Teaching Thomas: Update – iPad, Hand Language, and Red Envelopes

So I’m really really really going to try to consistently post about ESL related stuff and my teaching experiences this semester. It’s actually going to be a very exciting semester because I’ll be going through an internship/training program on preparing me to teach an ESL class for next semester (summer). Basically, this is the real deal!

I thought I’d start by posting an update about Thomas and his progress. So far, I’ve been working with him for almost a year and it’s been such an amazing experience. For those of you who know me personally, I love kids and for sure want kids when I’m older. So for now, it’s been absolutely fascinating working with Thomas. He’s such a bright, creative kid that in every session, I see him learn and grow. Of course, one of the recurring problems that I’ve noticed and have been trying to confront is that his mom has very high and unrealistic standards for his academic performance (if we can even call it that at his age). After all, he is only in the first grade. So what if he mixes up his lowercase and uppercase Ks or that he can’t get the grammar in a simple sentence correctly. In so many other ways, I see him as a very smart and mentally active student, and though I’ve been trying to point these instances out to his mother, it’s still difficult to shake off the traditional ideas of achievement and success, even at the first grade level.

Thomas has gotten much better at reading. As always, he’s extremely attentive to the “text” in story books beyond that of just words, such as the pictures. I can now let him read independently and he can read about 80% of the content without my help. Just today, we were reading a book by Mo Willems and we came across the word “idea”, which he didn’t recognize and instead pronounced it as “iPad”. Besides being  hilarious and fascinating for obvious reasons, I think this also gives a glimpse of how Thomas figures out words that he does not automatically recognize. I think we can say that he chose to read the word “idea” as “iPad” for two reasons: 1) He’s familiar with what an iPad is, maybe because his mom owns one, and 2) He sees the “i”, “a”, and “d”, as well as the relative length of the word, which makes “idea” look like “iPad” look similar. It’s the process of connecting something familiar (an iPad) with something unknown (the word “idea”) and trying to figure out what that unknown is.

After we read a story, I make (yes, I have to force him to) him write a short story about something related to what we read. For example, today we read about a pigeon that wants to drive. Therefore, after we finish reading, I ask him if he wants to drive, where would he drive to, and who would he take. Then, I ask him to write a few lines of sentences, or what we call a story. I have him make a title for his story and then once he’s finished, he can draw a picture underneath. The finished product is a title and a few lines of writing that is oftentimes grammatically incorrect, but usually perfectly coherent and very creative. Yet, this is where the mom keeps nudging at…

Today, another really exciting thing happened with Thomas. Before meeting with him, I visited the local library to borrow a few picture books for us to read together. I stumbled upon a “Sign Language for Kids” book, which is basically a simplified American Sign Language dictionary. It contains many of the simple, everyday signs that kids use, many of which I don’t even know so I borrowed it. At the end of our session, I showed Thomas the book and asked him if he knew what the hands were doing. To my surprise, he knew what sign language was, from school he says, and he calls it “Hand Language”. He started showing me random letters in the alphabet and we ended up spelling our respective names using ASL. Another one of his mother’s concerns is Thomas’ spelling skills and I just realized today that the ASL alphabet could be a great, interactive way of having him practice spelling everyday words. This is definitely something I’m going to continue exploring. I’m even taking a Deaf Education class this semester so hopefully there will be things I can learn from that to help Thomas.

Lastly, Thomas and I exchanged red envelopes! I bought him a sack of gold, chocolate coins and his mother gave me some cash in the envelopes. Amazingly enough, Thomas has also improved in his Mandarin. He knows how to say “new year” in English, Cantonese, AND Mandarin. Quite impressive indeed.

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