October 14, 2007

Finally, a real conversation

Posted in Literacy Needs, Myanmar, Refugee at 10: 44 pm by MK

So I went to pick A. and K. up for the nutrition class and dinner but when I got there I discovered that A. had already left and K. was definitely not going. K. had visitors: a couple, their two-month old baby (an absolutely adorable little girl) and an elderly man who I think was somehow related to the couple. K. immediately welcomed me in and insisted I join them for dinner. Well the smell of coconut and spices was so good I couldn’t say no. The male visitor, I’ll call him D., had been in the U.S. for ten years (he’s also Burmese) and could speak English pretty fluently. He explained that K. had made a traditional Burmese dish for dinner: coconut soup that you pour over noodles. It was fantastic.

So upon realizing that I was sitting with someone who could speak both English and Burmese, and seemed eager to talk, I realized this was my chance. I could actually ask all of the questions I have wanted to, but couldn’t. I learned so much in a simple two hours.

First a little background on D., he’s pretty amazing. He told me that he married his wife in 1987. In 1988 when the first Burma violence began, she left for a Thailand refugee camp and he stayed behind to fight against the government. He wasn’t reunited with her until 2003; she had waited for him, most of the time not knowing if she’d ever see him again. Wow. He has some physical scarring and is missing both arms below the elbow. From what he told me, I got the impression these are wounds from the war. In a conversation we had about children (yes, he and all the Burmese folks I’ve met are pretty much in shock that at 30 I don’t have any) he told me that he was glad to finally have a child. He feels that by having a child she will be able to fight for his and her country after he is gone. He kept stressing how important that is: to have his children continue the fight for freedom in Burma. He said that he cannot be happy until the war in Burma is over.

So, he translated a conversation between myself and K., and it felt great. For the first time I felt like I really communicated with her, really got to ask her my questions and answer hers. I felt like we bonded.

Information I’ve discovered:

In Burmese culture it is not acceptable for K. to tell me what she needs when I ask her if she needs clothing or things for the house. D. couldn’t quite explain it, but I’m assuming it has to do with pride and taking charity. However, if she tells D. and he tells me, that’s okay. I could then bring things to her as presents. What does she need? a blanket. That’s what she asked for– a blanket. My heart literally broke. They are also clearly in need of warm clothing, jackets, etc… This I can help with; I’ve already started to go through my closets.

Bigger news: K. is expecting! She just found out and seems partially worried, partially excited. She said that when she arrived in the U.S. she had asked her case worker for birth control, but never received any. So this baby was not exactly planned. And she hasn’t yet been enrolled in Medicaid, so she’s concerned about seeing the doctor. She does have a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday. I’ve already e-mailed the case worker to ensure she’s getting the prenatal care she needs.

But K. confided in me that she’s not exactly pleased with her case worker. The details as to why make me concerned, but because she asked for my confidence I don’t feel comfortable discussing them here. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this information, but I’m glad I’m aware of it.

After we got through all this, the doorbell rang and about ten other people, poured into the apartment. The network of Burmese families is really strong and I’m sure provides such greatly needed support on all levels. I said my goodbyes and asked D. how to say “thank you very much for dinner” in Burmese. They all laughed at my terrible attempt, but it felt great to see K. smile. It felt great to start figuring things out.


October 13, 2007

Qaug dab peg

Posted in Literacy Needs at 7: 47 pm by MK

Translation: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.

I don’t know if I have ever been so captivated and moved by a book before. If you haven’t yet read it, read it. Author Anne Fadiman writes the moving account of the Lees, a Hmong refugee family, and the American doctors who all struggle to treat Lia, the Lee’s epileptic daughter. Well, epileptic by American terms. The Lee’s believe that a “dab,” or evil spirit has stolen Lia’s soul. Lia’s spirit was frightened out her body and stolen by the dab due to the loud slam of a screen door when she was three months old. Thus, quag dab peg: the spirit catches you and you fall down. However the illness is defined, treatment of and care for Lia is attempted through cultural and language barriers.

Fadiman writes the account in such a way that you leave the book knowing either side cannot be blamed. Both the doctors and the Lees want the best for Lia–that becomes obvious. But how do you balance eastern vs. western medicine? How do you convince a family who doesn’t speak your language to keep administering drugs that are causing clear side effects? How do you tell a tired, overworked doctor that the problem is a baby’s spirit has gone missing? How do you explain to a refugee family that their daughter is being taken into foster care because they are not caring for her properly? How do you convince the family they aren’t caring for her properly when they are doing everything in their power to help her be well?

Reading Fadiman’s book, makes me realize that the communication issues I have been having with A. & K. are low-stakes issues. While having enough food stamps, getting the children into school, having a TV set connected, and explaining door-to-door solicitation are all potentially serious issues, they aren’t to the level that could someday potentially happen. I have explained the concept of 911, but if one of the children became seriously ill would they remember the lesson and dial it? The Lees would often first contact a relative who spoke limited English to come to their house and make the call for the ambulance, losing precious moments. And if they did bring their sick child to the E.R., how would they communicate with the doctors? Obviously I pray they never have to face this scenario, but it’s clear that others, like the Lees, will and have faced this situation. One thing that seems overwhelming about the situation is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear way to address or prevent it.

Refugees in my area seem to have a good state and federal network of support and help. All of the folks I have encountered at the U.S. Committee of Immigrants & Refugees are clearly invested in the well-being of refugee families. For some, the job is simply their life–they work long and odd hours simply helping people adjust. But what happens when someone fall through the cracks? Or what happens when a family, like the Lees, encounter such a difficult medical situation the cultural and language barriers seem impossible to work around?

I don’t have answers to these questions, and I don’t think Fadiman has them either. I think the only thing we can do is read books like The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, and try to understand.

October 3, 2007

Understanding Bilingualism

Posted in English as a second language, Literacy Needs, Second language learning at 8: 46 pm by MK

I just finished an interesting article, “Bilingual Minorities and Language Issues in Writing: Toward Professionwide Responses to a New Challenge,” by Guadalupe Valdes. In it, she seeks to define the bilingual individual and place an emphasis on the need for more research conducted specifically on second-language writing. She divides bilingual individuals into two categories: elective and circumstantial. Electives are those English speakers who have sought out foreign language classes such as Spanish or French, and have even gone to live or study abroad in another country. However, the intent of an elective is not to necessarily move to said country or fully adopt the foreign language. Most electives are middle class: learning another language is a luxury of sorts. Circumstantials, on the other hand, are forced to relocate to a new country and must learn the new language for survival. Yes, I’m kind of an elective (although I never became fluent, I did attempt to learn Spanish and study abroad) and A. & K. are circumstantials. Funny, when you compare myself to A. & K. it’s easy to see how drastically different electives and circumstantials can be.

When Valdes breaks down the circumstantials, she notes some interesting particulars. The child learner will enter a “functional” stage of learning after about two years of being in a new country. This means that he/she will be basically fluent and able to function in all aspects of life with needed written and oral language skills. Interestingly, when the child has reached this stage, he/she will begin to avoid using his/her native language. However, this native language will still be present in the way he/she both speaks and writes. Adult learners will most likely not enter the functional stage until they have been in the new country for 10 years. They will also remain native language preferrent.

Obviously the 2 and 10 year markers are averages. What can impact and change these estimates is the amount of time the second-language learner is surrounded by speakers of the new language. Z. & G. may learn much more quickly because they are in school five days a week surrounded by English speakers. A. has a good chance of lessening that 10 year marker because most likely he will soon get some form of employment and be exposed to English speakers on a daily basis. K., unfortunately, will probably take longer to hit the functional mark. Culturally, the expectation for her is to stay home and raise the children, especially with such young children. As the Burmese community is quite large in our area, she will most likely be surrounded by Burmese speakers on a daily basis. As my grandmother grew up being her mother’s Italian translator (my great grandmother never came close to hitting the functional stage), I can easily see Z. & G. assuming that role for ther parents.

Valdes argues that much of the research conducted on second-language learners has focused on oral learning, with the assumption that oral conclusions automatically apply to writing skills and learning. After living in Madrid for six months, I could speak Spanish well. However, my writing skills definitely did not match the oral. (I could only write in present tense!) And when we think of the composition classroom, it seems instructors need to be aware that simply because their bilingual student may speak clearly, they will still have special needs in terms of writing instruction.

For me, Valdes offers a clear analysis and understanding of the bilingual student. Obviously, each student is an individual and experiences can change dramatically but at least this is a place to start, to begin an understanding.

October 2, 2007

A good night

Posted in English as a second language, Literacy Needs, Second language learning, Teaching Tools at 8: 34 pm by MK

So much for the doom & gloom of my last post. Tonight’s visit, while not exactly soothing my guilty conscious, was really great. The kids are in school and are thriving. They have successfully (and quite confidently I must say) navigated the public transportation system and have settled into new lives as 6th & 7th graders. They could proudly and clearly tell me the name of both their school and their teacher. (Although the whole Mrs. vs. Mr. thing did need to get sorted out…)

We spent most of the evening looking through the papers in their backpacks. One of the first things I discovered was an emergency contact sheet that needed to be filled out for both children. I went over it with Z. & G. and had them each write in the necessary pieces (address, phone number, parents’ names, DOBs). It was good to hear them recite both their address and phone number. However, when G. went to write his parents’ names, he incorrectly spelled both of them. K. was right there watching over his shoulder and did not recognize the misspelling of her name in English. I helped to correct the names, and then reviewed with all of them how to spell their names. Is K. misspelling her name on anything she needs to sign or write in English?

I could not explain “date of birth,” so I ended up asking K. for her immigration papers. On the papers I found birth dates for all the family members and explained that this was the information that needed to be written on the sheets for the two children. Now maybe it’s just a wild coincidence, but Z. & G. both have the exact same birth date a year apart. Yes, they are one-year apart in age, but were they really born on the exact same day of the same month? This seems pretty unlikely. But if the date is incorrect on their immigration papers, what is the chance that it will be changed? And do they know what to change it to? Even though I think I correctly communicated what the date stands for, they all readily agreed that it was correct. Yeah, not sure what to do about this one . . .

A young man (Burmese speaking) from the apartment downstairs came up at some point to translate a few questions A. & K. had for me. The issue is that the children would like to eat lunch from the school but are unsure if it is halal. I expressed that the safest (and cheapest) bet would be for the kids to pack their lunches and bring them along. But then I realized they would definitely qualify for free school lunches. I brought this up to my translator (yes, he did speak English, but it was still rough) who responded that in order for the kids to get free school lunch the cost of the meals would be deducted from the families’ food stamp allotment. This doesn’t seem right to me. The family then told me this was a problem because they currently do not have food stamps left, and are waiting for the next installment. Worried, I asked repeatedly if they had enough food in the house to eat until they received the next installment of food stamps. They said yes. I’m not so sure they weren’t telling me what they knew I wanted to hear. However, when I left K. was cooking something that smelled fantastic, but just to be on the safe side I’m going to drop a note to their case worker tomorrow.

G. had homework to complete for tomorrow. He had to read out loud for 15 minutes and then record what he had read and how many pages. Well, by slowly sounding out letters and words we actually got through 2 pages of a children’s book– I was really proud of him! But again that guilt kicks in….who’s going to be there to help him tomorrow?

I looked through the ESL assignments they’d done in school so far and it made me feel really good. Most of the exercises were things that I actually had been doing with them, so it was a nice confirmation that I have been on the right track. And the best part is, the kids, and the family as a whole, seem to be on the right track.

September 12, 2007

Lower vs. Upper Case Letters

Posted in Literacy Needs at 12: 27 pm by MK

Last night I worked with just the two children (Z. age 10 and G. age 11).  By being able to spend some time alone with them, I realized how little English they know/understand and how they were just getting swept along in the adult group lessons.  I spent a lot of time on the alphabet with Z.  She has trouble distinguishing M from N and also difficulty remembering R and U.  Another issue I discovered is that she has learned to recognize letters only in upper case form.  Therefore, as I had her spelling out words from the picture dictionary, I realized she wasn’t familiar with the shapes of the lower case letters.  Yes, a huge deal.  Remember her alphabet is completely different.

So it makes me think about what else I’m missing, or not clued into.  And I realize the only way to figure these things out is to keep working.  But in the meantime it feels slightly frustrating that I’m not picking up these things sooner. 

September 7, 2007

The unexpected

Posted in Literacy Needs, Second language learning, Uncategorized at 11: 56 am by MK

I went to the apartment last night with an array of lesson plans & activities.  I was prepared to teach, and teach well.  And I was ready for one student, or ten.  I thought this was going to be the night we would make some real progress; I was determined.

When I arrived, I quickly realized that just because I have some nice, neat lesson plan packed in my bag, doesn’t mean that the family is sitting there waiting for me to show up.  They are dealing with real, concrete, functional issues of life:  like sending two kids to school for the first time.

Ordinarily the junior-high school both children attend would be a short one-block walk from their apartment.  However, it’s currently being renovated so now the trek to school consists of two city buses and a transfer half-way.  Their case manager O. was there last night trying to get things sorted out.  O. and I ended up driving the children to their new school so they could see what it looked like, and then figuring out the best bus-route for them to take.

I felt for the two kids.  When we pulled up to the school, I really tried to look at it through their eyes:  it was big and looming and scary.  I gave them encouragment and acted excited, but their fear was evident.  Going back to school for any child can be overwhelming, let alone in a new country when you don’t speak the language.  And I know adults (okay, myself included, I’ll admit it) that would be nervous about taking the city bus and negogiating a transfer…how are these kids suppose to feel? 

O. is going to do a dry-run on the bus with them and take them to school herself on Monday (their first day).  I am sure this will help.  The school has also assured her that they have a number of refugee-status children, are familiar and comfortable working with the families, and have the experience to do so.    I am sure the first few weeks will be rocky, but it will get better.  And the children will become sponges, learning the language quickly. 

As I drove home last night, I realized my lesson plans never left my bag, but it felt like I got a lot done.  My concept of “progress” is always changing.