Two years ago, I read the book Sarah Plain and Tall with a group of refugee and immigrant women, and I wrote and published the original version of this blog post. Now, I find myself starting the book again with a new group of women, and so I wanted to update the post and share my new experience.
UPDATE: I’m now reading this book with a small group of of refugee and immigrant women in a home setting rather than being a part of the English classes that I established. This is mostly because two of us put our heads together and came up with a plan for one woman. I’ll call her Aisha, but that’s not her real name. Aisha came to the US almost 2 years ago. Her boys, older teenagers, are struggling with American culture. They swing between being judgmental of its excesses, and joining in with the worst of them. She wants to work but hasn’t been able to find anything, so she spends her days at home, cooking, cleaning and fretting. Worried, frustrated, and lonely, she is developing health problems.
So a mutual friend and I put our heads together and came up with a Book Group as a way to get her out of the house and into a group of friends, and give her something to do that would use her mind.
Our Book Group meets in the friend’s home, and includes tea, hearty snacks (what Americans would call a light lunch), and then Turkish coffee served in tiny gold-rimmed cups, fragrant and delicious. There are 5 of us; 4 Iraqi woman plus me. My friend has very good English and we’re sort of co-teaching, but my knowledge of vocabulary and punctuation are helping. For example, in the book when Sarah writes that she is “plain,” I know that she means looks, not just attitude. When she says, “I am not mild-mannered,” I explain what she means, and all the woman laugh and clap their hands. They like that.
In the time since I wrote the following post (which I’ve edited and updated a bit), our English classes have nearly tripled in size. We need a bigger space and more teachers; we need to add classes. There are so many misconceptions about refugees and immigrants. For example, I’ve heard people say that they don’t want to learn English and assimilate. I have only to point at our beginning level, filled with people in their 50s, 60s and 70s, all struggling with this new tongue, but proud of their progress no matter how minimal. I think much of the fear and misconceptions out there are born of ignorance, and so I’d like to invite you into our classroom, so to speak, so that you can see for yourself how much we all have in common.
Now, on to the original blog post…
Using a Children’s Classic to Connect Refugee Women
On a Monday in April, our first day back after Spring Break, I looked at the 8 women seated before me and made a suggestion. What about taking a break from our English curriculum and reading a book together as a class for the next 8 weeks?
I’m the director of an ESL (English as a Second Language) program that grew out of my work with Iraqi refugees. I began it 5 years ago, using an empty room at my church, and now we have 55 students, 4 levels and 4 teachers, and countless volunteers who drive the women to class, watch their children during class, help them learn the alphabet, greet them with coffee, and more. We need a bigger space; we are turning students away.
I suggested we read Sarah, Plain and Tall, which is taught sometimes in 3rd grade classrooms. I love using this classic for ESL classes. First of all, it’s a sweet story. Have you read it? There’s a family with 2 children living in Kansas in the 1880s or so, who have been without a mother for about 6 years. The father advertises for a wife, and Sarah comes out from Maine. She’s very homesick at first, but comes to love the family. My students quickly begin to care about motherless Caleb and Anna, and they can relate to the story in ways modern Americans can’t. They know of women who died in childbirth, they can relate to marrying a man whom you really don’t know at all, and above all they know what it’s like to travel to a new place and try to make it a home.
In one chapter, Sarah reminisces about her childhood, and the students are supposed to write about theirs. One of my students is a retired doctor from China. She wrote of the cultural revolution, of growing up with only one book in the house and longing to have more to read. One young Iraqi woman wrote a sweet story about picking cherries and climbing trees and playing dolls with her 3 closest friends. I asked her where they are now. (Aside: NEVER do this with refugees) She started to cry. They are all dead, and 2 of her sisters too. She told a horrific story, of trying to cross a street and getting caught in crossfire between American soldiers and Al-Queda forces. She stayed where she was, head down, but her friend panicked and ran and was killed in front of her. She was about 11 at the time.
When Caleb, who’s about 6 in the book, spoke of missing his mother (who died when he was born), several of the women started to cry. I had to wait, pass out kleenex, not worry about finishing the lesson while we spoke of our mothers. Several women haven’t seen their mothers for about 8 years, when before they wouldn’t have gone more than a week without a visit. Some had to say their final goodbyes over Skype.
The book gave us a safe place to talk, and the women opened up to each other like they haven’t before. We had conversations on raising girls in America, on culture shock and how that can sometimes express itself in irritation and frustration. We talked about modern American culture, compared it to 1880s American culture, and compared both of them to the more traditional cultures of my students’ homelands. We learned words in Chinese, Farsi and Arabic. We welcomed new babies, and even had a baby shower one day, a concept that everyone was quick to get behind.
As we watched Sarah adjust to a new place and people, it helped us too. I shared stories of my time abroad, and people nodded with comprehension. They talked about things that had shocked them here when they first arrived, and how they had to learn anew how to interpret not just language but gestures, learn that something that is the height of insult at home means nothing here.
I love teaching ESL. I like grammar, I love explaining idioms and phrasal verbs, I thrive on nuances. But I have to admit that adding a literary element to my classes is my favorite, and whenever possible I make my students read. As we watch fictional characters deal with life’s challenges, it gives us words to articulate our own and gives us the confidence to do so. And that is one way to help make a new place a home.
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