A to Zany: Community Activities for Students of English
Lynn Stafford-Yilmaz (1998)
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xviii + 185
US $17.95; UK £13.95
A to Zany is a supplementary content-based text consisting of short chapters for each activity. The book is designed for the beginner through the advanced ESL student. The text is based on learning outside the classroom through activities that engage the student in the immediate community. The activities require the kind of background knowledge that an adult student has, and would be somewhat inappropriate for younger learners. The text's chapters can stand alone and are not intended to be completed in a specific sequence. Classroom teachers can tailor the text to the subject matter they are teaching at the time.
As A to Zany is not organized thematically, how to utilize the book is at the teacher's discretion. A table is provided to aid the classroom teacher in selecting activities to elicit the desired skill, such as reading, writing, listening, or speaking. The activities are based on the premise that learning outside the classroom is just as valuable as learning within it. The beginning of each chapter indicates the subject and preparatory information including cost, transportation, and safety notes. There is a pre-activity that may include brainstorming, dictionary skills, and classroom discussion. These activities are designed to pique the interest of the student, generate background knowledge, and gain new information, all of which will be compared to the new knowledge acquired through the activity itself.
Students can complete the activities individually or in pairs. The activities are designed to appeal to individual students, and it is recommended that the classroom teacher allow the students to choose the activities they want to do. Each activity will take students out of the confines of the classroom and have them investigate some phenomenon of American culture. They will compare this phenomenon to their own culture. As the student investigates the phenomenon, the text asks thought-provoking questions about the experience and the student's opinions. No value judgements are expected in the way the activities' questions are crafted. The activities are designed to make students think, participate in a community activity, and to place them in situations where small talk is appropriate and expected. This will require some assertiveness on the part of the student. [-1-]
After the activity, there are follow-up exercises in the text. This section of the chapter is designed to have the students look at the activity in retrospect and make cultural observations. Classroom discussion could easily be elicited if other groups of students did the same activity. There are questions that ask the student to tie the theme of the chapter into something larger. Finally, there are optional activities at the end of each chapter that can satisfy the more interested or studious pupils. These optional activities ask students to go a little beyond their peers, and are quite valuable in themselves.
The chapter on "Edible Things" (page 33) would be an ideal chapter for a multicultural ESL class. Food is universal, but types of food vary tremendously from one culture to the next. In this chapter, students are asked to locate an ethnic market and buy an item. The speaking part of the chapter is outlined by having a short phone conversation (which should be more scripted than it is) where the student asks the owner some questions about the store. A detailed description of the food item is required. The questions within the chapter compare different foods from different cultures. Classroom discussion can easily be promoted on what food items are delicious or not. The optional activities are a delight, with suggestions for a class picnic with the ethnic food items and recipe swapping.
Some aspects of the text may present difficulties. Because it is designed solely to be supplementary, an ESL teacher focusing on one specific skill may have a difficult time tailoring the text to the skill. Some considerations will have to be given to whether the class is monocultural or multicultural. The "Ball Games" chapter, for example, would be much more interesting for a multicultural class than a monocultural one because one sport seems to dominate in any one country. There are also some highly sensitive religious, cultural, and romantic notions that would have to be treated with care. For example, asking Muslim students to investigate synagogues would be quite a leap for them. The "Indigenous People" chapter is highly controversial and this topic is not as openly discussed in other countries as it is in North America. The multicultural ESL teacher is already challenged to make a diverse group of people feel equally welcome and respected; choosing some of these chapters could be detrimental to classroom harmony. Having said that, it is also refreshing to have a slightly risqué classroom text amidst all the lukewarm choices in ESL materials.
One positive aspect of the book is its emphasis on learning outside the classroom. Many students from traditional societies question the American educational system because we often deviate from traditional instructional stereotypes. A to Zany masterfully demonstrates that meaningful learning does occur without a teacher or a classroom. The classroom teacher is skillfully placed as a facilitator of learning for the student, not just as the source of all the answers. Texts that place the responsibility of learning on the students' shoulders and not on the teacher's are a welcome addition indeed.
In conclusion, A to Zany is a useful supplementary text if the teacher is aware of potential difficulties and limitations. It would be unrealistic to think that this text could adequately supplement a grammar class, and the ESL teacher teaching a specific skill should be aware of its limitations. This text is designed to integrate the students more into the community, and the book does engage students ingeniously in community activities where learning can occur unconsciously. The text fills a need for students to get out of their classrooms, take chances in speaking, and learn from Americans about their culture while simultaneously being engaged in it as well. If the classroom teacher uses judgement in assigning or allowing students to choose their activities, and is aware of potential cultural misunderstandings that could occur, the text will be a valuable addition to the ESL teacher's tool kit.
Darren P. Bologna
University of Central Florida
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