66: Transformative Teaching

66: Transformative Teaching

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Transformative Teaching

If you take advantage of everything America has to offer, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish.

~Geraldine Ferraro

When a local community center put out a plea for experienced volunteer teachers, I abandoned an unrewarding early retirement to accept the challenge. I hoped to regain a sense of purpose with a familiar and comfortable experience — teaching.

But on that first day, as I stood in front of the classroom and surveyed my twenty gray-haired and wrinkled students, I realized that this teaching experience would be a totally new adventure. These eager students were aged refugees, permanent residents in America for less than five years, and this class was their next step to American citizenship.

As the first session progressed, I was impressed with their strong reading and writing skills. Speaking was their weakness. Each could manage the minimal oral communication required for placement in the citizenship class, but they lacked the crucial conversational English skills needed to pass the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) oral test and interview.

To encourage good, old-fashioned practice, I decided to emphasize oral interaction rather than lectures and student-written reports. Additionally, I would begin each three-hour class with a short period of casual conversation to ease their self-consciousness and encourage English usage. By the end of that first day, I had quickly regained my “teacher legs,” determined the best course design for my students’ success, and recaptured my long-lost enthusiasm.

My sixty- to eighty-year-old pupils demonstrated exceptional determination. They worked hard to master their adopted language. I found their dedication awe-inspiring. They came early and stayed late. So did I. By week three, we were assembling an hour before class just to chat in English. They especially wanted to talk with me, so I often found myself in the center of three or four ongoing conversations at once. It was exhilarating.

Toward the end of the ten-week course, the students began to receive notices for their INS interviews and tests. I was confident they would pass, but they were all nervous anyway. On the day prior to each student’s interview, he or she stayed after class to privately talk with me and receive encouragement and a hug.

As they passed the dreaded INS ordeal, each student returned in triumph. Amazingly, even though they no longer needed the preparatory class, they continued to attend, acting as mentors to those who awaited final interviews. We became a team: a teacher and her naturalized-citizen helpers.

On the last day of the semester, all twenty students took their usual seats. The room fell silent. One of my newly minted American citizens stood and spoke in halting but understandable English. As class spokesperson, he thanked me for helping them earn their U.S. citizenship. When he sat down, twenty pairs of hands reached into brown paper bags and emerged with special gifts — homemade ethnic foods carefully wrapped in aluminum foil, hand-picked garden flowers, candy bars, even a plastic key ring from San Francisco. The elderly refugees, dependent on meager government assistance, passed these generous offerings forward to make a small pile on my desk.

I thanked them for their eloquent words of gratitude and their thoughtful gifts. Then I added a sincere “thank you” for their greatest gift to me — helping me find a new sense of worth, contentment with retired life, and a renewed vigor for public service. There were many tears all around, with lots of tissues and hugs before we said our final farewells. In the empty classroom, I stared at the gifts, awash in contradictory end-of-school-term feelings — proud my students were able to move on, yet not wanting to let them go.

~Lynne Daroff Foosaner

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