valuable because of all the cultural references that come from such stories – cry wolf, not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin, juusst right!, and so on. These are lost on our students unless they know the story behind the words. Here’s a scary example …

 

One summer our lead teacher left the rest of us in charge, so I used the opportunity to try out some lessons using these old stories for children. I included The Three Little Pigs, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, and Little Red Riding Hood.

FullSizeRender (31)Then I got a little braver and tried a contemporary book. The book I chose was “Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch. I chose it for several reasons. It is a sweet story that is relatable cross-culturally. There are patterns of speech and repetition and rhythm that just scream “I can help with fluency!” Although there is a sadness to the story, there is also humor. The vocabulary is accessible to a range of students. But I worried that the men especially might not like it or might think it a silly book for us to read. I hoped for the best.

I need not have worried. One of the men, a young pediatrician/anesthesiologist from Iraq, said, “This is one of the best books I have ever read!” Success!

Years passed. Then an article on my Facebook feed gave me the inspiration to start a book club: 7 Children’s Books Every Adult Should Read

I started the Book Club a year ago in April and followed book suggestions from the article linked above. Our first book was “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” We still haven’t read all seven books on this list, but we have read a good many more than seven.

Book Club meets for one hour once a week after our regular two-hour class. The largest attendance has been about 15; we usually have eight-ten participants. We are comfortable sitting around a large table, which facilitates discussion and also the sharing of books. We never have a book for everyone. I encourage students to get a library card and I try to pick books that are available at the library. It works well enough if there is a book for every three students to share. Sometimes I can find a pdf online, post the link, and bring my iPad for students to use along with their phones and tablets – but often the illustrations are missing or incomplete and page breaks don’t always match up.

A typical Book Club goes like this:
* I provide a little background information about the book/author
* I read the book aloud to students, showing illustrations if needed
* I solicit initial reactions
* If the book is short enough, we read the book again, going around the table with each student reading a page
* I have discussion questions prepared, but if students are ready with questions or comments of their own, I let them go for it.

I don’t have a set criteria for selecting books, but I do have some general parameters. I have often selected books I own and enjoyed sharing with my children when they were young. Many of these books were popular/published during the 1980s-90s.

I choose books that can be read at least one time through with plenty of time left for discussion within our one hour time frame. I sometimes time myself reading the book aloud to determine if it is doable. When students read the book around the table, it always takes longer than when I read it to them, so I weigh the importance of a second reading. Sometimes I suggest that students just listen to me read and not read along to see how much of the story they get just by listening. I also want them to hear the rhythm of English, the intonation, and the permission to be silly, if called for. A book read to children requires that you read with emotion – and sometimes voices! – not the rote same-tone style often used by those learning a language.

FullSizeRender (32)Many of the books I select are Caldecott books; some books are classics – maybe not award-winning, but so much a part of the culture that they have a significance beyond accolades. Sometimes I select by theme, season, or author.

I am always delighted by the conversations the books provoke and am often blown away by the observations and insights offered by the students. So often they see something in the illustrations that I totally missed, or understand the story from a different perspective. I can honestly say that we learn together. And I love it when they understand the humor in a story!

Added benefits for me:
* I do a little research about the books and authors in preparation and I have learned many things that I did not know before.
* I’ve discovered some wonderful books that I did not know.
* When I felt comfortable starting the Book Club, it was a true indication that my chemo brain was improving. I was finally able to plan an activity and choose books to read! This was a really big deal for me and motivated me to continue.

ESL Book Club Reading List:

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day – by Judith Viorst

Where the Wild Things Are – by Maurice Sendak
In the Night Kitchen – by Maurice Sendak

The Paper Bag Princess – by Robert Munsch

Love You Forever – by Robert Munsch

From Far Away – by Robert Munsch

Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears – by Verna Aardema

Legend of the Bluebonnet – by Tomie de Paola

The Little Engine That Could – by Watty Piper

Charlotte’s Web – by E. B. White (This was a several week book study)

When I Was Young in the Mountains – by Cynthia Rylant

Grandfather’s Journey – by Allen Say

Meanwhile Back at the Ranch – by Trinka Hakes Noble

Miss Nelson is Missing – by Harry Allard

The Cat in the Hat – by Dr. Seuss

The Sneetches – by Dr. Seuss

Horton Hears a Who – by Dr. Seuss

A Visit form St. Nicholas

The Polar Express – by Chris Van Allsburg

The Story of Ferdinand the Bull – by Munro Leaf

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O – by Shel Silverstein

The Giving Tree – by Shel Silverstein

The Snowy Day – by Ezra Jack Keats

The People could Fly: The Picture Book – by Virginia Hamilton

Tar Beach – by Faith Ringgold

The Legend of The Indian Paintbrush – by Tomie de Paola

Miss Rumphius – by Barbara Cooney

A Chair for my Mother – by Vera B. Williams

Peter’s Chair by Ezra Jack Keats

The Gardener – by Sarah Stewart

The Lorax – by Dr. Seuss

Last Stop on Market Street – by Matt de la Pena

The Keeping Quilt – by Patricia Polacco

Fiona’s Lace – by Patricia Polacco

Thank You, Mr. Falker – by Patricia Polacco

Chicken Sunday – by Patricia Polacco

Amelia Bedelia – by Peggy Parish

The Tree that would not Die – by Ellen Levine

The Relatives Came – by Cynthia Rylant

The Ox-Cart Man – by Donald Hall; illustrated by Barbara Cooney

Thunder Cake – by Patricia Polacco