Teaching English as a second education

Donna Guardino
Donna Guardino

The end of a semester is always a reflective time for me, so I’ve spent these last few weeks thinking about how lucky I am to teach some of the most hard-working, dedicated and interesting people in my English as a Second Language classes.

I use the word “teach” loosely, though, as I learn as much from them as they do from me. I thought I’d share some Things My Students Taught Me:

▪ Happiness is in the small things.

I was really fortunate this past year to teach a beginning writing class to a group of students who love to write. I’d ask for a page, and they’d give me three. One day, I assigned a topic for their journal: What makes you happy? I got a lot of papers about family, music and sports, but one in particular struck a chord with me.

An Indian student wrote two pages about his love for mangoes. He waxed enthusiastic about their taste and texture and told of the mango parties he gives where no one even bothers to peel the things, they just slice them open and bite into the ripe orange flesh, letting the juice drip down their chins and onto their clothes.

This journal entry resonated so strongly with me because the day before reading his words, I was eating the most delicious mango I had ever tasted and thinking that this was my heaven. So, when I read that someone else could find happiness in a 50-cent piece of fruit, I knew I had a kindred spirit in my class.

▪ Fear can make you strong.

Shortly after the Parkland shootings, I was feeling, like most Americans, sad and scared. I had always thought that I was lucky to live in a country where war wasn’t being fought in the streets, but I was starting to think that things might be changing and wondered if I could ever be truly happy again. I knew that many of my students came from war-torn countries, so I asked them to write their thoughts about violence.

One woman, an older student from Iraq, talked about the importance of being role models for our children, showing them how to be strong during frightening times. An Iranian woman spoke of her experience as a 12-year-old during the Iran-Iraq War. She said that during the bombing, her parents would close the black-out curtains, turn out all the lights, and tell stories. She said that even though she felt afraid, she was grateful for this very special time with her family.

▪ Life expectancy rates are lower in their countries.

I often have class on my birthday, so one year I took in some cupcakes to celebrate. Having not yet covered the topic of taboo questions in the U.S., my students asked me how old I was. I didn’t want them to feel embarrassed for asking, and I’m not ashamed of my age, so I told them. Their eyes grew wide. “That’s old!” they chorused. A few days later, I mentioned to this same class that I had been talking to my mother on the phone the previous night. A look of incredulity crossed one student’s face. “Your mother’s still alive?” he asked.

I let my birthday pass without comment this year.

▪ There’s another way of looking at things.

One day, I asked my students what their favorite hobbies were. We were discussing the usual responses — playing sports, listening to music — when one answer stopped me short. “Cleaning,” this student replied. “Cleaning?” I questioned. “Yes,” she said. “I like a clean house. It makes me happy. So why wouldn’t I like the activity that makes that happiness possible?”

A new semester is underway, and I can’t wait to find out what I’ll learn from these students. I only hope I’m giving them as much insight as they give me.

Donna Guardino of Lexington is an ESL instructor. Reach her at guardidj@yahoo.com.