The Teacher as Learner

 

Story Summary:

Nancy shares some of her favorite teaching moments when students from different cultures turn the tables and teach her about stories from their cultures. Second grader, Luis, tries to be patient with his teacher, but despairs of ever getting Nancy to pronounce “pantalones” correctly. Nancy learns just how challenging it is to communicate in another language.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  The-Teacher-as-Learner

Discussion Questions:

  1. What happened when the second graders taught Nancy the Spanish version of The Little Old Lady Who Wasn’t Afraid of Anything? What were the benefits that for once the students were the language teachers instead of the language learners?
  2. What are some other ideas for reversing the roles of teacher and learner – particularly for students whose first language is not English?
  3. Why do you think the 7th graders were so eager to find and hear stories from their cultures of origin? How did telling The Story of Tam and Cam help the two Vietnamese students start telling stories about their life before coming to America?
  4. Does each group who comes to this country eventually lose its culture? What is gained and what is lost through assimilation or through holding on to one’s culture?

Resources:

  •  The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda William
  • La Viejecita Que No Le Tenia Miedo a Nada (The Little Old Lady Who Was not Afraid of Anything, Spanish Edition) by Linda Williams, translation by Yolanda Noda
  • The Oryx Multicultural Folktale Series – each book collects variants from many cultures of one tale type (Cinderella by Judy Sierra, Beauties and Beasts by Betsy Gould Hearn, Tom Thumb by Margaret Read MacDonald, A Knock at the Door by George Shannon)

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Identity

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name’s Nancy Donoval, and I’ve been a working storyteller for a lot of years. And I want to tell you about some adventures that I had as an artist in residence, in the state of Illinois.

I went to this one school for a week and they welcomed me. I’ve never been to a school like this before. I was gonna to do an assembly of stories for different grade levels; K-2, K-3, and then fourth, fifth, and sixth and then I was gonna to be in the reading teacher’s room. And each classroom was going to come to me for, for one little session on storytelling. And we talked about different things I would do with different classes and different grade levels. But when I got to the school, oh my goodness, they had prepared it so much. There were signs everywhere. “Welcome storyteller. Welcome to Nancy Donoval.” I went into the women’s bathroom and there were signs in there, welcoming me to the school. And the kids had made them all and they had laminated them. I felt like a wanted, special artist.

It was right around Halloween. So, I went in to do the assembly. It was one of those big cafetorium with the kids all spread out like a sea of them around me. And I’m standing there with the microphone and I start telling some ghost stories because it’s around Halloween. And everything is going great and then I start telling this story from a book by Linda Williams, called The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid Of Anything. Because this was the younger group of kids and I didn’t want to tell anything too scary. And as soon as I started the, this one group over in a corner, erupted. There was just noise, and commotion, and moving around, and then, and then the teacher saying, “Shh.”  I thought OK., is it the Linda Williams fan club? Is it people who really hate this? What is happening there? But I was just doing the story. I found out later, that was the second-grade ESL class and they had just put on The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid Of Anything, the Spanish version. So, as they were listening to all these stories that were in English and catching what they could or what they couldn’t. Suddenly, I was telling a story that they knew that was for them.

I had so many kids come in and, and do the different groups but the classroom, I remember is that group of kids coming in to be with me. They were so excited. I was so excited. I have no memory of what the teacher and I had planned to do. I do have a memory of thinking I don’t speak Spanish. And while I’ve worked with kids of second language in groups, where it was a lot of different languages, or most people spoke English but a few people. I never had a full-on group of seven year olds, they really mostly spoke Spanish. I was feeling a little out of my depth and what was I going to do for them. And I thought, hmm, let’s try instead of “oh I’m the teacher here to help you.” They loved that story so much in Spanish. Let’s have them teach it to me. And so, they started teaching me, The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid Of Anything, in Spanish.

I’m not very good with languages. I really struggled. It was fun because I knew the story. When we get to the sound effects like “clump, clump, clump, and, and snap, snap, snap,” I was like, OK, I know how to do those. But I had so much trouble with all the rest of it. They were so gentle and so patient. And they, sort of, broke themselves up into little groups of who was going to work on what, who was going to teach me what. And I started seeing them mirroring all the behaviors that people had used with them, trying to get them to speak another language.

The person who was very ferocious with me. “No, no. Like this, like this.” And then they would say it again, “Like this.” And I would feel a little like, “I’m trying. I’m doing my best. I mean I’m not faking that I’m not good at this to make them feel better. I am really trying to do it.”

And there was a boy named Luis who just attached himself to my left shoulder and somehow became the person who was determined that I would say the word pantalones correctly. He was so patient and so. (Sighs) He did that so many times. And he would say the word and I would say it. And to me I was saying it exactly like he said it. But I wasn’t. They were giggling. They were laughing. They were the teachers.

They were the experts and I started realizing, oh, they’re actually getting to see how hard it is to learn a new language. They’re getting to see me not be able to do it in a snap. And I was hoping that maybe that made them feel like, oh yeah it takes a while to do this. And really they are much better at English than I’m ever going to be in Spanish. I loved that group of kids. I’m always going to remember Luis and I still really don’t know how to pronounce pantalones very well. But you know, you can go to schools and be speaking a different language even when it seems like you’re both speaking English.

I grew up in Chicago and that’s where I was based at this time. And, and I was very comfortable in the urban environment. But I ended up doing residencies way out in farming country, in western Illinois. I remember working with a group of high school students and they were telling stories about hijinks their parents had been up to. And one of them started talking about when a group of his parents’ friends, when they were teenagers, had stolen a bunch of watermelons. And they had taken the watermelons and they put them in the river to keep them cold and hide them and then they could eat them the next day.  And I was horrified! Take fruit that you’re going to eat and soak it overnight in a river?! I’m from Chicago. We dye the river green and the rest of the year, when it’s not St. Patrick’s Day, it is a lot of colors but mostly not the color of anything you want to soak something in overnight. And we realized even the same word “river” meant something totally different to them than it meant to me.

I even ended up going into this hog farming community. I was the first artist that had ever been to their town, ever. Five hundred people in the town. All the kids who were in the school lived on hog farms all around. And when they were working on making up an adventure for an animal story, they did a story about what they knew and they created an amusement park for pigs. Everything pigs would like, troughs of food that the pigs when they pay their lunch ticket could swim in and open their mouths, and just everything would go in, and I would never have been able to think about what a pig would want for an amusement park. But they knew exactly what to do. It was the most homogenous community I’d ever been in. Everybody was white, everybody was a farmer. I think there was one Jewish family in town. People would tell me that to let me know that they did have diversity.

I was there for a month working with third graders. And the very last week a girl came into our class who had just been adopted from an orphanage in Russia. She had black hair. No one in the school had black hair. And her skin was darker and she was from this other country and she did speak English and we were kind of at the end of the residency and we’d done most of the work that they had to do. And every day I would tell them new story as part of our work and she came in. And I thought, hmm, hmm.  Russia, Russia. I knew a story about Baba Yaga. It wasn’t one I’d really performed but it was one I knew. And I told it. Not to say, “Hey little girl, I know all about Russia,” but just because I thought, in this room, where she looks so different from everybody, maybe she’s heard this story and I can give her something familiar.

She lit up. And then after the story, corrected me on how it should go. Because, of course, I got the story from a book and she’d actually heard it from someone. “No, no, no, that animal in the story that would have been a mouse not, not what you were saying.” And she drew these amazing pictures of Baba Yaga’s house. The house on chicken legs. And she had a detail I’d never known about, this chain around one of the chicken legs, keeping it to the ground so it couldn’t run away. I still have her pictures. And I helped welcome her in to that community and she helped me know that story a little bit better.

I have one last group I want to tell you about. It’s a group of seventh graders, not in rural community at all, right there in Chicago where I grew up. But it was an inner-city school. And when I went into work but the seventh graders, four classrooms of seventh graders, in a Chicago public school, it was almost all immigrants. They had 31 languages spoken in the room. At least a half to a third of the kids there were not born in this country and the vast majority of the rest of them, their parents were not born in this country. There were a couple of people that their grandparents had come from another country. But this was the United Nations in a classroom. And the principal had brought me in to say that in a week, which was one hour a day with each group of seventh graders, she wanted them to be able to tell a story from their life. That by seventh grade you should be able to get up in front of people and tell a story from your life.

And I went in to work with them. And one of the things I do when I work with kids is that, we go around the room and I have them say their name out loud, and then tell me something that they really like. And then, we come up with a gesture for it as a memory tool. Because I’ve learned my lesson, that kids really end up getting worried about doing it right. And if I’m trying to learn their names and come back the next day, and come back the next day, I always tell them, I’m not going to remember all your names. I’m going to get some wrong. By the end of the week, I’ll be better. But that doesn’t mean I don’t remember you. And I need you to really tell me something you care about and we’ll come up with a gesture to get it into my head.

And I remember this one kid, who his favorite thing was roller coasters. So, the gesture he came up with was, (makes downward gesture). When I went back the next day it was like, ahhh, OK. I remember that name. I remember that name. I remember that name. I got to him, I couldn’t remember his name. And it wasn’t like the kids were against me, I know we have you know things about junior high, they wanted me to do well. And suddenly, this charade show was going on, of, of everybody doing things that he kept doing this, (makes downward gesture). And I could not remember what that was. And finally, I went, “Roller coaster, roller coaster!” And then I still couldn’t remember his name and all of the kids started going, (makes stirring/tossing gestures) I’m totally lost. Totally lost. Yeah, his name was Caesar. And they were showing me mixing up a salad. And that’s part of why I asked them for their name so they say at least one thing to me and we have a relationship.

But then we started moving into them trying to tell stories from their lives, they were pretty much like, I don’t have a story.  I don’t know what you mean. And I started thinking about my grandfather who came from Czechoslovakia. And when I was a kid, I thought it was so amazing that he grew up in this other country and he knew this other language. And I try to get him to teach it to me. And he would say, “We are American. We speak American.” He would put his whole country aside. And I started thinking, I wonder if these kids know that they have stories that are from their country?

When I became a storyteller, I started hunting for stories from Czechoslovakia. Anything to make me feel connected to the homeland. And I got them all in books. And I remember going to the Museum of Science and Industry and telling for this Christmas thing. And, and, oh, I’d be all little kids, and being very, ahh, you know, high-powered participation, secular, holiday stories. And then my last group was two, two women; one in a wheelchair, and then the old one pushing it. And as soon as I started this story, just for them, a new story I was learning that was quiet, and not participatory, but from the country my grandfather came from, the woman in the wheelchair fell asleep. But the other woman just watched me and watched me and watched me. And afterwards, she came up and in that universal grandmother gesture, she curled three dollar bills into my hand, and said, “You just gave me back my childhood. You just gave me back my grandfather’s hands. When I was young and I grew up in Czechoslovakia and I would sit on the floor by the fire and he would sit on a stool. And he would tell me stories, including that story. And I would watch his hands.” And all I could think was these stories really come from the country? ‘Cause I’m just in the folktales section at the library. But the stories in the books really come from there.

And I’m looking at these kids who feel like they have no stories. And the next day, I brought in a huge crate of books, a whole bunch of folktale books. And I said, “I’m not giving these to you but I want you to actually have a chance to look at where you come from and all the stories that are connected to you.” And I just started grabbing them, “Who’s from India? Who’s from India? Stories from India?” handed it to them. “OK. Russia. OK.”  Just everything. “Who’s Buddhist. Let’s have that.” All the different collections and they drove into them. They were so hungry for them. And at lunchtime these two kids came up to me and said, “Did you have any books from Puerto Rico?” I said, “Oh, no, I don’t. I don’t have any books from Puerto Rico but I know a couple stories from Puerto Rico.” And they skipped lunch and sat there with me while I told them stories from where they came from, where their parents came from. Two girls from Vietnam had been very clear that they had no stories. They knew no stories. They had no stories. But I had a book of all these different versions of Cinderella from different countries. And I just started going through the Table of Contents, not reading the names of the stories, and what country they were from. And the very last one on the book is The Story of Tấm and Cám from Vietnam. And those two girls, (gasps), they knew that story. And then they wanted me to read it from the book. And I said, “Why should I read it from the book? You know the story.” They told it. And then they started telling us about the school they’d gone to in Vietnam and the bell that was rung to bring them into the school every day. And the cute boy who usually worked at the gate. They had story. They just needed to know where they came from.

I have to say pretty much every one of these experiences had a moment of me going, “I have no idea what to do now. I don’t speak these languages. I don’t know their cultures. I don’t want to.” And every time the right thing for me to do was instead of trying to teach them, let them teach me.

Taylor Made Family: An Aunts Tale of Transracial Adoption

 

Story Summary:

When Nancy’s sister adopts seven-year-old Taylor, aunt and niece find kindred spirits in each other. This story explores what makes us family and when the color of one’s skin does and doesn’t matter.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Taylor-Made-Family-An-Aunts-Tale-of

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Transracial adoption, while becoming more common, remains controversial. What issues can you imagine experiencing (or have you experienced) if you were adopted into a family that doesn’t look like you? How might it be different in an urban area vs. a rural area? How might it be different if the adoption is in infancy or as an older child? What are potential problems? What are potential benefits?
  2. How would you want your differences acknowledged and handled by your adoptive family? How could they support you, make you feel welcome, and find the balance of becoming part of the family while honoring the culture(s) of your birth? How can you imagine asking for what you need and want? What can you imagine a supportive, productive family meeting looking like?
  3. How would you want your friends/classmates to support you if you are (or were to be) part of a transracial, biracial or multiracial family? What are things they might say or do that would be helpful? What are things they might say or do that would be hurtful? How would you want them to ask you what you need/want in way that feel supportive? How could you bring it up to them?

Resources:

  •  In Their Own Voices, Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories by Rita J. Simon and Rhonda M. Roorda
  • Inside Transracial Adoption, by Gail Steinberg and Beth Hall

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name’s Nancy Donoval and I want to tell you a story about the best present my sister ever got from me.

I was looking into her eyes and she was looking straight into my mine, clinging to them like I was her life raft. And if I looked away, she would drown. Splinters are painful at any age. I knew that personally. But when you’re 8 years old and one’s been festering in your foot for two days, it’s excruciating. And the fear of the pain getting worse when you take it out is even more so. It was Christmas and my sister said, “This is coming out.” And then she came up to me and said, “I can’t get her to let me take it out. Help me.”  And I went, and took Taylor, eight years old, sat her on the couch, and said, “Honey ,when I was your age I got so many splinters and it was so hard. And this is going to hurt but it’s going to be better after. When I was a kid, the only way they could get me to sit still to take the splinter out was, it took three people to do it. My dad would take the needle and he would do the digging. My mom would hold my hand and my brother, your uncle Jack, he would sing to me.

That’s what family does. And that’s what we’re going to do right now. We’ve got three people. Your mom’s going to get the needle. Roy’s going to hold your hand and I’m going to sing to you.” And I did what my brother had sung to me. “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word. Papa’s going to buy you a mocking bird.” Ah, she was so brave. And it took forever but the splinter came out. And in that moment of the echo from this memory of my childhood, I knew she was fully, completely my niece.

And I remembered that day my sister had called me the year before, (Taylor’s 15 now so, this is about eight years ago), my sister called me, the day Taylor moved in with her. They’d been having visits but this was the day Taylor moved in. And she said, “Oh my, I’m adopting you!” Well, my sister is nine years older than I am. She’s the oldest. I’m the youngest. She has a Masters in Business Administration. I have a Masters in Fine Arts. We are different people. And she had adopted me and she really had. Taylor and I are so much alike. It’s amazing to me. We both are theater nerds and she loves the arts. And all her emotions are right on the surface. And my sister is pretty much driven by logic, probably not as much as she thinks she is, but still pretty much driven by logic. And Taylor and I are both driven by emotion. And, oh, we just chatter away to each other. Sometimes I feel like her aunt and sometimes, because her mom was a little bit like a second mom to me, I kind of feel like we’re the two sisters goofing off in front of our mom.

Taylor said to me one day, “Aunt Nancy, I feel so lucky. I don’t think a lot of adopted kids end up in a family where there’s somebody who’s so much like them. Somebody who actually gets them.”

And I said, “Taylor, sweetie, I know for you that’s about being adopted, but I gotta tell ya, it’s pretty rare for somebody who was born into the family to have somebody who really gets them. Who really sees them. I’m just as lucky to have you.” I was really lucky to have her. My mom was always the one who really saw me, understood me, loved my storytelling, was emotional like I was. But my mom had Alzheimer’s and she was disappearing in tiny degrees. And life is so funny, the day I moved our mom, in an emergency move to a nursing home from assisted living, was the day Taylor’s adoption was final. As one who had gotten me came out of the family, one who got me – the one I got – who was like me, came in.

Now, of course, Taylor and I are not the same person and we’re different from each other. She has moved a little bit away from performing. She loves story like I do but she writes and writes and writes and writes. She told me that she feels like “writer” is the key to her identity and it has been the thing that has formed her since she was in sixth grade. She’s about to start sophomore year of high school. She has seven books she’s written. And she writes them and rewrites them in composition books. And then she types them and then she edits them. I would never have that. I tell stories out loud. I don’t write them down. Oh, we both love story.

She is taller than I am. She makes friends in grade school easier than I did. And we don’t really look alike. She’s tall and thin like the boys in our family are. The girls in our family are a little bit more, um, round. And also, we do not have the same skin color. I have to tell you, I make my sister, well…Let’s put it this way, my sister makes me look deeply tan. And Taylor is a rich, rich brown. And again, she makes friends so easily. She is in a grade school where there are kids of every color in the world. My grade school, oh sure, we had people who were German and Italian but the big difference between us and the rest of the world was we were Catholic. And there were other people who were public.  I didn’t really think about black and white. Probably because there weren’t really any black people in my family. And here’s Taylor. Not in my family, in my neighborhood, in my school, in my life, they just weren’t. And here’s Taylor, who’s in this school with all these different colors. And I’m seeing pictures with her with all her friends. And, oh, she’s dating this boy and she’s dating that boy. Well, I’m not quite sure what that means in sixth grade, but she’s dating this one and dating that one. And they’re white, they’re black, they’re Asian, their everything. And I asked her if she ever got any flack from the kids in school about, you know, being with somebody of a different race.

Because when I was in high school, I ended up having this guy I met at Junior Achievement camp and he was black. And we weren’t really dating, but we enjoyed each other. And he asked me to his homecoming dance and I was excited to go. I liked Cal. And his parents said, “No, you can’t go! You can’t go to the dance with her.” Because they were afraid for him that if he brought a white girl, now this was the 70s, but still if he brought a white girl, they thought he would be in danger.

And here’s Taylor with all these different people mixing around colors and I asked her if she ever got any flack. And she said, “Well, not like that.” She said, “But every now and then, people will be like, ‘No, no, no, no, you two don’t look good together. You would look better with him and she would look better with him,’ and that seems to be about what color people are.”

We have most of our really good talks in the car. I live in Minnesota now, she lives in Chicago, we talk on the phone, we do Facebook, we do messaging, we text. But our deep talks are in the car or at slumber parties at my friend’s house in Chicago. Taylor comes over and we have a big party. But in the car, somehow facing outward, we talk about hard stuff. And I told her once that I was thinking about doing a story about her because I tell stories. And I tell stories from my life and she’s so important to it. And I asked her what it was like to have been adopted into our family? And what it was like to be the one black person in a really white family?

I remember her first Christmas with us, just looking around the room, our a little clump of people, maybe only 8, 10 people in the room. And she just looked up and said, “All right, we need more black people in this family.” And, ah, she wasn’t wrong but it wasn’t like we could mail order someone for her. I was already dating someone, the other ones were already married, we didn’t have an opening. But most of the time, we don’t talk about race. But I asked her and we had, just had this big Christmas party at my cousins’. And my cousins, there’s thousands of them, and that seems like an exaggeration but when I’m in the room with them it feels true. My first cousins, four them, had 22 kids. There’s all these grandkids. I can’t keep track of them. They all live in the same neighborhood. They all go to the same school. They all know each other so well. I go to that party, I feel out of place and I’m related all of them. I’ve known them since I was a kid, since they were kids. But they have such a family dynamic. And I remember when Taylor was little and first going to those parties. She just ran around playing with all the other kids. But as she’s gotten older, she’s ended up being a little more separate. She doesn’t feel comfortable at the parties anymore. And I asked her about it and she said, “Well, I think as you get older, your heart gets smaller. I think you get more judgmental. Not everybody but some people do. And you see the differences more, nobody really says anything. But I just feel really different there all the time.” And I asked her if she felt that way with us and just our small family. She said, “No. No, not with you guys. But there I always know I’m different.”

And we talked about how much of that was her color being different, and how much of that was her being adopted, and how much of that was just simply the family dynamic of all these kids who go to school together and know each other really well and they don’t know her. But it turned out people do say things sometimes. She had one person at the party she really liked. She’s great with the kids, and she has one second cousin something or other removed, Claire, who she loves playing with and watches at the party. And they were going to play princess. And Claire said, “OK. I’m going to be the princess and you’ll be my servant.”

And Taylor said, “Ummm. I would like us both to be princesses.”

And Claire said, “Umm hmm, not how it works. I’m the princess because I’m white and you’re the servant because your black.” Claire didn’t mean anything by it. She was going from what she’d absorbed from TV, from movies; you look at the casting. She loves Taylor. But Taylor went in the bathroom and cried.

And then she came back out and said, “Claire, we are living in a castle with no servants at all. We are in a castle where the princesses take care of themselves.” But it’s harder for her to go to those parties because, though she still loves Claire, Claire was her safe zone, and her zone doesn’t feel safe anymore.

My sister tries so hard. It’s trans-racial adoption, how do I make her feel like she can fit in? Taylor told me my sister was asking her, “Do you want to celebrate Kwanzaa? We could celebrate Kwanzaa. I could look up how to do it.” And Taylor’s like, “None of my black friends in school celebrate Kwanzaa. No, I don’t care about celebrating Kwanzaa.”

You know, “Do you want to go to a traditionally black African-American school? Do you want to, we can go to all the museums?”

And Taylor’s like, “Thank you. I appreciate it.”  And she does appreciate it. But she’s like, “You know, mom doesn’t force it on me, which is great. It’s not like, ‘No, you must be African-American.’” Taylor said, “I don’t really think about color that much, unless somebody brings it up. I mean, I know, I know I’m black. But I don’t think about it. I don’t really see color very much. I just…I’m just me.” She’s so good at being just her and it’s how I am. I know I’m white but I don’t think about it very much. Except, I really worry that there’s going to come a time in her life, because she’s black, she is going to have to think about it. And I want to protect her from that. And I want a world where we really cannot be color blind because her color is beautiful. But where we can be like Taylor and I try to be. People who see the inside. People who just enjoy people and make friends easy.

I asked Taylor if she had any advice that she would give to someone who was going to be adopted into a family of a different race. And she said, “Hmm. I don’t know. I guess I would tell ‘em, keep an open mind because no matter what color they are, they’re gonna be your family.” And Taylor…Taylor has connected me to my family so much more deeply. She really is the best present my sister ever gave me.