Reclaiming My Students’ Home Languages Between The Slices of The Dubai Sky

This is a true story from my teaching experience in 2007-08 school year.

Not a very long time ago, I was an ESL teacher. I wanted to teach my students how to create a dialog by using call outs/cut outs or so called dialog bubbles. I gave them different magazines of people talking and asked them to pretend like they were in the conversation, and write down on a call out what the people were saying in the picture.

I used to subscribe to Better Homes and Gardens and Good Housekeeping trying to do better as a home-maker and a gardener as well as being a good house keeper.  I also subscribe to National Geographic to nurture my love for the adventure and a longing for traveling to distant lands.

However, being an ESL teacher, I decided to use National Geographic, not Better Homes and Gardens (BGHs). BGHs is great at depicting the life my students do not share. It’s the upper middle-class life sharing the culture of white linens, freshly painted bathrooms in azure color, baskets of linens neatly folded and organized laundry rooms. I don’t know anybody who lives in that world. Ninety-eight percent of the people I know do not run their lives in a color-coordinated fashion. Most of the people I know have dirty linens that pile up, micro-wave dinners that must be cooked while the children are snacking non-stop, crayon-colored bathroom walls, and french fries stains on the van floor.

English language learners from my classroom do not live in the world of BHGs and Good Houskeeping. They can relate more to the world of K-mart, Wall-mart, and maybe, Target, if they are lucky. So, instead of using BGH, I decided to go for National Geographic thinking, “There is stuff they can relate to. Let’s see where this takes us.” They can come up with a great dialogue looking at foreign-looking cultures, as people sometimes view them: ‘foreign-looking students’, even though they might have been born here.

I had about 12 NatGeos for the 6 of my students in the pull-out group. I worked hard to coordinate my pull-out group work as an opportunity to support the language and concepts of their mainstream class. I had an awesome 3rd teacher to collaborate with! This dialogue activity was plotted or concocted at 4:30pm on the way out the door, with the awesome 3rd grade teacher who loved collaboration and sharing of ideas. In fact, the whole dialogue bubble exercise was her idea entirely, I just had great magazines.

The students busily tore out pages and cut out their dialogue bubbles. I came over to one student who was pointing excitedly at a picture of some strange-looking island. He yelled, “Mrs. Westerlund! Mrs. Westerlund! This is Dubai! This is Dubai! They built this island in the middle of the ocean, and people live in those apartments!” I didn’t know much about Dubai back then (2007), but he told me about this amazing place with fancy hotels, and markets, and malls, and exquisite shopping. I thought to myself, “This boy knows more about Dubai than any adult I know. He is 9 years old. This is amazing.” He was so excited, he went on to tell me more about it. I asked him if he’s been there and he said, no, it was his parents who told him about Dubai.

After the excitement settled, the boy tore another picture out to use for his dialogue bubbles. While I was thinking that there had to be people in the photo, his picture was another half of the Dubai island photo. I have been able to Google the exact NatGeo slideshow and insert these pictures for you (see below). I consider this a miracle that I remember what these pictures look like because it was about 7 years ago, and I’m not getting younger! However, visual learners never forget a photograph! This boy drew bubbles coming out of the clouds of people talking about Dubai who were in Dubai “What a incredible island this is. Can you believe it? We are here!”

Then the student picked another picture. It is inserted below. It is a picture of young boys

on the left and two older men on the right. He excitedly pointed at the young boys and said, “Mrs. Westerlund! Mrs. Westerlund! I know that juice! That juice, that the boy is drinking! I know that juice!” He went on to write in the dialogue bubbles about the conversation that went on between the young boys whispering about the older men. The most impressive part is this: His dialog bubbles were in Arabic! He translated them into English, just for Mrs. Westerlund.  He had a great sense of humor.  The men couldn’t hear each other, the boy said.  One man had to repeat himself to the other numerous times.  The most awesome part is that the picture elicited the first language response. I did not remember to tell him, “Please write in your own language.”  The picture elicited that response naturally.

This was my most memorable lesson I learned from my Jordanian boy:

I can validate where my students are from by using global photos, and not Good Housekeeping photos.
I can nurture my students’ creativity by letting them put words in between the slices of the Dubai sky.
I can validate my students’ language, even if I don’t know it, by giving them images that naturally elicit responses in L1.
I can get my students excited about letting them find a picture that had a carton of juice from their homeland….

Ruslana Westerlund, Reclaiming The Language Blog Author

Ruslana Westerlund, Ed.D.   Ruslana has almost 20 years of ESL teaching experience at the K-12, undergraduate and graduate level.  She is a proud immigrant from Ukraine who is fluent in 3 languages and has a rudimentary level of German.  She is blogging to reconnect with teaching.  


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