ESL Book Club – Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day


It’s a new semester and I had no idea what book to share with the ESL Book Club. The easy solution was to do a repeat, so I went back to the very first book we read together – about a year and a half ago, I think. Only one student remains who had been in our first meeting. One other student said she had read this book before – in the “Inspiring Stories” class taught by another volunteer.

Continuing with the theme of doing the easiest thing, I also reused the “lesson plan” that I prepared for that first meeting of the book club.

When I first started the book club, I had no idea how many students to expect. We usually fill the space of three 6-foot tables pushed together into a square, 12-16 people. And we like to remain together – not separated into groups as I suggested in this original plan.

Since it was our first meeting this semester and there were a few new students, I went over my love for using children’s literature as a means for becoming more fluent in English and did my best to read the book with as much feeling and inflection as I could muster. Everyone seemed to enjoy the book after the first reading. Students discussed why Alexander wanted to go to Australia and we all laughed when one student joked that in Australia, maybe the book is written with Alexander wanting to go to the United States.

Several of the students who attend the “Inspiring Stories” class, where they practice and learn and discuss ways to develop and maintain positive attitudes, read the book as a lesson in why one should not focus on the negative.

For the second reading of the book, each student in turn read until they came to one of the repeated words/phrases: “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day,” or “Australia.” We paused with each change of reader to ask/answer questions. For example, no one knew what a  “Corvette Sting Ray car kit” or a “Junior Undercover Agent code ring” is.

Other words/phrases asked about were:
singing time
counting time
fool around with
lima beans
the pronunciation of soap vs. soup

I asked students to name the variety of emotions that Alexander experienced throughout his bad day. We did not use the OPD (Oxford Picture Dictionary) as suggested in the plan above, but a reference could be helpful.

Students either viewed the lesson of the book as the importance of a positive attitude or that everyone has a bad day now and then.

With quite a few books under our belt, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day held up as a suitable and enjoyable read for adult ESL students. They chose to read another “Alexander” book next week.

Another way to extend this book is to follow up with writing prompts. I suggested a few, but I haven’t seen any writing yet. 🙁
* a time when you had a bad day
* a time when you felt like no one listened to you
* how people can tell you are in a bad mood
* if you think this is a good book to share with a child
* why you think Alexander says he wants to go to Australia

A couple of our students who have regularly participated in Book Club have recently moved away. They plan to continue reading the books that we read and participating in some discussion through our Facebook group. I’m looking forward to seeing how that works out.

ESL Book Club – Who is your “Swimmy”?

It never ceases to amaze me how a simple little book written for children can offer so much food for thought – for adults.

1964 Caldecott Honor Book Swimmy, by Leo Lionni, did not disappoint our ESL Book Club. If you are not familiar with the book, I’ve included a video below.

As a Caldecott book, of course we loved the art! That was the first comment made after reading the book. We selected a few of our favorite illustrations:

“He saw a medusa made of rainbow jelly …”  


forest of seaweeds growing from sugar-candy rocks”

Our conversation turned to interpretations of the story. M connected the story to people in her home country standing up against the regime with the words, “Do not be afraid. We are together,” leading us into the theme that, for the weak, there is power and safety when we stand together.

A comment from R surprised all of us a little, I think: “This story is like the story of immigrants. Immigrants have to leave their home and live in a new place, sometimes escaping danger.”

This idea had not crossed my mind as I prepared for book club and when I said as much, several students said they had not made this connection either. But they quickly jumped in with shared experiences as immigrants and many saw themselves as those little red fish “hidden in the dark shade of rocks and weeds” who did not go out and experience their new country, choosing instead the safety of their home.

Y suggested that she was “lazy” in comparison to her friend because she does not get out and do more and expose herself to the bigger world outside her home. E assured her that she is not lazy, but that we progress in our own time. For an immigrant everything is new and it is not always possible to be brave in every new situation.

A shared that when she came to the US, she focussed on what she thought was most important – being independent and doing things on her own. She has learned to practice gratitude every day and now has a much more positive attitude.

We also considered the theme that life goes on after a loss or other bad situation. Although it seems like the author moved quickly to Swimmy’s recovery, we went back and looked at the illustrations. After all the fish in his school were eaten by the big fish, the next illustration is not colorful like the previous pages, but dull and nearly empty.

“He swam away in the deep wet world. He was scared, lonely and very sad.”

And then Swimmy begins to notice something beautiful or interesting on each subsequent page. We don’t know how long it took Swimmy to begin to heal, but by the time he reaches the school of red fish who are hiding, he is ready to engage the world: “to go and swim and play and SEE things!”

We also touched on:
* cooperation
* the power of nature to help us heal
* Swimmy taking his place as the eye – the one who sees for the others what is possible
* Swimmy is different in color and speed – sometimes our difference is our strength
* If we think about a problem and do the work, we can solve it.

We had so much to discuss that we never got around to the metaphors and descriptive language that make the story memorable.

One of the students reflected on our discussion by writing the following. My thanks to Ming-I for allowing me to share her words:

My Swimmy

‘Then, hidden in the dark shade of rocks and weeds, he saw a school of little fish, just like his own.
“Let’s go and swim and play and SEE things!” he said happily.
“We can’t,” said the little red fish. “The big fish will eat us all.”
“But you can’t just lie there,” said Swimmy. “We must THINK of something.” ’
——by Leo Lionni, Swimmy

These little red fish triggered the memories of my first two years in Austin. I spent most of the time at home. I only went to the UT apartments ESL classes or visited other housewives living at UT apartments by walking or shuttles. My world was so little, but I hesitated to leave my comfort zone.

Then I met a girl, J. She brought me to various ESL classes and hung out with me in a lot of places l had never been to. She showed me where to take the bus and how to make connection. We always met up on the bus and talked during our rides. She really expended my comfort zone in a friendly way. I appreciated it when I looked back.

I shared my story in the book club while we were discussing the picture book Swimmy. The leader of the book club, Kathy, spoke to me with a flicker of a smile, ”So J is your swimmy!”
“Yes, she is.” I said heartily.
“And she swims.” there is a flicker in Kathy’s eyes.

“I love swimming. I even swim in my dreams.” I recalled J’s own words.

“A happy school of little fish lived in a corner of the sea somewhere. They were all red. Only one of them was as black as a mussel shell. He swam faster than his brothers and sisters. His name was swimmy.”
——by Leo Lionni, Swimmy

As we walked out of the building together, S told Ming-I, “You are my Swimmy!”

I recommend sharing the book Swimmy with ESL students of all ages.

And consider for yourself who has been a Swimmy in your life.


And I’ll add the theme image for Sepia Saturday this week – Helsinki residents waiting for evacuation at the railway station. (1939)

Sepia Saturday Theme Image 416

Please pack your bags and take a journey to Sepia Saturday and see where others have gone.

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:

Instead of just saying the thunder was loud and bright:
shook the house
rattled the windows
slit the sky

Instead of using the verbs walk or run:

Other verbs of interest:
drew a deep breath
grab her close
spread out the tablecloth

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

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?