One of the most surprising results of Teaching Tolkien was the strong relationship that was built between my students and I, as a result of our shared interest in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Our six-month journey through Middle-Earth not only motivated us to invest our time in the text, but we also invested in each other. A trust was established between us that did not dissolve once school was out for summer. As summer, which has gone by way too quickly, is nearing its end and I am anticipating a new school year beginning in a few more weeks; I am taking time to reflect on the bonds that were born out of our initial classroom journey through Middle-Earth.
Even though I had worked with the majority of my ELL (English Language Learner) students in previous years prior to their evolution into my little dwarves; our relationship was not what it is today. They knew I was committed to creating fun learning experiences for them in the language classroom, but that was nothing extraordinary or different from the natural rapport that I have with any of my students. Nor did I embark on this project with the intention of creating a strong teacher/student relationship. What resulted was the natural result of a truly organic process.
Due to their limited abilities to express themselves in English, my students are often very shy in class. They are hesitant to develop strong relationships outside of their individual ethnic groups because conversing with their peers and teachers involves a firm grasp of both Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). Theorized by second-language acquisition researcher Jim Cummins in the mid-eighties, BICS are language skills needed in social situations. It is the day-to-day language needed to interact socially with other people. ELLs employ BICS skills when they are on the playground, in the lunch room, on the school bus, at parties, playing sports or talking on the telephone. These language skills usually develop within six months to two years after arrival in the U.S.
CALP refers to formal academic learning. This includes listening, speaking, reading, and writing about subject area content material. This level of language learning is essential for students to succeed in school. Students need time and support to become proficient in academic areas. This usually takes from five to seven years. Research (Thomas & Collier, 1995) has shown that if a child has no prior schooling or has no support in native language development, it may take seven to ten years for ELLs to catch up to their peers. Many teachers incorrectly assume that students are fully proficient in English, when really all they possess is a mastery of BICS. CALP, which takes much longer to develop, impacts my students’ ability to perform as well academically as their native English-speaking peers. This is where Tolkien comes in.
Though many teachers might feel that my practices are unorthodox, my theory is this: if ELL students are exposed to challenging language found in works by Shakespeare and Tolkien, for example, and conditioned to work through the text with a no-fear approach; they will find themselves capable of comprehending any book. They may even find themselves ahead of their native English-speaking peers. My students don’t know that they are supposed to be afraid of Shakespeare or that Tolkien is a challenge for many students much older than them. Giving them this advantage may not be a gift they relish initially,especially when they see many other students taking an easier road; but in the long run, I am hoping they will appreciate the advantages.
Placing a priority on their long-term goals not only ensures success, but also strengthens my students’ trust in my ability to know what is best for them. We began reading Tolkien this year because they requested a challenge. Instead of dismissing their concerns, I listened. This, in turn, strengthened their trust in my ability to get them through the material. Reading The Hobbit together did not really ask them to step out in faith very much because the language of the text is ideally suited for their age group. However, The Lord of the Rings requires a much more dedicated desire to work your way through the words and not get bogged down in every paragraph. Trusting in Tolkien and their teacher strengthened both their academic abilities and brought us closer together in our working relationship.
It is often the little things that make a difference to a child. Going above and beyond for your students in little ways matters more to them than helping them to pass a test or move on to the next grade level. As you heard in my students’ “speech” videos we posted in June, the most memorable moments of our journey were our field trips and celebrations. Even though these were enjoyed away from the classroom, they built upon the foundations we created in the classroom. Taking them to the movie theater to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was not something they were accustomed to. Most teachers do not volunteer to take rowdy pre-adolescents to the movies on their day off, but I wanted to. I enjoy making them happy and have always considered relationships to be essential to getting students to learn anything.
In a few more weeks, I will have a new crop of dwarves in my classroom. I am looking forward to developing individual relationships with each and every one of them and allowing them to become part of Teaching Tolkien. Building upon the successes of last year’s fellowship, I am hoping they will enjoy being part of a continuing legacy of reading excellence. I already have December 14th marked on my calendar as the date of our field trip to the theater once again, to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. This year’s trip should be even more fun because it will include not only my current students, but also former students who have either exited the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program and will no longer be under my academic guidance, perhaps due to their exposure to Tolkien, or have moved on to middle school. I am looking forward to our reunion in December, hearing about all of their latest adventures, and strengthening a relationship that will hopefully last a lifetime.