EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
MARBLE FALLS — After teaching English acquisition classes at Marble Falls High School, where she helps students develop their language skills, Lori Reed shared an observation.
“English is the toughest language to learn,” she said. “In Spanish, they have one word for something, and that’s what it means. In English, we have a word like ‘bear,’ and it could mean a number of things.”
Those things being:
1. To carry something physically.
2. To hold onto something more metaphorically.
3. A large mammal.
It’s confusing for students who speak another language, such as Spanish, she pointed out.
So she and Amanda Fulton, the Marble Falls High School ACE site coordinator, have decided to turn a handful of students with Spanish-speaking backgrounds into authors — English-writing ones.
They’re doing it through an innovated Write Brain program that uses pre-illustrated books to give students a place to start. Because, Reed pointed out, staring at a blank page often just compounds the challenges these students face.
ACE offers both academics and enrichment after-school classes. A grant provided the funding for ACE, which gives students at Burnet and Marble Falls schools a chance to improve themselves, academically and otherwise. It’s not a requirement, so students have to “want to” attend the program.
For these English-learning students, it’s about using stories to understand the basics and nuances of the language that can feel overwhelming at times. By the end of the program, the students should each have a published book in their hands — with their names on them.
Fulton said students start with a card with an illustration on it. Reed explained the students simply write what they see, starting in Spanish.
Starting a story from scratch can be daunting, but if students have an illustration to begin with, they can generate ideas about what is happening in the picture.
After some singular illustrations, Reed breaks up the students into groups with each group getting a Write Brain book with a series of connected illustrations like you’d find in a graphic novel, only the story and dialogue are missing.
The students will write the first book, the one they’re working on in the fall semester, in Spanish.
“Yes, we’re trying to teach them English, but we want them to see we value their culture,” Fulton said. “We don’t want them to discount their culture.”
Starting off in Spanish with the first book also helps the students get a better handle on the story-telling and literacy skills they need, both in their native language and English.
As for tackling their first book project as a team, it helps the students generate ideas, Reed added.
Each group gets a different illustrated book. They began in September, taking the first steps before taking on the book. Now, well into the first book, the students are in the editing and revising stages.
Reed has one group read their book to the other students, who then offer their observations. Reed is adamant the students point things they like (being as specific as possible) as well as things they think the authors can improve or work on (in a supportive tone).
Once these books are completed, Reed will send them off to the Write Brain publisher, which will publish them in hardback form. The books will include the author’s page and have their name on the front.
“Seeing their name on the book, being an author, that’s going to mean a lot to them,” Fulton said. “We plan on having an author night where we’ll invite parents and others. We want them to feel how special this is.”
But it’s just the first book. Next, probably after the Christmas break, the students will begin the English book by themselves.
While it sounds “simple” just writing a story that goes along with pictures, Fulton said it gives these students a chance to really practice the English language and learn the intricacies associated with it.
It’s also about building their confidence, not only as they learn English, but by just being students.
“One of the great things about this (book) is there are no wrong answers,” Reed pointed out. “The pictures get them thinking about what’s going on, but they get to write the story. For a lot of them, they don’t have confidence in their writing, but when they realize there are no wrong answers and the pictures give them a starting place … something just happens, and they start writing.”
While the end goal is helping them become better English speakers, the stories also give them an opportunity to discover their own voice, and that’s a great thing in any language.