Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Crazy Little Thing Called English

This week, my little study group has grown to include two Hispanic girls (one from Mexico, one from Cuba) and a quiet young Mexican boy. We've started a short story unit. The short stories in our text are written for students who, ideally, read at at least a ninth grade level. My study group is maybe lucky to read at a fourth grade level due to their language issues. My initial plan had been to scout out some third and fourth grade level literature books and select stories at their level. The first such book I read was rather old, the stories were really bland, and the whole idea ended up feeling almost insulting -- asking these kids to read stories about boring birthday parties rather than the exciting sorts of things covered in the literature book their peers are using. I also knew that I wanted to still try to teach them key literary concepts like conflict, protagonist, antagonist. Heck, I might even get bold and try something like irony. Those concepts were impossible with most of the stories I was finding in these elementary-level texts.

Our counselor, wh0 works closely with our ELL kids, told me how she had used summaries when working on novels with the kids last year. I thought there might be something there. Our first short story in the English I curriculum is Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game." (It's a story I bet many of you read your freshman year of high school, too -- it's the one about the guy on the island that hunts people. Ring any bells?) It's a pretty long story with some complicated vocabulary for newbie English speakers. There's a reason, though, that it's taught in pretty much every freshman-level English course in the country, and that's because it's a pretty engaging story that crosses gender lines in terms of appeal and it's also a great way to teach some fundamental literary concepts to kids -- conflict, resolution, protagonist, antagonist, foreshadowing, mood, et cetera. The basic plot is something my kids could handle; it's just the vocabulary that would overwhelm them. So what I did was find a rather lengthy summary of the story online that I then went through and simplified the language a little more and added some more details from the story that would give them a deeper sense of the plot. I ended up with a five-page version of a story that's roughly 15 pages in our text. I then decided to take a similar approach with the other short stories in our book -- including Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" and the classic "The Lady or the Tiger?" (Both of which have incredibly challenging vocabulary even for high school freshmen!)

As I've worked with my students during the short story unit, it remains amazing to me what they do and do not know in terms of language. Slang presents particular challenges. There's a line in "The Most Dangerous Game" where the villainous General Zaroff informs our hero, Rainsford, that there's no need to argue about the sanctity of human life because he hunts "the scum of the earth." My Spanish-speaking girls looked the word "scum" up in the Spanish-English dictionary and grew more confused when the definition for "scum" showed them a word that meant "lather." It led to a discussion of bathtub scum and what it might mean to call people that same word. The girls were rather stunned and insulted, particularly when Zaroff goes on to clarify that by "scum" he means black people, Chinese people, et cetera. Yup, the dude's a straight-up racist.

Sometimes, though, slang becomes a different sort of challenge. One of the great, classic lines comes at the end of the story when Rainsford and Zaroff finally meet face to face. Zaroff tells Rainsford he's won the hunt and tells him he will put him on a boat for home. Rainsford refuses this concession, declaring his intention to let this fight be a fight to the death by telling the general, "I am still a beast at bay." I knew "beast" was a word the kids might not know, but it's such a classic line in that story that I wanted to keep it and use it as a discussion of how Rainsford has lost touch with his humanity during this hunt. So I asked the kids, "Do you know what a beast is?"

Without missing a beat, one of my students (let's call her Angelica) says, "It means really good at something."

For those of you who don't spend twelve hours a day with teenagers, let me fill you in here. "Beast" has become a slang term for just what Angelica said. An example of "beast" in action: "I'm really beast at football" or "I beasted that game of Words with Friends." So for poor Angelica, she had that moment where she THOUGHT she knew the word, was excited to know the answer, and ended up being wrong because slang had let her down. Once she found out what "beast" really meant, of course, her understanding of its usage as slang became a bit muddier, too.

And it got me thinking about how we use language, how we take words and twist their meanings so far away from what was originally intended that kids like Angelica and my other ELL kids are fighting an uphill battle just trying to become proficient in speaking this language. When I was walking through the parking lot of Wal-Mart this weekend, I saw a bumper sticker that said, "Welcome to America. Now speak the language." It sounds like a great idea in theory -- the idea that people who move to a country (any country) should be proficient in that country's language. If I moved to France, I'd better brush up on that high school/college French and be able to function. This notion, though, is so much easier said than done, particularly when you're talking about English itself, a language that seems to break more rules than it follows. There's no consistency in phonetics. There are all these crazy idioms that make no sense when considered at a literal level. There's all this slang that seems to exist solely to twist the meaning of words around in such a way that they make no real sense. Here are these kids, none of whom necessarily CHOSE to move here, thrown into this environment where they are trying to learn this horribly difficult language, and they are faced with this sort of taunting intolerance. How many of us can say that our ancestors came to this country with a proficient grasp of English? Okay, yeah, the majority of my ancestors came from England and Ireland, so all they had to contend with was the accents, but a chunk of my mother's family came from Sweden. I'm thinking that they likely had not mastered English before stepping off that boat and heading across the country to Illinois. Somewhere in our family tree is someone who struggled to learn this language, so maybe a little compassion is in order since somewhere in our genetic past, a little compassion was thrown our way. Rather than slapping a bumper sticker on our cars that chastises those who are trying to learn our massive language (and ignoring the irony that they probably can't READ that bumper sticker if their language is that poor), how about volunteering to help with local agencies that reach out to non-native populations? How about taking the time in a store to help someone who's struggling to figure out what's what? The time I've spent this year with kids like Mya and Angelica have given me a stronger appreciation for how hard this is for them and how desperately they want to be successful. They know language is the key to that success. It's just a matter of finding the right lock and getting that door open. It takes a village, guys, not a firing squad.

Post script: I gave my kids a quiz over the story Friday afternoon. As soon as she turned it in, Angelica asked me to grade hers. She got an A-. (She got two vocabulary words mixed up.) Based on her reaction to that A-, I would guess that Angelica had never gotten an A on anything in her life. She jumped up and down and squealed with joy. It was perhaps one of the most moving moments in my teaching career. I almost cried to see how happy this little twenty point quiz had made this girl.


NICKI said...

Just the other day, the European who sits next to me "gave me his five cents". I told him I was impressed that his thoughts were so valuable. And he's been here 30 years! But really, it's ME who's jealous of HIM because I only wish I knew another language! And by the way, I had no idea what beast meant! Looks like I need a lesson in "teen"....Again.

Mel said...

It's really kind of interesting to learn what the kids have picked up and what they haven't. They know slang but not a lot of idioms. And then you get to some words and just explaining the overall concept.... it is SO hard to explain what "disappointment" means!