By Barbara Suter
As I listened to the high-school students recounting their stories to the audience of how they immigrated to the United States, I couldn't help but admire their courage and confidence. I remember myself at that age; timid and easily intimidated by my elders, I never would have had the gumption to "tell my story" nor did I even realize I had one to tell.
I knew immediately that the poise and articulation of these students was largely due to the influence of my colleague, their high-school ENL teacher who had invited me to this event showcasing their narratives of their life stories. She is very good at making her ENL students feel welcome and giving them the tools they need to survive in their "new world." I later learned from her that the students had also had the opportunity to work closely with two trainers from the award-winning radio enterprise known as "The Moth" in biweekly, focused sessions designed to prepare them to tell their personal stories.
The "take-away" for me of this performance was to experience the empowered "voices" of these young people, the most valuable gift they could have been given by the very dedicated educators who have worked so closely with them. I realized while listening to them speak in English that once you "own your story," nobody can change it. You are who you are, with no apologies and no excuses.
The power of having a "voice" is not to be underestimated. Without one you are invisible. You cannot help yourself or others you care about. You are not counted as someone with a claim to what life has to offer. You become the victim of forces beyond your control. We all know about and have read about people who are invisible in our culture and in others. It was clear to me after this performance that these students would no longer be invisible; they were ready to begin to claim their place in their new society and they would become responsible, as much as possible, for their own fate and the fate of those they care about.
So how does a non-native English speaker acquire a "voice" to advocate for him/her self? This is one of the most challenging parts of being an ENL teacher. Yes, you teach vocabulary, grammar, idioms, pronunciation, slang...all the linguistic components of a language. But even more importantly, you teach how to live in the new language. You model for your students how to make this new language part of their life...a meaningful part. You want them to be able to learn in this new language, to communicate with others, to be able to communicate their feelings with appropriate words, to ask questions and seek answers. You want them to learn to love English as a part of who they are.
My colleague does all these things and more. She teaches the linguistic components of English to her high school students, but she also teaches them how to use the English language in ways that will benefit them in their new lives. She knows that her students' command of English, or lack of, will either help them find their way, or become an obstacle to what they hope to achieve. This is the work I saw when I witnessed the story-telling performances of her students. They are not only using English to communicate with the audience; they are using their "voice" to make a vital connection to their new culture, to show the audience how they are the same and different, that they are not invisible.
Isn't that what we all strive for?
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