essay submitted by susan gill.
language is a living thing. as a teacher of english as a second language, i am fascinated by changing speech patterns. in “the peach project,” a freshman seminar, i’ve used performance poetry to generate discussion between fluent english speakers and esl students.
in my fall seminar, i acted out “autobio” while reciting this rumination on my life for my students, then passed out copies of the poem and asked for written responses. the students’ reactions were intense and varied.
one student expressed religious faith: “[the poem] speaks of plunging forward and not holding back. this weekend i talked to some friends about this. it is easy/hard but secure to be cautious at every step and try to figure out what could happen at every turn so that no suffering or pain could hit you or you could not make a mistake. . . . [god] will teach us through the pain that may come. . . . we will fall into a sea of fish or into jail yet god will lead us through both.”
another student focused on the poet’s reaction to strictures: “the writer tells us how frustrated her life has been. she reveals how ridiculous the existing social systems has [sic] been to her. she had to pay a price for telling the truth. but finally she never gave up her dreams and her hopes.”
a third student struck a personal note, relating “autobio” to her struggles with her mother and father over her choice of a boyfriend: “each line reminds me of my last few years of life and events, such as fights with my parents about my inter-racial relationship and losing everything i had ever worked for because of their close-mindedness. i fell in love . . . how was i to know race would be such a factor in my happiness?”
one paper included a sketch of a haloed stick figure falling from the clouds into a lake. two fish jump out of the water towards each other; three hearts hover above them. mountains and a forest loom in the background. vertical bars cover the entire scene. the illustrator wondered if perhaps the poem depicted literal events in my life, writing, “did you really go to jail?”
with the students’ permission, i photocopied their papers and distributed copies to the class, which divided into small groups. the ensuing discussions seemed animated yet relaxed.
first-year seminars encourage inventiveness; i love teaching them.
one of the reasons i created my particular course was to counteract the ghettoization of esl students and esl professionals. we tend to operate in our own enclave. having taught esl since 1977, i was beginning to view u.s. americans as exotic!
my esl experience has prepared me for my role as a facilitator in my seminars. i sometimes compare the work of esl teachers to that of translators-not because we translate japanese, spanish and turkish into english, but because we must translate highly idiosyncratic forms of english into standard lexicon. for example, if a japanese student says (as one of mine did): “i love the cow ceremony i saw in arizona,” i must interpret her meaning to the rest of the class without disrupting the flow of conversation or shaming the speaker.
“oh, you really enjoyed the rodeo,” i say.
when hugh ruppersburg, associate dean of the franklin college of arts and sciences, allowed me to offer “the peach project” to uga freshmen as well as international students studying english at the american language program, i jumped at the chance. the multiple perspectives of the class-the hybrid vigor-inspires me. i consider the class an exercise in cultural literacy for all participants, including myself.