Cambridge, MA, USA
"Children have stories in their heads," my director George Hill, told me. "You don't have
to tell them what to write. You give them a pencil and a piece of paper, a method, and
I wasn't sure if I believed him. Was this really the best way to teach ESL to a class of ten
Vietnamese refugees? After all, I could barely teach them to add the "s" in the singular
verb tense--how could I teach these children how to write creatively? A large part of me,
too, doubted their innate talent. They haven't been brought up under the American school system, I thought. They haven't been taught to exercise their imagination.
So began my first summer with the Boston Refugee Youth Enrichment (BRYE) Program at Harvard. My previous experience in teaching had been with rich Korean Americans who wanted their children to read three years above their grade level, not
with a class of ten Vietnamese fifth graders who had immigrated to America only a few years before. When the only phrases I knew were "Good morning children," "Make one line please," and "I am very handsome," I knew that language was going to be a problem and a barrier in reaching my students.
On the second day of class, then, I stood in front of my students and nervously cleared my
throat. "Good morning," I said. "Today our class is going to learn the writing method."
So began a painful period of explanation, translation, and discipline. With only a limited
command of the English language and a very small literate background, the students saw no reason behind the process of prewriting, writing, revision, and editing. "Just try it," I
repeated through gritted teeth, again and again. "Did my elementary teachers ever feel like this?" I wondered. "Who ever knew I would dislike class as much as my students did?"
One night at the convent where we stayed, I despaired with my co-workers. "Theyll
never get it," I mourned. "Maybe I should go back to grammar and vocabulary." Mai Nguyen, a Mount Holyoke student with a way with words, replied, "Just don't give up, you stupid bum. They all have something to write about, and they're worth the effort."
Amazingly, she was right. Soon stories began pouring from the hands of my students. I
marvelled at imaginative tales of magic rocks who wanted to be boys, accounts of their experiences with racism, and descriptions of their favorite BRYE teacher, "Big Sister" Peter. I devoured tales of trees and parks and girls to whom little boys gave flowers; I watched as topics of writing appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Who ever
knew that Thien had a fish of seven colors? Who would have thought that Thai could write a haiku
about his walkman? Who would've hoped that Tuyen would say that she loved BRYE Summer more than anything?
And who would have known the awareness of children in dealing with the refugee experience? I was most shocked by the piece written by Anh Nguyen, "I Live in the Thailand." An avid
Backstreet Boys fan, she was always listening to their newest album on the van ride to school, or on the afternoon field trips. I spent most of my time with her crooning "I Want it That Way" or whatever random Disney tune we could think of. Her draft was simple and nostalgic, beginning with the phrase, "In Thailand I have a very bad and good life at the same time..." But when her talk of pigs and school and bicycles ended, she decided to write about the bad life in Thailand.
"One day there is a riot in the other refugee camp; the children cannot eat and people stab themselves with sharp knives and spoons, The Polices come to stop the riot; they hit the refugees and some of refugees stab themselves to death. However, the reason the riot begins is because these people want to go to U.S., but they cannot go, so a lot of refugees commit suicide. I see that this is so scary and this is so sad."
To know the extent of her suffering--barely a teenager--and the severity of her experiences...I realized then that this instruction was not only about how to speak English, but also how to process all the struggles and trials these children had undergone. Through words and pictures, they trusted me enough to express the pains and joys of their lives--and both I and the children have grown immensely because of that. For all the Anhs I can reach, I'm going back to BRYE Summer this year.
For more information on the BRYE Summer program, go to www.hcs.harvard.edu/~brye or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.