Thursday, June 28, 2012

Yes, I can!

One day in ESL 097, we were working on short answers with “Yes, I can” and “No, I can't”. I was going from student to student, asking questions that began with “Can you ...?” to elicit the appropriate answer: “Can you sew a button on a shirt?” “Can you change a tire?”, and so forth.

Now, in this class I had a Russian couple – a husband and wife from the former Soviet Union. They were living with their children and grandchildren here. They had both been doctors in the USSR, but were unable to practice here because of the language and because of the many difficulties in relicensure in health care for those from other countries. She didn't work; he swept up in a barber shop.

I asked Antonina her question, and she answered. Vladimir's question was, “Can you make a paper airplane?” “Yes, I can,” he replied.

I moved on to the next student, who pre-empted me with, “Can YOU make a paper airplane?”
“Yes, I can,” I said, and opened my mouth to ask him his question.

With an impish grin, he said, “Prove it!”

So I marched up to the front of the classroom, and Vladimir and I were off making our paper airplanes. We finished about the same time, and Vladimir launched his first. It had a high start, and then plopped nose first onto the floor.

Mine flew smoothly straight down the aisle, nearly to the end of the classroom, where it made a slight right turn and landed neatly.

In the middle of the ensuing applause, Antonina crowed gleefully, “Amyerican beats Russian!”

Of course, I did have a bit of an advantage in that contest. I learned my paper-airplane-making skills from my father, who had been a quality control inspector for Rockwell International, and before that, North American and Curtiss Wright. Daddy knew a bit about airplanes.

Monday, June 25, 2012


One of the memorable students while I was teaching Spanish was Timmy.

Well, Timmy wasn't his real name, but from the first day of class, that's how I thought of him, because he made me think of an older version of the little boy in the old Lassie TV series.

This was back in the mid-1990s, when the grunge movement was taking its toll on the American appearance, yet Timmy came to class every day smiling and clean-looking, with neatly trimmed red hair and, to top it all off, a sprinkling of freckles. He even sat up straight. The plaid shirts and jeans only added to his charm, as well as to his resemblance to the 1960s TV character.

(A little background for those of you who don't remember the show: Lassie was a beautiful and very smart collie owned by a little boy named Timmy, who lived with his mother and grandfather on a farm. In many episodes, Timmy got into some sort of scrape, and had to send Lassie for help. Lassie would run off to Mom or Grandpa or whoever was needed, and bark, tug at clothes, etc., until the person would say something to the effect of, “What is it, Lassie? Do you want me to follow you? Is Timmy in trouble?” I don't know if the line was ever actually used in the series, but at some point the line, “What is it, Lassie? Did Timmy fall down a well?” became well known among my generation.)

I managed not to ever call him Timmy out loud, although there were a few near misses. This is one of the dangers of allowing oneself to have mental nicknames for one's students.

And then one day Timmy was absent. The next morning he came up to my desk and said, “Ma'am, I'm sorry I was absent yesterday. I --” Before he could continue, my mind finished his sentence with, “-- fell down a well.”

It's hard to turn an unstoppable laugh into a creditable cough, but I think I managed pretty well. After a moment to regain my composure, I listened to the actual excuse, which had to do with setting his alarm wrong after a power outage.

As if this weren't sufficient proof of my teacherly restraint, the Universe gave me a further test when this student's real-life identical twin brother was in my class. At least this one wore sweatshirts and slouched.

Friday, June 8, 2012


One of the topics that provides great fodder for class discussion and writing practice is that of superstitions. In order to avoid running into the question of superstition vs. religion, I limit the discussion to good luck, bad luck or predictions of the future. Some of the most fruitful areas of discussion are the superstitions around major life events, particularly weddings and babies. It's fascinating how many of them are common to very different cultures – and how often the same item will have very different meanings for different cultures.

For example, the notion that if your right foot itches, you will travel or go to a new place was common among Irish, Middle Easterners and Somalis. On the other hand, owls, which for Western Europeans signify wisdom, are a portent of death for many Asian and African cultures. Part of the reason I enjoy the topic so much is how much I've learned from the students.

And then there are the unexpected things...

One student wrote the following in an essay, showing a wonderful disregard for relating pronouns to their antecedents: “My culture, Somalia, has a lot of superstitions. Many of them are about babies. I don't know where they come from.” (But yet he had four children!)

I asked the class if their cultures assigned any meaning to the left or right palm itching. Several students from various parts of the world had the same meaning I had learned in my Scots-Irish upbringing: that if the right palm itched, one would be receiving money, and if the left palm itched, one would be spending or losing money. One student looked very thoughtful and said, “When my palms itch, it means I have dry skin.”

Too much

ESL students frequently have trouble learning about the correct use of "too" as a modifier, using it as a stronger form of "very". This error leads to comments such as the following, which came from a student evaluation:
"I think everything was right for this course. And the teacher was too good for us."
(At least, I hope it was the usual error and not a self-esteem issue.)

But who is she?

From a student paragraph about "an important person in your life":
"A person I have known well since I born. She is very nice perso. She is the best cooker in the wrold. I have so many memoris with her. She is the most beautyful in the Univers. That is the person that I have known well."

Using new idioms

Using new idioms can be a little challenging for ESL students, as in the following examples from a student essay about the actor Will Smith:
"For me he is the jack all knives of show business."
"I apreciate him too because he is from the back side on the track..."