Sunday, January 27, 2008

No easy answers

Nearly 10% of people in our county (Franklin) speak a language other than English at home. We have an estimated 45,000 Somali refugees along with refugees from many other countries. Add to that the number of immigrants who are of Limited English Proficiency (LEP) and it's a huge challenge for public services. 

But let's look just at refugee services right now. When a refugee comes, he (or she) gets at least eight months of cash benefits, along with whatever the resettlement agency has provided. Cash benefits are usually barely enough to pay rent on an apartment in a terrible neighborhood -- and then what about food, clothes, transportation, medicine ... and English lessons? 

If the refugee is part of a family, there are three years of cash benefits. But for a single person -- eight months. 

Eight months to adjust to a new world and begin building a new life. 
Eight months to try to put the mental, physical and emotional trauma of the past behind one and move toward the future. 
Eight months to learn the language and culture (and sometimes the literacy) skills needed to get a job that barely covers more than rent and some food. 

I don't pretend to know the answer. I just see people who have been brought here by the government and then lost in a system they can't comprehend. It doesn't seem like a good way to help fix broken people. 

Saturday, January 26, 2008

My Somali name

When I was first taking Spanish, we were all given Spanish names, presumably to help us feel more in tune with the language.  (Teachers had a terrible time figuring what to do with my name, because because the time they got to me in the class, Teresa -- which is the closest in sound to Tara -- was already taken by an actual Teresa or Theresa. So I ended up with Donita, Luisa and probably a couple of others I've forgotten over the years.) 

Well, now I'm trying to learn Somali, but I didn't even think about a Somali name for myself (after all, I'm not in junior high anymore) until I learned the name of the daughter of a co-worker. The daughter's name is Beydan. It's an old (pre-Islamic) Somali name meaning 'lioness'. (The male counterpart is Burale.)

When I told my mother about it, she said that if she'd known about that name when I was born, it would have been my name -- and that would have been perfectly OK with me. 

It fits me in so many ways. I very much identify with cats of many kinds, and I will gladly fight to protect my loved ones. 
     So, whenever I go through my Somali lessons -- and probably at a number of other times -- I will think of myself as Beydan, and I will picture the ancient and beautiful Somali lioness of that name.

Goose fur

Almost 10 years ago, as I was grading papers from my ESL 097 class, I found myself writing something out of the ordinary on a student's paper. In fact, it was so out of the ordinary that I have remembered it much more clearly than I remember most of the corrections and comments I've scribbled on students' papers over the past several years. 

The assignment was to write a review and commentary on a newspaper article. (I handed out the articles, so I had some measure of control over the content.) The article that "Nguyen" had received was about the hunting of geese. 

His commentary included something to the effect of the following:  "If it is for meat, it is OK. But I do not believe people should hunt geese just for their fur and feathers."

The oddness didn't really hit me until my red pen was almost done writing this sentence: "Geese don't have fur." 

We teach so very much in ESL classes, but at that time I didn't expect to have to include any aspect (however minimal) of bird biology. 

Now -- nearly 10 years later -- I know better. Lots and lots better.  ESL teachers teach much more than grammar, vocabulary and sentence structure. We teach the world about the world. And just how does one prepare to do that??

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Let's try that again

There are some days when one gets to work and realizes it would have been much wiser to have stayed home. This past week was five of those days in a row. 

Friday morning was the kicker, though -- and only a few people can truly understand why this has thrown me for a loop. (I'm normally a fairly stable person, all things considered.) 

Our Basic English (Basic ESL) program has five levels of courses. Over the past seven years, I've been truly happy with only one textbook -- the one we chose for Basic English 3. It wasn't perfect, but it was so much better than anything else any of us had found. The students loved it. The teachers loved it. It was affordable. 

It had useful vocabulary, clear and simple grammar explanations and no confusing frou-frou (lots of little unrelated pictures and tiny readings in very small print). The design was clean and well spaced. The only drawback was that the readings in the back were too high a level for the students. We supplemented the book with a reader. Problem solved. 

And I knew in my heart of hearts that the day would come when our campus bookstore would inform me that the publisher would no longer print the book. 

That day was this past Friday. The news came in the first e-mail I read in the morning, before I'd even had my coffee. The book is gone. There will be no new edition. 

So it is with great sadness that I say goodbye to Write and Read, Level DA, by John Dawkins, and begin the search for a replacement text. 

One of those days ... all week long

What I do

For the past eight years, I have been the coordinator of noncredit ESL (English as a Second Language) programming at a large midwestern community college. I've always said that someday I'd write a book. Well, now it's a blog -- but at least I'm starting the writing process, bit by bit. I hope this blog will give any reader who happens by at least some small glimpse into the lives of those of us who teach ESL and work with refugees and immigrants. If it doesn't, well -- if nothing else, I've enjoyed the writing process.

NOTE: Any names used here (except my own) have been changed. 

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A new beginning

And so it begins ...