Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Tropical Vacation: Field Trip to the Conservatory

Last December, Sister Mary, Fabienne and I took our advanced English class to the Baha’i House of Worship for a little field trip. At that time, the concept of ESL field trips was completely new to me. At the Indo American Center, it turns out, they take their students on field trips around the city all the time—to the Shedd Aquarium, the art museum, the public library, and, last week, to the Garfield Park Conservatory.

I think these field trips are really important because they give students access to parts of the city that many of them wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to see. Most don’t drive, and for the beginner level students especially, public transportation is hard to navigate with limited English. Many of the students have lived in Chicago for years but never strayed far from Devon Avenue. That’s why field trip days are a big deal. On the day of our field trip, the rented school bus was so jam-packed full of all 55 students (plus 6 kids) that me and the other teachers had to drive separate. I noticed that many of the students had dressed up in their best clothes and make-up for the occasion.. one student's outfit looked more fit for a nightclub than a botanical garden.

The Garfield Park Conservatory is basically like a huge green house with all kinds of tropical trees and ferns and flowers. It’s like a warm, steamy oasis in the middle of a freezing Chicago winter. The students got two hours to wander around with their friends and explore on their own. I was walking next to Ben (a refugee from Iraq) who pointed out many different plants that he recognized from his home country. “Banana tree,” he explained, pointing. “Not yet finish,” indicating the lack of fruit. The students always find creative ways to fill the gaps in their English vocabulary. I was admiring a mini-waterfall when one student, also a refugee from Iraq, approached me. “Teacher teacher! Where this?” she pulled down her shirt to expose a colorful butterfly tattoo on her chest. She went away disappointed after I explained that there was no butterfly exhibit at the conservatory.

I soon found out why everyone had worn their best clothes: they love taking pictures. I got pulled in to photo after photo after photo; it took 20 minutes to extricate myself from people tugging on my arms and yelling “One more, one more!” It must be a cultural thing, but South Asians rarely smile in photographs. There’s so much talking and laughing and chatting and shuffling of purses and children in the lead-up to the photo, and then as soon as the camera is in position, all the faces go as grave as if someone just died.  I’m pretty sure that in all the 10,000 or so pictures taken that day, I am the only one smiling. Believe me, everybody had a good time, though you might not think so from the pictures.

My favorite part of the whole outing might have been lunch. I wandered into the cafeteria room, and found my Iraqi students, who had packed a huge basket full of food. They pulled up a chair for me and insisted that I sit down, and then proceeded to fill my hands with cookies and candies, homemade flatbread and thick beef shawarma sandwiches. They all talk and laugh and tease each other in Arabic just as loud at lunch as they do in my class. I had no idea what was going on the whole time, but I had good food and good company. What more can you ask for?

Posing for pictures at the Conservatory (my face is tired from smiling, can you tell?)

Rohingya beginner students and the kiddos

Ben enjoying the tropical plants

one of the Afghani students posing with a statue (so suave)

Me and Zubeda, one of my advanced level students

lunch with the Iraqi students

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Celebrating Superbowl Sunday

Last weekend was Superbowl Sunday and the stakes were high at the monastery. The Denver Broncos were facing off against the Panthers, and several of the sisters (being native Coloradoans) had a vested interest in a Broncos victory. But of all the Broncos fans in the house, Sister Johnette Sawyer was the leader of the pack.
S. Johnette’s excitement knew no bounds in the lead up to the game. She not only arranged an elaborate Superbowl viewing party complete with beer, wine, and snacks she also organized a cheer squad to parade around the monastery with pom poms singing songs and cheering cheers composed by Sister Benita. I was on the cheer squad, of course. Despite the fact that I have never actually watched an entire football game through to the end, nor do I really understand how football works. All of these were overlooked in favor of my willingness to hold a pom pom and yell “GO FIGHT WIN”.
I invited my German friend Fabienne to the Superbowl viewing party, promising her a quintessential American experience. I don’t think she was disappointed. Some of her most pressing questions included:
Why is this ball is shaped like an egg?
Can you touch the ball with your hands?
What is a down?
Why do Americans like this game?
Luckily we were sitting next to Sister Joan, who very patiently answered all of her (and my) questions during commercial breaks.

For me, I would say the Superbowl was a reflection on community life more than anything else.  The Superbowl party was well attended, despite the generally low interest in the game of football. Even one sister whom I had heard describing the game as “glorified war” showed up for the first half. I think Sister Benita, the head of the cheer squad, summed it up well when she said “I don’t like football. I like community.”

Fabienne at the snack table

Watching the game

Sister Joan explains football

the Broncos' cheer squad

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Tutor Time

My apologies for the huge gap in blog posts between this and my last one, which was in December (yikes!). I left on Christmas Day for Minnesota and spent two lovely weeks at home with my family before returning to Chicago at the beginning of January. And for the last few weeks, I really haven’t had much to blog about. The centers where I teach English were on winter break like I was—except their breaks ended up being a bit prolonged due to lack of student attendance. It seems that when it’s freezing cold, people are less likely to leave their houses.. especially people whose home countries are much warmer than Chicago, Illinois.

For this reason, most of my time lately has been spent tutoring elementary school kids. I tutor with two different programs: one, at Providencia Family Services with Sister Virginia, one of the sisters from this community, and two, at the Indo American Center where I usually teach English in the mornings. At Providencia I tutor mostly 5th and 6th graders (all Hispanic background) that attend the adjacent Catholic elementary school. At the Indo American Center, I tutor kids between the ages of 5 and 9 who are mostly of Indian and Ethiopian background.

My first day as a tutor at the Indo American Center can best be described as utter chaos. I found myself the lone adult in a roomful of kids all clamoring for my attention.. as well as screaming, running around, walking on the tables, and spinning around at high speeds in a swivel chair. As soon as I would lean over to help someone, three or four hands would be tapping me on the back, needing help with their homework. But as soon as I tried to help the next person, the first person would be mad that I had abandoned them mid-math problem. And then a third person would wail that I had promised to read them a book ten whole minutes ago. But by the time I started in on the story, the room was so loud that nobody could hear me read.  I don’t know how classroom teachers do it, I really don’t.

By the end of the first day, I had struck a sort of compromise where I was sitting at a table with children on either side of me and one in front. I would read one page of a book to the child on the left, then help a child on the right with one page of homework, all the while holding out all ten fingers for the third child to count on (I don’t know why, but when the kids are doing their math homework, they like to count on my fingers more than on their own), and then, of course, periodically yelling at the trouble makers who were wreaking havoc when left to their own devices.

Now that I’ve been tutoring a few months, though, I’ve gotten better at channeling the kids’ energies right off the bat instead of letting things get out of control and then frantically trying to reign in the chaos (which is about as easy as putting out a forest fire). Everyone gets helped with homework on a first-come, first-served basis (the order of which I write on the blackboard to prevent squabbling). After finishing their homework, everyone is required to read for 15 minutes. The kids that are too young to read themselves listen to me read a book out loud. There is always a lot of fuss and consternation over who gets to pick the book, who gets to turn the pages, who gets to sit in the middle, etc.

Reading to the kids is actually one of my favorite parts. Growing up, I had two parents who spent hours upon hours reading to me from a very young age. They read me everything from Curious George (really? You want to hear this one again?) to all seven of the Harry Potter books. I credit my love of reading and later, writing, to the hours I spent listening to my parents. Many of the kids in this program have parents who can’t read to them in English, which is why I feel that one of the most important things I can do for the kids is read with them.

After reading time there is an hour or more left over, which is when the kids usually want to play restaurant. Restaurant is a very complex and intricate game played the exact same way every time. The kids divide themselves into different roles: chef, waiter/waitress, manager, customer, etc. One particularly creative boy once styled himself as the restaurant inspector and wrote up elaborate (mostly scathing) reviews in his self-published “newspaper.” I’m usually responsible for drawing all the different food items on paper, which are then colored by the chefs and served by the waiters. The most coveted position of all, though, is the menu writer. The menu writers don’t have a great sense of how much food actually costs, so many of our luxury items are often priced at over $100,000, which the “customers” pay for with their platinum mastercards (made out of paper, of course).

I've noticed the diversity of the kids really comes out in this game too. An average menu at the “Indo Resty” includes chicken biryani, samosas and paratha as well as traditional American foods like pizza and smoothies. The kids always make sure that there will be non-pepperoni pizza options on the menu (Muslims don’t eat pork) while the Hindu children insist on chicken burgers alongside hamburgers. A lot of these kids really end up growing up together, which is so important in a community that is traditionally split along religious and racial lines. The after-school program cultivates tolerance and openness between kids whose parents might normally not allow them to play with each other because of their race or religion. 

                My ESL classes at the Holy Spirit Life Learning Center start up again on February 15, so expect a new post soon!

Two sisters (in white) working on their superhero project

Everyone simultaneously breaking my  most important rule (no screaming)

Superheros the kids designed and decorated, including creations such as "Butterfly Woman" and "Ice Girl"