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 from 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

Fiona’s Lace – by Patricia Polacco

Thank You, Mr. Falker – by Patricia Polacco

Chicken Sunday – by Patricia Polacco

Amelia Bedelia – by Peggy Parish

The Tree that would not Die – by Ellen Levine

The Relatives Came – by Cynthia Rylant

The Ox-Cart Man – by Donald Hall; illustrated by Barbara Cooney

Thunder Cake – by Patricia Polacco

Mirette on the High Wire – by Emily Arnold McCully

The Trees of the Dancing Goats – by Patricia Polacco

The Blessing Cup – by Patricia Polacco

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale – by John Steptoe

Pink and Say – by Patricia Polacco

Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad – by Ellen Levine

Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – by Doreen Rappaport

Swimmy – by Leo Lionni

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss

Holes, by Louis Sachar (a several week study)

Alexander, Who Used to be Rich Last Sunday

Gorilla, by Anthony Browne

Little Beauty, by Anthony Browne


I Made it to ESL

I haven’t written anything for a while, so I’m going to cheat just to have something to post.

I have a site to keep family and friends informed about how I am doing. This, and other sites like it are so helpful because it becomes overwhelming and burdensome to keep your loved ones and friends updated.

So – I just decided to pretty much copy today’s journal entry to have something to add here. Here it is:

I’m feeling pretty good this week. 🙂

Last Friday I had achey bones, so I knew my Neulasta shot was working and those white blood cells would be on the rise. (I’ll find out for sure when I go for labs in the morning.)

1st time out in a scarf

1st time out in a scarf

Sunday I went to church for the first time in months. Our ESL (English as a Second Language) class was being recognized for our 10th anniversary and I really wanted to be there. A few students participated in the service and we watched a great video about our class and students. It was also my first time out of the house in a scarf. One of the things about losing your hair and going out in a scarf is that you are quickly identified as someone with cancer – so you do feel as though it draws attention to you. In some ways that is not all bad, I guess, because there were a couple of people who didn’t know who saw me and came up to offer their support.

I got quite a few hugs during the welcome, communion, and after the service. One of the ESL students – a woman who started attending during my absence from class so I had never met her before – was very concerned about me. She said that she was in my position (she had had cancer) two years ago and that it was okay for me to tell people not to touch me.

It was a beautiful morning and good to be with friends and students in church. Then my husband and daughter and I went out for lunch, so it was a good day all around.

I got up on Monday and thought that since I felt good, maybe I could try going to ESL. I wondered if I was being foolish since I had a low white cell count last week and I would be with so many people, but I decided to go anyway. My daughter works in child care for our ESL class, so I had a built-in ride. I made a big sign to wear around my neck that said “No Hugs” and decided I would offer to teach an advanced group of students because it is less taxing. With the lower groups I get up and down a lot to write on the board and it is a bit more difficult to teach at times.

By the time we were doing announcements and before I actually started teaching, I was struck by a big wave of feeling tired and weak and I wondered if I had made a mistake. It passed and all went fine. A couple of times while I was teaching I’d get a little wave of tiredness but they were short-lived. (It’s weirdly like hot flashes in the way it can come and go.) I had a wonderful time being with the students and teachers and especially teaching my group of students. This group in particular enjoys conversation and a good laugh, so I had a great time. Our lead teacher had already introduced the word “vulnerable” to the entire group during announcements to explain the sign around my neck. I started my little group by teaching the words “impulse” and “impulsive.” 🙂

One of the students sought me out during break to have her picture taken with me. I don’t know the circumstances of why she left her home country (Iraq), but my impression is that she cannot return. Her mother has had cancer for several years and now her sister has breast cancer. For some reason she thought a picture of us (me having come to class) would be uplifting or encouraging to her sister. I hope it was. I’ve included the kind of blurry picture – and also hope that’s ok as I haven’t asked her permission. I love how we match (we are both wearing black pants and red tops) and the juxtaposition of the Muslim woman in headwear, my cancer headwear, and the Christian crosses on the wall in the background.

Tomorrow morning I go for labs, so hoping everything is good. I think it will be.

There are several things on my mind to write about, but they need a bit more thought, so I’ll save them for later.

Oh – here’s a little thing. I read this and it made me think about how great my friends and family are because you/they have done so many of these things for me!…

Thanks for reading and keeping in touch and praying and all of the other things you all do for me!

Well – not a family history item or an entry for “The Book of Me”, but one of my stories anyway, I guess.


An Excuse, An English Lesson, and Memories Shared

It’s been a little quiet here recently.

One reason for the lack of posts is my volunteer job. I teach English as a Second (or Other) Language at my church twice a week. We have a fantastic lead teacher who prepares all the lessons, and all the rest of us have to do is show up and work through the lesson with a small group of students.

Well, our fantastic leader is on vacation and she left me in charge. She gave me some lessons from a couple years ago (she’s recycling) that I could use – but they “need some work,” she said. I knew that any changes I made would not improve her lessons, so I decided to write my own instead.

I am not a trained teacher – I just stumbled my way into this. Preparing a lesson takes me a lot of time. So I’ve been writing lessons rather than blog posts.

I think I’ve found a way to recycle a blog post into an English lesson and then recycle that lesson into a blog post. Lazy?  Or brilliant?

The Spit-Up Chair

If you are a regular reader here, you know that I have a few posts that I refer to as “Chair Memories.” I decided to use my cousin’s poem, “The Gold Recliner” as the starting point for yesterday’s ESL lesson. Then I took an excerpt from my memory of “The Spit-Up Chair” to expand on the idea of an object that evokes a memory.

I was concerned that the sadness of the poem could be upsetting to some of our students who have suffered losses. A few of our students are refugees from war-torn countries. Others have grieved the loss of loved ones, as we all do. And I didn’t want the morning to be depressing, so I tried to “soften” things a bit by adding discussion questions about memories elicited by music, or a smell – and whether or not one has a good or bad memory…. that kind of thing.

The last part of the lesson asked the students to write about an object that holds memories for them and to share the story with their group.

I am sorry to report that I made Mrs. Li cry.

As Mrs. Li, an older woman from China, told us about the china tea cup (a real Chinese china tea cup) given to her by her younger brother who has since died, tears began to roll down her cheeks. I wasn’t sure if she could finish, but she did.

A woman from Mexico, here in town to visit her grandson, told us that her grandson reminds her of her son when he was a baby and that her wedding ring brings back many happy memories surrounding her wedding.

A young woman from Korea read her story of a pair of white athletic shoes – a gift from her boyfriend (now husband)… how the left shoe was too tight but then stretched to fit perfectly; how she would not wear the shoes in the rain or on unpaved surfaces; how she met her fitness goals in these shoes; and how she lost the left shoe. No longer in possession of the left shoe, she threw the right shoe away.

I think I saw tears begin to well in her eyes as she talked about a pair of athletic shoes.

A woman from Russia related memories of her first days in school and the kindness of her teacher.

A man from Mexico told us about his first watch – a gift for his 8th birthday. He was so proud of his watch with the Roman numerals on the clock face that he was constantly reporting the time to anyone within earshot. Eventually the watch needed a new wristband – and his mother accidentally lost the watch.

A young man from Spain told us about summers spent at his grandmother’s house in a small village and the good times he had there.

A young mother from Japan told us about a trip she took to Cambodia with her American friend (he was just her friend!). They visited the Killing Fields. They volunteered at a school where they taught a little Japanese and English to the children. To thank them, some children reached up and picked leaves from a coconut tree and formed them into two rings, then placed the rings on the ring finger of her left hand and her friend’s left hand. It was then that they knew they were to be more than friends. Now they are married with one child and another on the way.

An older man from Vietnam arrived very late to class. The other students were already writing so I gave him a quick summary of what he had missed and what the students were doing. He sat and thought while the others wrote. After the students had shared their stories, I asked if he wanted to share a memory. “No. I try to forget. Not good for me to remember. Like her (nodding to Mrs. Li), I would cry,” he said.

Photo Credit: Coconut Flower by Mohammad Mahdi Karim/Wikipedia/Creative Commons Licence