February 8, 2008

Taking a page from Oprah

What makes Jesse Zink and Oprah Winfrey different? One will work in a shantytown in South Africa and the other won’t. On one of her many jaunts to Africa – and this is a true story – Oprah was planning to visit Itipini but at the last minute her “people” pulled the plug on the visit because they decided it was too “dangerous” for her here. Too “dangerous” for her but not for the Episcopal Church!

But what do Jesse Zink and Oprah Winfrey have in common? We both have book clubs.

Thanks to a generous donation from a supporter, I have several copies of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” In my new high-school after-school English class, we have just started reading this classic and, I sincerely hope, will make it to the end sometime before the second coming.
I knew it would be above the reading level of the students but I picked it in the hopes that they would rise to the challenge. So far, the results have been mixed. There are all the usual group-related challenges of varying skill levels and levels of interest, not to mention the fear of embarrassment in front of one’s friends. Navigating these in another language is, like everything else here, aggravating beyond belief. I stop frequently to test their comprehension and the students give me dumbfounded looks and are unable to answer some pretty basic questions.

But there are also the small victories. You should have seen the look on their faces when I gave each student a book and said it was an “isipho” (gift) that they could keep forever. I’m not sure if any of them had ever received such an expensive gift and I’m sure none of them had ever received a brand-new book before. It was like when I told them they could buy two pairs of socks each. Watching the students help each other sound out words (the advantage of having varying skill levels in a group) is great, as is seeing the look of (moderate) disappointment on their faces when we reach the end of a chapter and finish our session for the day.

I had initially thought about reading “The BFG” but decided against it because I was worried there would be too many made-up words in it. (I’ve never forgotten the words “whizpopper” or “snozzcumber” even though I read the book at least 15 years ago.) These students have enough trouble with real words without any other complications. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was my compromise choice but I realize now that every Dahl book has made-up words in it so we’ll just muddle through like we do with everything else.

But “Charlie” has proven to be an inspired choice for another reason, namely that Charlie’s life is a lot like that of students. He lives in a small, run-down house on the edge of a big town, is desperately poor, lives close to starvation, and so on and so forth. I just hope the book doesn’t raise the hopes of my students that some day they’ll find a Golden Ticket out of their current lives.

I also have another English class of younger, middle-school age students. My lessons with them have so far been comically awful and frustrating, due as much to my own woefully inept and insufficient planning as to what I realize are universal attributes of middle-school students. But that’s a story for another time.