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

What’s next???

The “10 Books” List

Mom reading to Matt and Tina - and Ginger

Mom reading to Matt and Tina – and Ginger

There has been a game of tag being played on Facebook recently. The rules are to list ten books that have had an impact on your life, then tag ten more people to do the same. When I was tagged, my first thought was, “Oh no! If I do this, everyone will know just how little I read!” And, reading the lists of some of my friends, I did feel a bit stupid and ignorant.

I was a reader as a kid. I loved biographies and mysteries and books about horses. Mom would scold me when I tried to read at the dinner table because I didn’t want to put my book down long enough to eat. So what happened?

College.

It seems like college ruined my ability to read for pure enjoyment and entertainment. There was so much assigned reading that I couldn’t find time to read for pleasure. And nearly everything I read was a textbook or non-fiction with the purpose of teaching me something. By the time I got out of college and graduate school, I was seven years removed from popular fiction. I didn’t know what authors I liked to read any more. And there was always a feeling that I should be reading to “learn” something. Sigh.

After a few years, I finally started reading some fiction again and found authors I enjoyed: E. L. Doctorow, John Updike, John Irving, Anne Tyler .. to name a few. And then another reading killer came along – kids! I just didn’t possess whatever it is that true readers have to keep it going once we had kids. I did enjoy lots of children’s literature, though, and once they were old enough for chapter books, I got to revisit my old favorites and read wonderful books that I had missed as a child. I had never read The Boxcar Children series, or Anne of Green Gables, or books by Roald Dahl. How had they escaped me?

These days I actually spend a lot of time reading – but not always books. Every day I read the newspaper and numerous blogs that I follow. Unfortunately, I have not been reading my favorite family history blogs – but I intend to correct that. I’m getting depressed and stressed reading so many current event and opinion pieces. One day I counted the tabs I had opened on my computer of links on my Facebook feed that looked interesting. 22! So, yes, I do read …. but not what the game required.

So I tackled my list of 10 books that had an impact on my life with some reservations and fear of embarrassment. I decided to start at the very beginning (a very good place to start – please, sing along) and proceed through time. Admittedly, I didn’t spend days thinking it through, so my list might be different had I given it more thought. Here is my list of books and why I chose them.

“10 books that have shaped me, changed my perspective, or moved me. Tag 10 friends and me so I can see your list.”

book cover.little engine that could1. The Little Engine That Could – I mentioned this book in a previous post about a few of my childhood books. Undoubtedly, several generations of American children have been influenced from a very early age by its message of success through optimism and effort. If you think you can, you can! And, looking back, I don’t think it was lost on me that the Little Blue Engine that could was female. She may have been small and lacked experience, but she had compassion, optimism, the will to try, and the strength to succeed. Hurray! Hurray!

Brownie Handbook2. The Brownie Handbook – This book, in and of itself, did not have a great impact on my life. But it represents the other Girl Scout books that followed and the many years I spent as a Girl Scout and a Girl Scout leader. In that sense, it had a tremendous influence on my life. One of the truths of my life is that Girl Scouts made my life tolerable and fabulous as a child who moved every few years. As a new kid in a new school in a new town, joining a Girl Scout troop was the first line in making friends. And being empowered as a girl. And singing and playing games and spending time (and testing myself) in nature and serving the community and making decisions. And, as an adult, I enjoyed nearly thirteen years as a Girl Scout leader, taking a group of girls from Kindergarten through graduation from high school. And those wonderful girls are now amazing women whom I treasure.

3. The Nancy Drew series – ah, well. Another smart girl! Enough said? Nancy and Bess and I spent many many many many hours together!

Christy4. Christy by Catherine Marshall – This is the first – and perhaps only – book that I can link with a very specific outcome in my life. As I approached graduation from high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do in life. People often told me I should be a teacher or a nurse. (What else was there to be in the late 1960s – early 1970s?)  But I knew that these professions were not for me. Teacher? I knew I didn’t have the skills or where with all to deal with a room full of kids and handle discipline. Nurse? Are you kidding me? I can’t stand the sight of blood.

Reading Christy, I felt that I had found my calling. But I didn’t know the name for it. I wanted to help people who were disadvantaged in some way access a better life – as Christy had done when she went to Appalachia to teach. It wasn’t until I started reading college catalogs that I found the name for what I wanted to do – Social Work. I studied Social Work in college and graduate school and worked as a social worker for about ten years – until I decided to leave the world of the employed when I had children.

5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – This one is on everyone’s list. I don’t think it needs any explanation. And, besides, I was beginning to grasp at straws in making my list. Were I making the list today, I might make a substitution here.

DSCN34956. Native Son by Richard Wright – I wasn’t sure if this was the right book, so it stood in for whatever book led me to read book after book about living “black” in America. Maybe it started with To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe it was The Learning Tree.

Maybe it was Five Smooth Stones – a book I saw on someone else’s list after I posted mine and then remembered how I loved that book; how it stayed with me for years after I read it. I remember trying to find my copy years ago and looking at the library and book store, but it was out of print. I hardly remember the story all these years later. Would it have the same impact today? I don’t know, but I just purchased a copy on Amazon last week and one of these days I’ll get around to reading it and find out.

7. The Color Purple by Alice Walker – Kind of continuing the theme above, only several years later. Very powerful and moving. I love the conversation between Shug and Celie about God.

8. The Bible – I decided my list would not be complete if I didn’t include the Bible. What other book do I return to again and again and have memorized passages from and find new insights in rereading?

DSCN34969. Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott – I thought this was my introduction to Anne Lamott and that’s one reason why I included it on my list. I was wrong. I read Blue Shoes first. I’d still include Traveling Mercies, though, because I really fell in love with Anne in the pages of this book. I’ve gone back to read the chapter on forgiveness more than once. It is hilarious and so true. That’s what I love about her. She is hilarious. And serious. And spiritual. She says what she really thinks and feels – and so often you know those thoughts and feelings too. Her books make me wonder if messed-up-life Anne had walked into the church I attend, would she have been welcomed with abundant love and acceptance and nurture and grace as she was in the little Presbyterian church she attends in Marin City, California? I wonder because I would have not been the one to give those gifts to Anne and I sure hope someone in the pews around me is a better Christian than I am!

10. Cane River by Lalita Tademy – I loved this book and need to read it again. Lalita Tademy put skin and bones and emotion and history and connection and faces on the ancestors whose history she researched. It is so well-written I couldn’t put it down. And the family historian in me was overjoyed that she included documents and pictures from her research. Historical fiction at its best, it begins with the birthday of nine-year-old Suzette, a house slave in Cane River, Louisiana.

I heard about this book from my sister because it takes place in Louisiana, where most of my family now lives. In fact, we were in town to visit my parents one summer and decided to stay in a hotel because we were “all” in town. I noticed a group of people in the parking lot wearing matching t-shirts. Later, we were getting on the elevator and some of them were exiting. It wasn’t until the elevator door closed, that I realized their shirts said, “Tademy Family Reunion.” I was so excited, but it was too late to catch them. Of course, they only wore the matching shirts one day, so I missed my chance to ask, “Are you members of ‘The Cane River’ Tademy’s?”

So that’s my list. Other books I almost included but didn’t are:
Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish and Everyday Sacred: A Woman’s Journey Home – both by Sue Bender

The Harry Potter series – many many joyful hours and days spent sharing these books with my kids

The Work at Hand by Carol Flinders, an introduction to the cookbook Laurel’s Kitchen. I know … a cookbook? The introduction? Maybe I’ll reread it and write about it one of these days.

Tag! You’re it!  What ten books have shaped you, changed your perspective, or moved you?

The Power of Symbols

Kathy Strong Enough cropI have wanted to write something about the symbolic objects that have helped me through my cancer treatment. I’ve put it off for months, not knowing where to begin, if I really knew my own thoughts about it, or how to express in words the meaning these items have held for me. How to explain sleeping with a folded cloth under my pillow without sounding as though I believed this cloth, anointed with oil and prayed over by complete strangers, held some kind of magical power?

I recently read something in “The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have” by Mark Nepo. Here are excerpts from the entry for March 15 titled “The Power of Symbols”:

People have always saved scraps of their experience to help remind them of the forces of life that can’t always be seen. Filled with the timeless rhythm of the ocean, we pocket a shell and carry it thousands of miles to know that presence of ocean when we are far from the sea. It is why we treasure certain songs, why we save ticket stubs and dried out flowers.

Symbols are living mirrors of the deepest understanding that have no words….

We ask the smallest items of everyday life to carry unbearable meaning for us, and the dearest ones work like Aladdin’s lamp. All we have to do is rub them slowly, and feelings and times long gone come and live again, or basic truths hard to keep in view return.

As a boy, I remember visiting my grandfather’s house. He had a milk-white bowl filled with M&M’s. It was a simple magical treasure to me. No matter how often I reached on tiptoe, it never emptied. It has been thirty years since he died and now when depressed, I hold that milk-white bowl in my lap and eat a few M&M’s. 

And I feel better. This isn’t illusion or escapism, but rather using the milk-white bowl filled with M&M’s as a living symbol that can call into my moment of sadness a deeper sense of plenitude and generosity that is always there, but not always accessible.

This is the proper use of symbols, not to coldly represent ideas, but to call into being all that lives in us and about us. They help us bear witness to the painful mystery of living, and whether a crucifix, a small weeping Buddha, or a broken shell from a long-forgotten sea, they help us bear the days.

It is not that these items collected during my illness carry some magic that would heal me in the literal sense, but rather they reminded me of “the forces of life that can’t always be seen,” they were “living mirrors of the deepest understanding that have no words,” they helped me “bear the days,” they “called into my moment of sadness a deeper sense of plenitude and generosity” – and, I would add – gratitude, strength and encouragement.

Kathy Altar of Encouragement cropAs soon as people heard about my lymphoma diagnosis, I began to receive gifts. Flowers, plants, food, cards, a candle, an angel … these came first. And as these gifts grew in number, I decided to gather them together on a table that was in my direct line of vision from the couch where I spent many hours of the day. I call it my Altar of Encouragement. The Altar itself is one grand symbol of love and compassion and encouragement and humor – one I could see nearly every waking moment of every day. Every item holds meaning and represents a connection between the giver and me. But some – simply because of portability and ease of use, I think, spoke for the others….  They represented.

Some had to stay on the table at all times because my dogs wanted them – badly! See the frog on the table, for example. Fully Rely On God, his tag says. At least he made the trip to San Antonio with me. No dogs there!

Here are a select few of the gifts that helped/help me bear the days:

DSCN3351The cloth anointed with oil 
I received the cloth in the mail from my sister Kim. A friend of hers gave it to her to give to me. Members of the woman’s church had anointed it with oil and prayed over it. The cloth came with a Bible reference – Acts 19:11-12   And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.

Kim told me that this was the second such cloth given to her – the first given when our father had bypass surgery several years ago. At first I wasn’t sure what I would do with an oily dime store handkerchief, but I was touched by the kindness and concern of a group of complete strangers who had given this blessing to me.

When I started chemo, I packed the cloth in the bag of entertainment and comfort items to take with me to the infusion room. Sometimes I would take it out and hold it, or tuck it in my waistband. And many nights, I put it under my pillow as I slept, touching or fingering it during the night. I took it with me to San Antonio for my stem cell transplant and often kept it in the pocket of my pajamas. But why?

Well, this small, portable cloth helped me “bear the days” – and nights, symbolizing prayer and love and the gift of strangers who were now somehow connected to my personal struggle. And it represented all the other strangers who also pray for me and send hopes for healing my way. It comforted me, reminding me of the “forces of life that can’t always be seen.”

The cloth was washed with the sheets once and lost its oily feel – but its status as a powerful symbol did not wash away.

Kathy prayer shawlThe prayer shawl – The Knit Wits at FUMC make prayer shawls and I was a grateful recipient. I even know who made the one I received. :) I started feeling bad in the spring and started treatment in late summer and fall and it was really hot here. And one of the symptoms of my particular cancer is night sweats and just being kind of feverish off and on throughout the day. So I was always trying to stay cool rather than wrapping up in a lovely knitted shawl. But the prayer shawl shared much in common with the anointed cloth as a symbol and was always at the ready in the bag I took with me when I had chemo.

I knew there would be a day (or night) when I would need the shawl. I thought of it as taking out the “big guns”. Something would bring me down, or I would be full of anxiety, and there it would be to offer comfort and help me bear whatever was happening. And so it did. As the time for my stem cell transplant drew near, I became overwhelmed with sadness and worry. Besides anxiety about what was about to happen, my youngest daughter – who lived with us – would leave for college out of state just before I left for San Antonio. And she wouldn’t be here when I returned. One morning the thought of it was just too much and I curled up to cry on the couch and wrapped myself in the prayer shawl. And it comforted me. The shawl also made the trip to San Antonio with me and stayed on my bed in the hospital, ready for me to wrap myself in the prayers and love of my church family.

DSCN3354The bracelets – The first bracelet I received came from my sister Karla – pink and sold for a dollar as a fundraiser for breast cancer research. Karla bought one for me, for herself, and for our two sisters so that we could all wear them and remember to pray.

The second bracelet came from Karla and her son. They had attended a concert by Matthew West, who sings a song titled “Strong Enough”, and they were selling these bracelets at the concert. I’ve used the picture at the top of this post on my Facebook page for months.

The third bracelet was made by my sister Dawn, whom I have not seen for 50 years. We were brought together again through the magic of the internet. Dawn made me a green and white bracelet because green is the color for lymphoma (as pink is the color for breast cancer.)

I wore these three bracelets nearly every day. I loved looking down and seeing the words STRONG ENOUGH to remind me that I could get through whatever I faced each day. And I loved the symbolic connections to my sisters (and nephew) that all three represented.

Shoe shopping with Mary Faye

Shoe shopping with Mary Faye

The filibuster cancer shoes – On June 25, 2013, Wendy Davis, a Senator in the Texas legislature, held an eleven-hour-long filibuster to block Senate Bill 5. My personal politics were aligned with Senator Davis and I watched the live stream of her filibuster on the internet until it all came to a dramatic conclusion just after midnight. During the filibuster she was not allowed to eat or drink or go to the bathroom or lean on anything or anyone and everything she said had to be “on topic” (No, she could not read the dictionary or “The Cat in the Hat”). A couple of friends were also watching and we messaged back and forth as the rules of the Senate were so strictly applied to her and twisted in ways that they had never been before in the Texas Senate. It was both stunning and appalling.

But never mind the political or religious arguments involved…. On with the shoes.

Soon after the filibuster, a friend decided that she should take me shopping for shoes just like those worn by Senator Davis during the filibuster. I did need new shoes as mine were really worn and her shoes were the brand that I usually buy – just a different model. I tried them on and they fit perfectly.

Now keep in mind that I had not yet been diagnosed with cancer….

As I mulled over whether or not I should buy the shoes, I thought of what a great symbol they would be of strength and perseverance and being put to the test against great odds – should I ever have to face a difficult situation. And so I bought them.

And then, of course, I did have to face a difficult situation.

I couldn’t wear the shoes at the time of my diagnosis because my feet were so swollen. I couldn’t wear them to my first infusion of chemo drugs. But I lost 16 pounds of fluid in the week after that first treatment, so I wore my filibuster cancer shoes to my next chemo and the next and the next …

Chemo attire

Chemo attire

And I took them with me to San Antonio where I set up a mini Altar of Encouragement in my hospital room.
2014.02.06

Now that I am getting some strength back and the weather is wonderful, it is time for me to put my filibuster cancer shoes on and walk and walk and walk until I am strong again.

Thank you, Mark Nepo, for helping me share the power of these symbols.

And thank you, dear ones who have prayed for me and sent good thoughts to me and cards and gifts and every other expression of compassion and kindness and care!