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How I Wish I Was Taught to Write

How I Wish I Was Taught to Write

by Thanh Bui
A teacher draws on her experience as an ESOL learner to craft a writing curriculum for beginning ESOL students that meets their academic and social needs

You ask me how I learned to write when I first came to this country. I didn't learn very well. After one year of English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) in Shreveport, LA, I had to take English 101. My first composition came back red from all the corrections the teacher had marked. The second one came back unmarked, with just one word on it: "Awkward." I didn't know what awkward meant, so I decided to become a plant in my class so as not to attract too much attention. I also gave up my confidence in writing, something I thought I had done very well before coming to this country as a refugee of war.

During my years of teaching beginning ESOL, I incessantly asked myself how I learned to write. Please don't think that I'm boasting here. The truth is I still don't think I can write. As a teacher, I stay focused on the basics. I divide my school year into roughly ten thematic writing projects. Here are some examples from my writing curriculum.

September is the time for "My name is," "I am from," or "I was born in." During this month, we do drills on everything from the colors (of hair, skin, eyes, clothes) to the American measurement system, using pounds and ounces to reveal sometimes not so desirable information like our weight. The second week, we start our first journal writing assignment using the parallel writing approach. I write and say aloud each word on the board; the students follow the movement of my hand. Many of my students haven't had much formal education in their own languages, so I try to write only when they can see the actual action of writing, be it on the board or on paper. This gets them accustomed to what writing looks like.

We start with a topic such as "The most special person in my family is my mother." The following day, the topic changes to "The most special special person in my family is… because he/she is very good to me." The students replace my words with their own. They learn to write a few words of their own every day, and feel a great sense of achievement. I've learned that it's easier for students to write about matters of the heart than about the economy of a country. Also, when my students write about a subject they know, it gives them a sense of worthiness, a balance to the sense of having no family, no money, and no future. I also make sure that the language I use is simple enough so that most of them can understand it without having to translate, and that is a boost to their confidence. I have them continue to write about the same person, and they begin to anticipate: at school every day they will write more about that special person so dear to their hearts. On Friday, we look back at our week's writing, compile the sentences, and add "I like/love him because… ." Unbeknownst to them, my students have just written an essay.

October is the time of changes: in personal development, in the surroundings. For most of the students, it's an exciting month. Leaves change their colors. The temperature drops. They find themselves wearing big, thick jackets, and are tickled with the idea that they are new people, "Americanized." Our topics this month are differences, descriptive language, and simile. We study about different shades of colors, different weathers, and different feelings. We learn comparative words. I bring in various leaves, give each student one, have them examine their leaves, and write on the board "My leaf is... ." The students describe their leaves in the simplest way, using shapes, colors, and textures. Over the course of the week, we expand our leaf activity into simile with, for example, "My leaf is round like a ..., and it's green like a ... ." Towards the end of the month, we make a trip to the Old Dutch Church, just two blocks away, to learn about Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow. After the trip, we brainstorm about what we've learned, using the mind webbing technique. I draw on the board a circle with the title in it, and a few rays around it. I ask some students to volunteer to come up to write their words about the story. I make sure not to draw too many rays so as not to intimidate them, because this is often the first time they are writing on the board, and it can be either a chance to get greatly humiliated in public, or a chance to be proud. Most times, the rest of the class volunteers to add more rays and words to the circle. Then we sequence the words, and the students dictate the story to me to write on the board, using their vocabulary words. At the end, the more advanced students copy this and type it up. We put all the students' names at the bottom of our story, and I show them how to initial their names. To some students, initialing is a godly action, similar to signing their names. I explain that in this country, once established, they will encounter initialing as a way to identify themselves.

For a Halloween activity, I bring in a small pumpkin for each student to carve. Year after year, they never fail to show amazement as well as excitement at taking part in this American custom. I have had a few cases where the students do not want to cut up the pumpkins for fear of wasting such good food. For a writing activity, I ask the students to describe their pumpkins, then to state what or who they think their pumpkins look like. This leads us into the simple form of metaphor that we learn along with simile. I help the students type up their work, paste it on their pumpkins, and display them in the hallway. To prevent apprehension, I make sure that the students know that their work is perfect because they are exposing themselves to the larger public this time.

November is the month of self-examination. We learn about thankfulness. Our topics are about the things and people for which we are grateful. I provide the beginning of a sentence: "The thing I appreciate most in life is....," and ask the students to include in their writing the five W's (who, what, when, where, why) and the H (how). Starting the second week, I introduce them to the story of Thanksgiving. We discuss the vocabulary, the history, the culture, and the people. Then I give them a thought-provoking question to write about each day. For example, "How would you feel if you were a mother with sick children on the Mayflower?" Or "What would you do if you were a Native American gathering wood and found white men setting up camp near your home?" We talk about our reactions to different circumstances. The following week, I put all the topics on the board and we categorize them according to time sequences. As you can see, I insert writing techniques such as categorizing or sequencing without making it into a separate lesson, which could reduce a learning experience to the most confusing time for beginning ESOL students.

I ask the students to volunteer to act out a scene for each topic, and I record what they say and type it into a script. Again, unknowingly, my students are writing their first play, which they will act in. We take turns acting every day until everyone feels comfortable and natural. Then I propose that we use this as our class presentation for the school's Thanksgiving celebration. Their first reaction is often negative, but their pride has always won. And by the last Thursday of November, I'm the proudest teacher on earth.

December is the make it or break it month for most students. Either their enthusiasm, or their allocated budgets, or their visas, or everything is running out. Then there is also the sense of bewilderment. They feel cold, sad, and without futures. To build self-confidence, we teach each other. Topics are invariably about how to do something they know well, for instance, cook a family recipe. We learn about conversion from metric to US measuring systems, about kitchen verbs, and American kitchen appliances. Then we collectively write a recipe book, grouping together students of the same country as much as possible. The students, through this activity, always realize that they are much alike.

Other Activities
We continue to write in this fashion, through thought- and feeling-provoking questions, throughout the year. Here are some other activities I do with my beginning ESOL class.

At the beginning of the year, to introduce the students to the alphabet and also to break the ice, I group students in fours or fives. I give each group an adjective that they've learned that week, and ask them to use body language to write it. The words should be short enough so not to discourage them from getting up and forming them with their bodies.

After the lesson on past tense, I bring in animal-shaped Beanie Babies. Each student picks a Beanie, and writes about that animal "In my former life I was a... and I lived in... ."
To practice the conditional, "If I am..., I will...," each student retells a folktale from his or her country. Then they convert it into a modern version. They end their writing with advice to their characters, again using the conditional tense "If I meet him, I will tell him... ."

On a snowy day, I bring in a bucketful of snow, have the students touch it, feel it, and then we write a cinquain about it. Cinquain, a five-line stanza, is a form of poetry that I find easily applicable to beginning ESOL writing. Step by step, I ask them to give one noun to name the object, two adjectives to describe it, three progressive verbs to state what it does, four words in a sentence to say what they think about it, and one new word to name the subject again.

On Earth Day in April, we listen to Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." I provide the lyrics with blanks for them to fill in. Blanked out words are colors, present tense verbs, or nouns, depending upon what I want to emphasize. Then we sing along with Louis.

To develop a vocabulary of feelings, I play the silent French film The Red Balloon, and have the students write down five feelings the main character must have felt, and five feelings they felt for the character. The assignment is "Have you ever felt that way and why?" I consciously slip in more advanced use of grammar and vocabulary without much fanfare so that the students don't get worried.

To do creative writing, I draw a red dot on the board and ask the students to write about it. I repeat this exercise a few times a year to measure their language growth. A beginning writer writes something like "I see a red dot." Later she might write, "I see a red sunset." A more skilled writer might write "it's a sunset over the horizon." I sometimes use meditative writing with my students. I have the students sit with their eyes closed and ask them to count their breaths while I read them a short story. Then I ask them to write one part that touched them most and to state what sensation they experienced. Lots of times, the students feel very funny in the beginning of the activity, but after a few minutes, they are really drawn into the meditation mood with its relaxing sensation.

Final Thoughts
The sole wish I have is to see my students pick up a piece of paper and a pencil to write unafraid. I forbid myself to let the three "y's" — philosophy, accuracy, and policy — interfere with my teaching. I ignore the philosophy that writing means the students will produce an acceptable essay-like composition. I leave that to my advanced ESOL colleagues. I also ignore the rules of accuracy. I try not to correct their work; rather, I show them my interest in their writing and in what they have to say. For I know that if I focus on mechanics, I will reduce them to just the capital letter at the beginning of the sentence and the period at the end. Lastly (and discreetly), I pretend to forget the curriculum policy. How can I apply the Department of Labor's Scan Skills with my students where they don't even have enough basic skills to survive? All I want is to help them develop a sense of self worth and pride about being in this country. All I want is for writing to become an enjoyment that they can do while struggling against sadness, loneliness, homesickness, and, at times, despair.

Toward the end of the year, I recognize lots of change in my students. They tackle critical or analytical topics, in their own limited English. I can see that they have grown, and that this growth has taken root in their unconscious.

I think that if my students learn with me, it's not because I can teach any better than other teachers, but because they feel that I can relate to them and understand their difficulties. I understand the fear of revealing one's ignorance. In June, my students have gained enough confidence to go out and get a job. They may be dishwashers, seamstresses, housekeepers, or gardeners. The jobs don't require Scans Skills as much as they demand a lot of understanding about oneself and the work environment. And I imagine that from time to time, during break, my students pick up paper and pencil to write cinquains about...their bosses.

About the Author
Thanh Bui is short for Bui Thi Nguyet Thanh. Born in Vietnam, she came to the United States in 1975 as a refugee at the age of 19. Her first job in ESOL was as an after-school big sister, helping Southeast Asian high school kids with homework. She was one of the first ESOL teachers for the Caddo Parish School Board in Shreveport, LA, and helped developed the program's curriculum. She has taught English for the Berlitz School in Lausanne, Switzerland, and started the Berlitz for Kids Program in Europe. She has been teaching mainly lower ESOL levels with Southern Westchester BOCES, New York, since 1990.