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Making A Class Memory Quilt As A Way to Increase Language Fluency And Help ESOL Students Find Their Voices
By Bill Zimmerman
I have long believed that a key part of our job teaching students who are learning English is to help them find their voice – their voice as speakers, as writers, and as human beings.
To help my English language learners find their voices, we create paper memory quilts made up of individually drawn panels which show some of the key moments and memories in each student's life. Panel by panel, we construct memory quilts over weeks also as a way to get to know and bond with each other.
By encouraging students to use art to tap into the memories and recall their past, teachers can help students reveal the great richness of their lives and what makes them special and distinct individuals. From the stories they illustrate or write about and then discuss in class, we learn that they are more than just students who are trying to improve their English skills. We recognize and honor the fact that they are complex human beings with a history behind them and a future ahead of them.
Art Gives Students More Confidence to Speak
Each time an ESOL student creates a new paper panel he or she is asked to show it to the class and talk about the memory the panel evoked as we all gather around the student at the blackboard or wall on which the paper quilt panels are taped. Suddenly, as the students begins to discuss the panels they drew and elaborate on their content, their words came out more easily, their sentences are smoother and less staccato as they speak about their memories. Often their eyes light up with the joy of the memory, a smile appears on their face, and their voices become stronger and more musical. They are talking about things in their lives that are very important to them, such as memories of people they love and celebrated events with, about friendship, about food and having fun, about a favorite author, about the things they think are wonderful, about their hopes for the future.
Helping students express themselves through drawing, writing and speaking also enables them to better weather the enormous stress most of them experience as they learn their hard-won English and adjust to life in a new land far away from their original homes. Creating art and writing can help them find some release and hope.
I remember one very quiet student who was often shy in class and who drew a panel in memory of her brother-in-law who had just died - this became a way for her to come to terms with the grief of her family loss. In pointing to her panel on the wall, she finally found the words to talk about the feelings she had been holding inside her.
I came to the idea of encouraging English language learners to create memory quilts based on my own love of old hand-sewn quilts handed down from generation to generation. When we come across an old patchwork quilt, no matter how worn or faded with age, we touch it with awe. In doing so, we connect with the people who came before us and the memories they bring to mind.
While not all of us are fortunate enough to possess an ancestral patchwork quilt, each of us can create our own paper memory quilt to highlight the memories and special experiences of our lives and families. Such a quilt can be made up of individual cardboard panels. A good size is 7 inches by 7 inches, although panels can be larger if you prefer. To find sample blank panels that you can click on and print out for your students to draw on, here is a link – Make Beliefs Comix Memory Quilt Panels. This will take you to a memory quilt printables page on the MakeBeliefsComix.com site where you will find panels with themes printed on them as well as a blank panel for a student to choose her own theme.
Subjects for Memory Quilt Panels for Teaching ESOL
Some themes for your panels:
- A Memory I Will Never Forget
- The Happiest Day Of My Life
- A Favorite Pet; My Favorite Books
- A Hope Or Wish For The Future
- A Memory Of A Beautiful Garden
- Dream Of Someday Traveling to...
- A Favorite Family Song Or Saying
- My Favorite Baby Toy
- A Great Accomplishment
- A Memory of Past Generations
- It Makes Me Sad When...
- It Makes Me Happy When...
- Someone I Love Dearly
- A Favorite Family Recipe
- A Favorite Family Celebration
- A Memory Of A Proud Moment
- A Favorite Halloween Costume
- Some Special Family Days
- My Best Friend
Another Chinese student in my class, recalling a happy memory, drew a scene showing him as a boy celebrating the Chinese New Year with his family and eating wonderful dishes and exchanging gifts. A student from the Dominican Republic drew about her goal to be an entrepreneur. And another student from Japan illustrated a happy memory of the time she and her friends had a Halloween party and wore masks and costume. Another Japanese student made a panel of her favorite food placed on a dish with names and descriptions for each. A Russian student drew a triumphant moment when he had had climbed some tall mountains in his country. Each student smiled with pride when they described to the class what he or she had drawn.
During the class period when we draw panels, I bring crayons and magic markers so that my ESOL students can have a choice of colors in making their art or writing their stories on the panels. I have found, that no matter how old the students are, they respond positively to the smell and touch of the crayons – they cue them into the fond memories they had as children in coloring and making art. As they draw, I usually play some quiet, meditative music to help students relax and to create a peaceful, safe environment in which they can get in touch with their memories and feelings as they create art. These sessions usually last from anywhere from a half hour to 45 minutes, with students always asking for even more time because they find the drawing experience so pleasurable.
As each student completes her or his paper panel, I pin or tape it on a wall so that the students can see the class paper memory quilt which depicts their life stories emerge and grow in front of their eyes.
Make Drawing Paper Panels A Weekly ESOL Class Activity
I try hard to make the memory quilt panel drawing a weekly experience as a way to draw us all closer and learn more about each other. The quilt, as it grows in size and complexity over the weeks, becomes a concrete manifestation of all the learning we are experiencing together during that term. Our expanding quilt reflects our knowledge of each other's stories and makes us aware of the multi-cultural diversity of our different backgrounds.
After the students finish drawing on their paper panels, they are encouraged to sign and date each paper square panel, as well as to write on the back any additional thoughts they had in creating this particular memory panel. This might be information that sheds more light on the memory or event depicted on front. Doing so makes this a true historical document. And signing it gives the student pride of ownership and accomplishment. A drawn quilt panel also can become a jumping off point for a student to begin an essay about her important memory.
Paper quilts could be used for other subjects, too. Some ideas: a quilt to show endangered animals or plants; students' heroes -- real, fictional or mythical; hopes for the world; a quilt showing the year's most important news events featuring headlines and photographs cut from newspapers or magazines. How about a poetry quilt, with each panel featuring a poem or haiku written by a student? Or, a quilt of students' dreams for the future?
Students Interview One Another and Report Back What They Learned
During the first days of a new school term I encourage my students to interview one another in order to learn about each other's lives. I break the class down into teams of two, and provide a handout with questions they can use in interviewing each other. They are encouraged to listen carefully to what their partner says and to take notes while they interview. After the team members interview one another I'll have each questioner report back to the class what was learned from the person who was interviewed. Such an activity provides a way for each student to practice speaking and listening skills and helps build rapport among students. What better way to learn about each other than by interviewing?
Here are some interview questions which can be used:
- Hello, my name is ________________________. I am pleased to meet you. What is your name?
- Who were you named after? Does your name have a special meaning? Do you have a nickname? Were you named after someone?
- Where are you from? Where did you grow up?
- What was it like when you were a child? Tell me about it. What games did you play?
- What is your happiest memory? Saddest memory?
- What is the most important thing that ever happened to you in your life?
- What kind of work do you do? Why did you choose that type of work?
- What do you like about your job? What don't you like about it?
- Do you have a favorite hobby or interest? Tell me about it.
- Do you have a goal in life? What is it?
Encouraging ESOL Students to Create Autobiographical Comic Strips
At the beginning of each new school year have your students use MakeBeliefsComix.com to create autobiographical comic strips talking about themselves and their families or summarizing important things about their lives.
Let each student select a cartoon character as a surrogate to represent her- or himself. The students can talk about where they came from and why they came here. They can talk about their dreams, their goals, a happy or sad memory, and about their family members. They can talk about the opportunities and problems of being in the United States.
After students complete their comic strips, print them out and encourage your students to exchange their comics with classmates so they can learn more about each other. Students can also create comic strips that summarize what their individual interests are to help a teacher learn more about them. These autobiographical comic strips can even become the opening pages of a daily comix diary that students can be encouraged to keep throughout the school year. See Take Our Daily Comix Diary Challenge!
(Bill Zimmerman is the author of My Paper Memory Quilt and How to Tape Instant Oral Biographies, an oral history guide. Excerpts from these and all of his many books used in literacy and ESOL programs can be seen on his other educational web site at: www.billztreasurechest.com. He has taught writing at the Institute for Immigrant Concerns in New York City and tutored at the Aguilar/Spanish Harlem branch of the New York Public Library and at the Riverside Learning Center.)
For more ideas on using MakeBeliefsComix.com in the classroom, please go to: http://www.makebeliefscomix.com/How-to-Play/Educators. I encourage you to share with me the ways in which you use MakeBeliefsComix.com with your ESOL students. With your permission we will share them with other educators who come to this site. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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