Wednesday, December 23, 2015

It’s Beginning to Look (a little) Like Christmas

It's been unseasonably warm in Chicago this winter, with temperatures well into the 50's and not a drop of snow in sight. Even though it doesn't feel like Christmas outside, inside the monastery it seems that every square inch of wall and every horizontal surface has been meticulously decorated, which more than makes up for the lack of snow. 

Advent is my favorite season of the year. During the duration of my college career, though, I was pretty much too busy with work and exams and extracurricular activities to pay much attention to advent, which seems to slip by so much faster now than when I was a kid! That's one of the reasons I feel lucky to be living in a monastery this year-- for once I have the time and energy to fully experience the advent season. 

In preparation for advent, I got to help S. Rita hang the advent wreath by carefully suspending it from fishing wire from the chapel ceiling. For this job I had fun rummaging around in the attic above the altar.

Me in a window above the altar, carefully raising the advent wreath

As one of the taller inhabitants of the monastery, I also got the task of decorating the top branches of the community Christmas tree, which was later blessed by S. Judith Murphy at the annual Christmas tree blessing ceremony. For this occasion, we sang Oh Christmas Tree together, and I got my first taste of eggnog (I was skeptical at first, but ended up really liking it).

S. Judith Murphy, the prioress, blessing the Christmas tree

When one of my ESL students found out I wanted to join in the Christmas spirit but didn't have any decorations of my own, she brought me some from her own home. So now my room is just as Christmas-y as the rest of the house!

My little window, bedazzled with Christmas lights (a gift from my student Olga)

A tiny creche for my windowsill, also a gift from Olga

Yesterday was the annual employee Christmas party, and I spent most of the day running all over the place-- wrapping gifts, serving punch, and distributing presents from under the tree. The elaborate spread of food also included caramel chocolate shortbread bites, baked by myself and S. Belinda (they received excellent reviews, in case you were wondering).

Wrapping Christmas presents with Santa's helpers (S. Johnette and S. Mary)

Guests enjoying treats at the employee Christmas party

Me serving punch at the employee Christmas party in my festive apron

And it’s not just the monastery I’ve been so busy helping to prepare for Christmas.. I decided to prepare myself for Christmas with an extra special treat: a matinee ticket to Handel’s Messiah, my favorite musical piece of all time, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Needless to say, it was a superb performance. When the entire hall rose to their feet for the Hallelujah Chorus, it actually brought tears to my eyes. 

Me at Orchestra Hall, waiting for Handel's Messiah to begin

Handel's Messiah memorabilia

A view of Orchestra Hall before the performance

Now that I am as fully in the Christmas spirit as possible, all that's left is to celebrate the mass of Christmas night and Christmas day with the sisters here  (I will be singing in the schola) and then I'll be on my way back to Minnesota and my family! I can hardly wait. 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Bahá'í Temple: Revisiting Peace

A lot has been happening the past few weeks. Everywhere I turn, it seems there is more news of conflict and killing. In today’s newspaper, the front page alone featured follow-up stories to the Paris terror attacks, the shooting death of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee by gang members in Chicago, and the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer (and subsequent protests).

On our field trip, though, these sad events were the furthest thing from my mind.

This past Monday, Sister Mary, Fabienne and I took our ESL class to the Bahá’í House of worship in Evanston, which is only a ten minute drive from where we live. Built in the 1950’s, the Bahá’í Temple is the only one of its kind in North America. Its huge white, dome-shaped structure with nine entrances and vast, lush gardens and ponds reminded me of the Taj Mahal. The inside of the Temple is cavernously beautiful, radiating light and peace.

For the past few weeks, our students (who all happen to be stay-at-home moms from Michoacán, Mexico) have been practicing constructing indirect questions, like “Could you tell me where the bathroom is?” instead of “Where is the bathroom?” The idea behind the field trip was that it would give the students a chance to practice indirect questions with a tour guide or information desk person rather than just their usual teachers.

By a stroke of luck, we were some of the first people to arrive at the Temple, so we had a tour guide all to ourselves. The tour guide also happened to be a Bahá’í from the Chicago area who had spent five years teaching English in China. When he found out that we were an ESL group, he gave his presentation at an even, understandable pace and kept it free of unnecessarily confusing words and constructions.    

He explained the Bahá’í Faith, how Bahá’ís recognize the legitimacy of prophets from all major world religions, including Krishna, Moses, Mohmmed, Jesus, Buddha and Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í faith. He described the Bahá’í’s belief in the unity of all humankind, and how that is expressed in the beautiful architecture of the building.

A view of the Temple from the outside
Sister Angelica on the Temple steps

The Temple's intricate ceiling; the gold inscription in the center is Arabic script for "Greatest Name" or "Oh thou Glory of Glories"

The Temple windows, opening to a view of Lake Michigan

I know I’ve said this before, but my students continually amaze me. Our guide had hardly finished speaking before Olga jumped in with her first question, perfectly constructed. “Could you tell me,” she asked, “how long you have been here?” When he finished answering, Consuelo asked about which holidays the Bahá’í people celebrate. Everyone had notebooks or scraps of paper on which they had carefully prepared their questions.

I always expect the students to be shy and reserved about speaking English, because that’s the way I am about speaking other languages that I haven’t fully grasped yet. I’m always trying to form a construction in my head before saying it out loud, but by the time I have it perfect, the conversation has already moved on and I never get a chance to say my beautiful, perfect sentence.

Consuelo in particular bypasses this problem by making some kind of interjection into the conversation like “Oh!” or “Hmm” or “Well I think..” when she has an idea she wants to express. Then she takes her time getting the words in the right order while everyone waits politely to hear what she has to say. Sometimes it takes a couple minutes for her to search around for the right words, but she always succeeds in getting the idea across in the end.

I find this to be an incredibly bold thing to do. I think it’s the most terrifying thing in the world to start speaking without knowing exactly what you’re about to say, if you’re going to make mistakes, if people will even understand you. My worst fear is saying something that nobody understands and having to stare at each other awkwardly until somebody figures it out. And even then, they might laugh at you.

If Consuelo is afraid of this too, she does not show it. She has no qualms about bringing the conversation to a halt while she figures out how to say what she needs to say. I think it shows a huge amount of confidence in herself and the value of her own ideas. While language teaching is an important skill, I think language-learning is itself a skill, and one at which my students are experts. I hope to someday be as bold and as fearless in my Bengali / German / Spanish learning as they are in their English learning.

Everyone enjoyed the trip and learned a lot. After all the depressing things that have been happening lately, the Temple trip left me with a feeling of hope.  

All of us enjoying our guided tour

Fabienne listens to the tour guide with Georgina's daughter on her lap while the others take notes

Consuelo in the Temple

Olga taking a selfie with the live orange tree growing inside the Temple

Consuelo, Olga, and Fabienne watch the Temple's introductory film together

Monday, November 16, 2015

Just for Fun

In my past few posts I've been talking a lot about my service work. But I promise I haven't spent all my time working! In this post, I want to talk about all the ways I have been having fun outside of my volunteer sites here in Chicago.

When I started helping Sister Mary with English Language Learner classes at the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center (located only a few blocks from our monastery) I was delighted to find that the Holy Spirit Sisters had a volunteer of their own: Fabienne, who came all the way from Germany to do a year of service in Chicago.

Because this fall has been unseasonably warm, Fabienne and I were able to make several trips to the beach on Lake Michigan. Because her hometown is located on Germany's northern coast, Fabienne was excited to find herself so near "the sea" here in Chicago. Our many other adventures have included: attending a free outdoor slam poetry event, stumbling upon a colorful festival in Chinatown, and (of course) shopping at the many stores in Chicago's "Magnificent Mile" shopping district.

Me and Fabienne exploring the beach

Fabienne took this picture of me wading in Lake Michigan
Fabienne took this picture of me downtown

A view of downtown from the old watertower

Fabienne and I, I soon discovered, have a shared interest in learning Spanish. In October we both signed up for beginner level classes at the Latin American Learning Center in the Lakeview neighborhood.  In addition to my other volunteer work, every Friday night, I take over Fabienne's childcare duties at the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center while she goes to Spanish class, and then I attend the Saturday morning session. On most afternoons, you can find me in the monastery library studying my verbs or making vocabulary flashcards.

Getting cozy in my favorite chair in the monastic library

When she's not helping with Sister Mary's ELL class or taking care of children, Fabienne is planning holiday parties for the Center. In October, she did a marvelous job of organizing the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center's annual Halloween party. All the kids showed up in their costumes (I came as the superhero Flash) and there were enough food and games to keep everyone entertained for the evening. 

It was a full house at the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center's Halloween party
Left to Right: Sister Therese, Sister Ina, Sister Agate (all Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters), a little angel, me, Sister Mary

Two girls I babysit on Friday nights (dressed as Elsa from "Frozen" and spidergirl) with their mother at the Halloween party

Besides finding a new friend in Fabienne, I have been lucky enough to reconnect with old friends as well. Hannah and Heather are two incredibly awesome women I met in college. Not only did we graduate together, but we also all lived on the same floor during our first year at CSB. I  more or less lost touch with them for the remainder of our time at college but was able to reconnect with them when I found out that we were all living in the Chicago area. Some of my best times in Chicago have been when we get together for a day at the zoo or an evening out for deep dish pizza. 

Hannah, Me, and Heather out for pizza

Last weekend, Heather also invited Hannah and I to her parents house in Lake Geneva, WI. It was our first time traveling via Chicago's commuter rail line (the Metra), and we both nearly missed our train. It was an adrenaline rush, to say the least. In the end, though, we had a lovely weekend, which included a seven mile walk around the lake and chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast (made with love by Heather's parents). Again, the beautiful autumn weather was our friend. 

Hannah, me, and Heather all bundled up for our walk around the lake

Lake Geneva's "miracle house" includes a walkway painted with inspirational quotes

Me and my new friend, on the shore of Geneva lake

On a different note, last Monday I joined my Indo-American Center coworkers at a protest downtown. The purpose of the protest was to encourage the state of Illinois to pass a budget, which is months overdue because of political gridlock in the legislature. Because no budget has been passed, organizations across the city have been forced to lay off employees and shut down important services, including citizenship preparation courses, ESL and GED classes, after-school tutoring programs for kids, and the list goes on. Luckily the Indo-American Center is still open, but other organizations have had to shut down, causing an overflow of people seeking services elsewhere and straining the resources of places (like the IAC) that have been able to stay open. I find it maddening because most of the immigrants I work with desperately want to learn the language, land a job, and help their children be successful in school.. which is not possible without the help of adequately funded service organizations like the ones I work with.

Me marching with the Indo-American Center, protesting the budget impasse

Some of my fellow protesters with a poster of Gandhi, whose work I analyzed for my senior political science thesis at CSB

Me and IAC staff members at the rally, protesting the budget impasse
As you can see, I've been keeping myself busy.. meeting new people, learning new things, and having as many experiences as I can get my hands on.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

More Teaching.. this time in 'Little India!'

It’s been three weeks since I last wrote, and in that time a lot has been unfolding in terms of my service sites here in Chicago.

After the first week or so, I found that I really enjoyed working with the English Language Learning students at the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center and wanted to learn more about teaching ELL. So, I found another place only a few blocks away called the Indo-American Center, which also offers ELL classes. The IAC is located on Devon Avenue, right in the heart of Chicago’s biggest Indian/Pakistani/Arab neighborhood. The interesting thing about the Devon area is that it was formerly very Jewish, so there are dozens of synagogues nearby. On any given day, you might see an Arab woman dressed in a full burka passing a Hasidic Jew wearing a fringed shirt and earlocks. The diversity is one of the things I find most interesting and exciting about the place I am now living.

The Indo-American Center has a much different atmosphere than the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center. The classrooms are small but always cramped full of people, sometimes spilling out into the hall. On only my second visit to the IAC, the beginning level classroom was so full there weren’t enough chairs for everyone who wanted to learn. Renuka, one of the administrators, asked if I could take a small group of four or five and teach them the alphabet to make more room in the classroom.
Of course I said yes, but I was so nervous. I had no lesson planned at all and felt that I would be wasting the students’ time fumbling through a lesson with my measly teaching experience. As it turned out, my students were just as terrified to work with me as I was to work with them. Renuka practically had to drag them into the classroom where I would be teaching.

There were five students—all Pakistani women between the ages of 50 and 60 I would guess. I went through every alphabet letter one by one, writing it on the blackboard. The ladies took turns shouting out works they knew that started with each letter—Apple! And! Arm!—followed by Banana! Box! Boat! Because of my training in the Bengali language, I was able to translate one or two of the words into their language, Urdu, which is similar to Bengali. They thought this was a hoot and tried to help me learn new Urdu words.

My greatest failure came at the end of the lesson. Renuka had given me a few children’s alphabet books which she suggested I try with the students. So I let one of the ladies pick out her favorite letter, P, and the corresponding book, which was called Patsy Pig Goes to the Park or something like that. I started by asking them to describe the front cover of the book, which was illustrated with a picture of a pink pig standing next to a scarecrow in front of a red barn. The first student studied the picture and pointed to the barn. “Here is red house.” She pointed to the scarecrow. “This is man.” She pointed to the pig. “This is.. dog?”

That was my first clue that this wasn’t going to work out as well as I thought. “No that’s not a dog,” I explained. “That’s a pig. You know what a pig is?” They stared at me, nonplussed. All of them shook their heads. That’s when I remembered that Muslims don’t eat pigs, which means they don’t raise pigs, which means my students would have little to no experience with pigs, particularly the pink American kind.

I struggled for about five minutes to adequately explain what a pig is, until one of the ladies patted my arm very sweetly and said, “Don’t worry teacher. For us, it can be dog.”

Everything is always a work in progress.

More next week on my work with kids and some of the fun things I’ve been up to in Chicago!

Outside the Indo-American Center (note: I did not take this picture myself, I obtained it on google images)

Students at the IAC (note; I did not take this picture myself, I obtained it on google images)

A mannequin in the window of a sari shop, sporting both a salwaar and a witch's hat for Halloween

A mannequin dressed in a panjabi and vest with a Halloween mask. A fascinating blend of cultures

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Teaching and Being Taught

I can hardly believe it, but it’s already been a month since I moved to Chicago. So far I am settling in nicely. In my last entry I talked mostly about my new home at the monastery and in the city, but now that my service sites are falling into place, this week I am able to speak more about my service work.

My primary service site is the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center located about seven blocks away from St. Scholastica where I live. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday I go to the Center with Sister Mary, the subprioress, to help out with her ELL class. (Note: ELL stands for English Language Learners, formerly called English as a Second Language or ESL. It’s essentially the same thing but ESL is a less accurate term because for some people, English is their third or fourth language.)

I really love the ELL class. We have five ladies that come in the morning, all from Michoacán, Mexico. The class dynamic is really great. Usually with adult ELL classes, it’s difficult to maintain attendance because people have other commitments at home—their kid gets sick and needs extra care,  a relative needs a ride to the airport, someone cancels at work at they have to pull an extra shift. But in our class, attendance is almost perfect every single day. I really admire the commitment these women have made to their education. It’s a testament to the importance of mastering the English language in their daily lives.

On our first day in class, one of the questions Sister Mary posed was “Why do you need to learn English?” The ladies’ answers were all the same: because of their kids. They want to be able to attend a parent teacher conference and know what the teacher is saying. They want to understand their children when they talk amongst themselves. A few of the ladies even explained that their children don’t really speak Spanish anymore because they use English so much in school and with their friends. For them, English is important to having a relationship with their kids at all.

These women amaze me every single day with their humor and bravery. When we have group discussions in class, everyone participates. When Sister Mary asks for a volunteer to write a difficult spelling word on the whiteboard, someone always volunteers. Not only that, but they also voluntarily talk without being asked a specific question. Sister Mary might be telling the class about a movie she saw that weekend, and one of the ladies will jump in, saying, “Oh I saw that movie too! It was really great, we took my son there for his birthday party and all his friends loved it.”  They make a lot of mistakes, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. And that takes a lot of courage.

It occurs to me every day that the students in my ELL class are much better language learners than I am. Just this past summer I had the opportunity to spend two months in Bangladesh taking intensive Bengali languages classes. On a regular basis, I found myself paralyzed by fear and embarrassment, of saying something wrong and looking stupid. I know I could have increased my fluency faster if I had made an effort to speak up as boldly as the ladies in my ELL class.

Most of the time, my role in the ELL class is to ask follow-up questions to keep the discussion moving and occasionally explain things on the board if I feel like people aren’t understanding something. Also, as the resident “young person” I have become the technology guru of the ELL morning class. Every Monday I show a clip from a TV show that I find on Youtube and create a worksheet to go along with it. This helps the ladies with their English comprehension, which is one skill they really want to focus on. For the past few weeks I’ve been using five or ten minute clips from the classic TV show “I Love Lucy.” Lucille Ball’s style of physical comedy helps the ladies follow the storyline, and they usually find it pretty funny as well.

Of course, the class is a learning process for me as much as it is for the students. I make mistakes and try to learn from them in time for next week’s class. For example, last Monday I chose the episode of “I Love Lucy” where Lucy goes to school to become a flight attendant. Because the show is from the 1960’s, however, Lucy uses the word “airline hostess” instead of “flight attendant.” I, as a native speaker, treated the two terms interchangeably without noticing, while the use of two different terms for the same thing caused the ladies a lot of confusion.

As you can see, I am learning lots and enjoying lots. More to come next week.   

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

First Week in Chicago

A lot has happened during the last four years of my life. I left my home in Le Sueur, MN for the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, MN, where I graduated in 2015. I studied abroad in Kolkata, India, co-directed a youth program in El Paso, Texas, interned at an NGO in Washington, D.C., and studied the Bangla language in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Now I am excited to be embarking on a different kind of adventure this year.. as a Benedictine Women's Service Corps member, living with the Benedictine sisters at St. Scholastica monastery in Chicago and working as a volunteer in the surrounding community.

It's been a little over a week since I arrived in Chicago, and I'm still getting my bearings. I've met almost all of the sisters at St. Scholastica, and of those that I've met, I remember at least 60% of their names. Which is pretty good considering there are 39 of them and one of me!

Last week consisted mostly of getting settled in to my room and seeing the neighborhood. I have my own room on the fourth floor of the monastery with a (huge!) closet and a little living space attached. There are four or five other sisters that live on the fourth floor with me.

My room at St. Scholastica

the bathroom I share with the sisters on the 4th floor

Beautiful sitting space

During my first few days, I got to explore the city a little bit. On the day I arrived in Chicago, Sister Belinda (my main contact person at St. Scholastica) took me sailing with some of her friends. I was excited because the weather was perfect and this was my first time ever on a sailboat!

Sailing on Lake Michigan!

a view of the city from the water

Late last week Sister Belinda also arranged for one of the old bikes at the monastery to be repaired for me. It is a 1971 bright green Schwinn that the guys at the repair shop called "the green machine" because it is huge and heavy as lead, not to mention entirely perfect for my purposes. Sister Belinda also gave me a venture card and showed me how to use the L. So I did a little exploring on my own in downtown Chicago. The highlight of the day was visiting the Loyola University Museum of Art, which included a (slightly bizarre) Andy Warhol exhibit and a copy of the St. John's Bible!

Andy Warhol exhibit at the LUMA (a room full of floating silver balloons and an inflatable Buddha)

This is just a little introduction to my life in Chicago. Tomorrow I begin one of my first days as a teacher/tutor for the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center's English as a Second Language program. More to come on that as it unfolds.