Okay, I bet you thought that the kids were leaving school to boycott or rally for a cause. No, what I meant is that my ESL students literally left the classroom to walk around the community, and in doing so experienced an explosion of English. Let me back up a little and explain.
On Friday afternoons, yes, every Friday for one year … that’s 36 times to be exact, we took walking field trips around Neenah, Wis., located about 40 miles south of Green Bay. Since Washington Elementary School was located just a few blocks from downtown, it made it easy to explore. My ESL aide, all 15 students, and I would venture outside. It didn’t matter the weather. Sometimes I would have a certain route and goal in mind. I may have even called a few businesses/establishments ahead of time to say we would be coming. Other than that, we often just explored spontaneously.
Neenah is a small town of about 25,000 residents. So we walked. On the first trip, we wandered over to the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum beside Lake Winnebago, the largest inland lake in the state. It has the largest collection of paperweights in the world and is housed in an old brick three-story mansion. There was also a watercolor exhibit at the time. I don’t remember the artist, but I do remember going around the gallery and talking about the scenes and the colors. Then I asked the students to stand next to their favorite painting and to tell everyone why it was their favorite.
When Mai would not move from my side, I thought she did not understand what I had said. But after repeating the direction, she still did not move. Then she blurted out, “I can’t.” When I offered to help her, she said, “No, I can’t because all of the paintings are my favorite. They are all so beautiful.” I knew then that these Friday afternoons would make learning come alive for my ESL students and not only expand their English skills but their world. The museum curator graciously told the kids to select postcards from the gift store and he gave them a free invitation to take part in the Saturday drawing classes.
The next Friday we hit the local bakery. I called ahead of time. The baker was waiting for us. So were the dozens of cookies, cakes and pastries to sample. In fact, he let the students frost their own cupcakes and handed out his favorite recipes. What’s more? He passed out goodie bags to take home so the student’s families could also share in the delectable tastes of these homemade sweets.
It was soon the end of another week. We walked to the library, filled out forms to get library cards, and were treated to a special puppet theater of Aesop’s fables. After checking out books, the students were given book bags and calendars of ongoing literacy activities for their families. Some of the students have joined the weekly book discussion groups and others have gone to the film festivals and author presentations. Many of them have taken their younger siblings to the library and even showed mom and dad how to use the computers and where to find the daily newspaper to read.
The toy store was on the agenda the next Friday. The store owner was more than happy to give a tour and explain many of the popular items. The excitement in the students’ eyes was proof enough that the vocabulary learned in this session was beyond what could be learned in the classroom. On the way back to school, we stopped at the ice cream shop. Before I could find enough change, the owner offered ice cream cones to everyone. He passed out tokens for free ice cream desserts on a subsequent trip. The children immediately used their best “thank-yous” in appreciation.
Friday could not come soon enough. There was the trip to the post office, the movie theater, the fabric store, the discount store, the drug store, the Chinese restaurant, City Hall, the bank, a hotel, the barbershop, a jewelry store, Chamber of Commerce, the bookstore, an office supply store, the dentist building, the nutrition store, the pet store, the hospital, a health clinic, the historical society, the police and fire station, a preschool, university extension, income tax office, accounting firm, insurance office, local YMCA, a video store, a law firm, a photography studio, and job placement office. That made 36 trips in all. Thirty-six trips filled with rich vocabulary and American cultural lessons that were taught by very engaging guest instructors. I couldn’t measure the language success fast enough. It was beyond what I would have ever hoped for. What’s more? My students got to know their community. They felt welcomed.
Let’s see now…there still is the shoe store, the candy shop, the coffee shop, the gas station, the pizzeria, the secondhand store…
Marc Anderson, CEO and co-founder of online English training company TalktoCanada.com, teaches online and taught in South Korea before launching TalktoCanada. He regularly contributes to his organizations blog and lives in Ontario, Canada with his wife and son. Follow him on Twitter @talktocanada.