“…viewed as a symbolic tale of oppressed people seeking liberty, the story, clothed in contemporary dress, echoes the voyages mad by many throughout the years in search of liberty. Peck’s deepened chalk colors and misty backgrounds bolster the fragile facial expressions and fearful body postures, lending suspense and believability to the saga. A discussion starter on several levels.” Booklist, November 1, 1988
Eve Bunting’s emotionally powerful story of a family fleeing oppression from their island nation by taking a dangerous journey to their new destination which they hope will become their new home has a lot of resemblance to the diaspora of people fleeing war and oppression in the Middle East, many of them risking their lives at sea and too many of them dying on the way. Although she does not write specifically for English Language Learners, Ms. Bunting was always a favorite author of mine when I taught English as New Language students because of her compassion and empathy for those who are facing what often seem like the insurmountable hurdles of estrangement from their cultures and isolation in their new culture. In addition, she writes in a simple yet eloquent style that is not condescending to her readers but instead invites them to want to know more about her topic
How Many Days to America? is a book I often taught around Thanksgiving because it in some ways resembles the story of the first European immigrants, the Pilgrims, arriving on our shores with nothing but what they could carry. But there are also noticeable differences in that Eve Bunting’s story is about more contemporary immigrants who face different dangers on their journey, including thieves who come on board their boat and rejection by the inhabitants of another island nation. In spite of the differences there are enough common threads for most immigrant students to find some commonality between their migration story and that of the family in the book.
The first time I used the book, in a middle-school ESL class of 7th and 8th grade students, there was one student whose reaction was so poignant and powerful it taught me an important lesson as a new teacher. He had been put on a boat by his family with his brother to escape the violence taking place during the Vietnam War. They were taken a perilous journey to a nearby island nation where they were stuck in a refugee camp until they were able to join an uncle living in the U. S. When I met my student he was clearly quite traumatized and was living in a foster family without his brother.
While perusing the very illustrations in the book with my students, we came across a two-page spread of the family in this story in a tiny, crowded boat in the middle of the ocean surrounded by whales! When my student saw this picture, he leapt out of his chair and began shouting that he had experienced the same thing on his journey. He had clearly been very afraid since he was still quite young when it happened. I learned to become much more attuned to how sensitive some instructional materials can be for students who have been traumatized.
My favorite way to begin teaching the book was to ask the students to examine the illustration on the first page of the story, looking for any details they could find that might give them a clue as to who the characters are and where the story is taking place. Since the author deliberately does not identify the place where the story begins, this allows the students to fantasize about and , in some cases, to identify with the setting of the story. This kind of close reading for evidence is something English Language Learners are good at since they often must rely on visual cues for survival when their language skills are far from proficient.
Needless to say focusing so intently on a text promotes lively discussions which become the basis for word study. As the discussions evolve I chart the new vocabulary provided in the book as well as the new words we need to learn to carry on a meaningful discussion. Learning new vocabulary in the context of a discussion that students are committed to is the best way I know to assure that the new vocabulary will stick.
(Due to technical difficulties, the remainder of this blog will be posted on next week’s SOL.)