I’ve had the honor of co-facilitating “Writing in Community: Supporting English Language Learners Across the Disciplines,” a 10-day workshop for ESOL teachers in the school district of Philadelphia. As a way to begin a discussion about the connection between writing and oral language, for our third session participants were asked to bring in an artifact that would represent aspects of their lives that they would be willing to share.
Nearly all of the participants forgot their artifact (we had, after all, just come from a Thanksgiving holiday break). What seemed like a potential disaster turned out to be a very powerful experience. While not present in a physical form, the teachers were willing to describe an artifact they would have brought had they remembered: A bible passed down from generation to generation that still smelled of smoke from a fire that singed its pages; bracelets acquired from Goree Island (a slave-trading center in West Africa) that seemed to connect the participant with the ancestors of her past; a purple Harley Davidson that transported the participant from coast to coast on a three month journey only to return home to a car accident that left her with a brain injury.
Listening to these stories, and many others like them, reminded me that, as Isak Dinesen writes, “To be a person is to have a story to tell.” In her journal after the sharing one participant likened the artifact stories to a talisman, remarking that even though many of the artifacts were not present in the room in physical form, people carry the stories associated with them wherever they go.
Now that I am the computer teacher, I see nearly all of the 800+ children of the school so I can’t reasonably expect to mimic the artifact writing as I used to do when I had my own classroom, but listening to the wonderful stories of the teachers in the room reminded me of the many ways I could use the oral capabilities of my ELLs as a conduit to writing. In the computer lab the children have already begun by recording the story of their names using a simple digital audio editor called “Audacity" (listen to "2nd Grade Names" sample above).
There are obviously many more skills I need to teach them in the computer lab. However, I am pretty sure there is still room to honor the lives and personal experiences of my English language learners. Maya Angelou once said, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.” I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t give my students the space and the safety to share their stories.