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

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