Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Best thing since sliced bread

One of the pleasures of being on my own schedule is that I get to volunteer on my own schedule, too. I’d been involved with the Alaska Literacy Program for years, mainly because of the old “teach a person to fish” idea. Giving people the tools to forge their own self-sufficient futures seems to me to be the way to go, and literacy is a natural. But I’d never actually tutored or taught a class.

Until I unemployed myself.

I started as a substitute, teaching writing for a couple of weeks. Then I took on a whole class on Idioms. They gave me a book with lessons and a classroom with students. We did a whole bit on anger: hit the roof, blow my top, go off the deep end, see red.

And then every now and then, there was an idiom on the list that I didn’t get: “take out the garbage.” Why was that an idiom? And then you realize, as you’re working with people whose first language is not English, that “take” usually means you get something and keep it. We take seconds on dessert. But we don’t hold onto our garbage; we dispose of it. So in that case, “take” is different, an idiom.

Oh, I love words!

Sometimes, when I’d give an assignment, I’d tell the class they had to come to class no matter what, no chickening out. “Chickening out?”
This was proving to be a lot of fun. Literacy Program students are committed adults; they are there because they want to learn, to become citizens, to be active members of their families and society. I graduated to teaching a whole writing class, and they taught me things, too. When Vilairat had been out collecting devil’s club, she ended up with lots of spines in her legs. She came into class with banana peels wrapped around her legs. I was skeptical … until the remedy showed up in one of my magazines at home.

Now I’m teaching a great class. I have students from Korea, Laos, Mexico, South Sudan, and China, and our book covers things like renting an apartment or visiting a doctor, reading prescription labels, dealing with emergencies. Yesterday, Sophia (who knows Chinese medicine and is preparing to apply for the test to be qualified to practice) told us that tofu and flour, mashed into a paste, is good for burns.

We have spent a lot of time recently on using the present perfect tense: I have eaten, you have danced. While I might use it because it sounds right to my ear, I have to provide the rules to help my students develop the ear. It reminds me of when I lived in Costa Rica, taking Spanish. After a while, when I finally mastered the subjunctive (I wish I were…), someone told me that made a big difference, that before I’d only spoken Tarzan Spanish: “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” I couldn’t tell. Even now, I wouldn’t feel the jarring it would give to a native speaker’s ear.

This is hard work. Rosario, from Mexico, was reading about elevating a wound. But pronunciation is tricky: this is wound like “woooond,” not like “wound around.” Rosario’s daughter goes to preschool down the hall while Rosario is in class, and she’s adorable.

We look at complex pictures of things going on and try to explain them in English. In the department store, a shopper had fallen asleep in a chair in the furniture department while a man checked the price tag. “No,” said Sophia, “that isn’t a price tag. That’s the controls. It’s a massage chair; that’s why she fell asleep.”
That one really had us laughing. Maybe you had to be there. In fact, you can be there. The Literacy Program is always looking for more teachers, and the staff gives lots of help and support. I am valued as a volunteer, and walking in the door is like walking into an oasis of pleasant, positive, meaningful activity. If one of the Big Three for a Third Third is Purpose, I get that. The fun is just gravy (an idiom).


  1. Idiomatic speech is something I never quite mastered with English as first language. In Britain, having stuck my oar in with some local idioms, bemused reactions advise against cocking up local expressions ever more.

  2. Barbara - The website for Alaska Literacy Project says "This site may hacked". Maybe you can bring this to the attention of the webmaster so that fundraising is not adversely impacted.

    1. That doesn't happen with my browser. Have you typed in ?

  3. Oh Barbara thanks for such a wonderful post!!!! You are cherished here:) Lori


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