As we strive to learn from each other about ways to connect language instruction, peace, and mission, let’s share our personal experiences with one another! Here is an interview with a fellow Messiah College graduate, Kinley Zook, who I reconnected with at Mennonite World Conference this year. She has spent time teaching English in Laos and in Lancaster County.
L4P: Briefly introduce yourself, tell us a little about your connection to Anabaptism, and tell us what you’re doing now:
Zook: I am Kinley Zook, a teacher, Mennonite, and pacifist. I grew up in Mennonite churches, went to public school, attended Messiah College (founded by Anabaptists), and went abroad through Mennonite Central Committee. After two years, I ended up at home in Lancaster, PA, again attending a Mennonite church and teaching in the same public school district from which I graduated. I teach elementary ESL to students from a variety of countries and cultures.
L4P: Can you tell us a little about where you taught/teach? Why did you choose that country/place?
Zook: Through Mennonite Central Committee, I went to Vientiane, Laos to be a “primary English teacher” and knew little of the school or situation in which I’d be teaching. I wanted to go somewhere different (not close to home, not Spanish-speaking) where I would experience a new and different culture and travel somewhere that normally would not allow me as much opportunity for entry. I taught at a private school for one year and an international school for another year; both schools lacked funding and resources as well as teachers with training. I’ve taught at the most urban school in Lancaster County, the city school district. I was substitute teaching at the time and wanted to see what it was like, or if I could “handle” it; they needed a certified English teacher for a long-term position and I accepted. I taught 9th and 10th grade Communication Arts to a variety of levels of students.
I teach ESL because I can empathize with being a language minority from my time in Laos, and I understand the difficulty of living in a place with a completely different culture. I love to learn about other cultures and languages, I love teaching English, and I want to help students who may be marginalized. Of course, the best way to do all these things is to teach English as a Second Language. I have more freedom in teaching than some, I teach small groups, and I am able to form personal connections with students and families that reach beyond the school walls.
L4P: Can you tell us 2 or 3 surprising or interesting things that you discovered in those teaching contexts?
Zook: I learned that in some countries, the appearance of knowledge or learning is more important than the actual learning. Nice handwriting and copied correct answers were valued over content and individual effort in one school context in Laos. Uniforms (including shoes, fingernails, haircuts/styles/colors) and neatness violations often received more severe punishments in Laos than bullying, cheating, disrespecting others, loudness, and other rule-breaking.
I’ve been amazed at the number of students who are classified as English Language Learners and were also born here in the U.S. In a way, it’s a testament to the strong culture and community that many immigrants and refugees have maintained in a new place; it’s surprising sometimes how the children lack exposure to English or other experiences considered traditional in American culture.
Lp4: Tell us about a neat connection you had with a student. What made it special?
Zook: A great connection I’ve had is with a student who learns language similarly to how I learn. She speaks Greek and learned English a bit in her schooling in Greece before coming to the United States; I empathize with her mix of feelings of confidence and hesitation, since I learned Spanish in school before traveling, then went to Mexico and Guatemala. I felt that I knew a lot in my home country, especially compared with peers, and sometimes surprised myself with what I could accomplish in Spanish-speaking countries. Yet at the same time, I had a lot of hesitations and tried to correct myself when speaking because I felt I had learned better than I was actually communicating, or that even thought I had studied language in the classroom so much, it was not always effective language for everyday use. My student has expressed this feeling many times! Our connection is also special in that we learn language in similar ways: through reading and writing. We prefer to see a new word rather than just hear it, and the act of writing the word by ourselves helps it to become concrete in our heads. We use this reading/writing to help us figure out word origins; of course, she identifies Greek roots in words and finds cognates; this is essentially what I did to learn Spanish effectively.
L4P: Tell us about a about a potentially difficult experience you had with a student. How did it end up?
Zook: One morning in Laos when I arrived at school, I heard whooping and hollering in the hall. I peeked outside and saw a small boy with shoes off, swatting up at some sort of insect that had alighted near the lockers, while a crowd looked on. The insect was a praying mantis (which just happens to be my favorite insect). I immediately stopped the boy. Instead, I picked it up and let it rest in my hand The students were shocked- every one of them was convinced that praying mantises bite, and about half thought the bites were poisonous. But once I dispelled these rumors and showed how playful praying mantises can be, they crowded around with their electronics to take pictures of it. Some of the bolder students wanted to touch its back, but I showed them how to gently cradle their hands and tilted my own down, encouraging my new flying friend to forgive its former attackers and bravely step forward. The praying mantis obliged and was held by probably close to ten intermediate students before I realized we should have begun class quite a few minutes before. I reclaimed the mantis and deposited it over a railing, hoping it would travel to more natural grounds. I was told at break that “big bug still there!” but, happily, the teller’s tone was excited, not fearful. This particular praying mantis had come on a morning where I needed a breath of fresh air and never expected such a literal one. Others may consider their once-in-a-lifetime moments to be activities like skydiving or bungee jumping; one of mine was guiding students into making peace with praying mantises.
L4P: On the Language4Peace blog we explore the idea of the intersection of peace, language learning/teaching, and missions. Thinking about your own experiences, did you see any of those themes intersecting?
Zook: A good friend of mine from Laos had studied English in Hong Kong and learned a bit of Chinese there as well. She became engaged to a young man from Hong Kong who spoke mostly Chinese and a little bit of English. I asked how they made it work and how they would continue to make it work once married. She laughed and told me in Lao, “We only know how to say nice, polite things in English like what a proper school will teach you. We don’t know how to say mean things or have an argument. So we just won’t!” I was amazed at this attitude and figured it would not work for them. Of course, they have both been learning more and more English and they have most likely had disagreements and arguments in their time together, now married three years. Yet they have figured out how to live in peace with each other.
I think of this friend often now, especially as I am teaching several students who are newcomers to the U.S. and to the English language. They do not know yet how to verbalize their anger/disappointment and its causation in ways that English speakers will understand. I see their internal frustration, but then I see them realize that the anger comes from within themselves, and that they are the ones who choose to be angry and can choose to move on. Of course some are quite frustrated and communicate their feelings nonverbally; however, my students also realize that nobody will comfort them or listen to them in their native language, and their options are to A) feel miserable or B) move on. Internalizing the anger instead of expressing it, of course, is not a long-term solution, but the language barrier causes students to stop, process the feeling, try to put words to it, and either make an attempt or come to a place of peace. The wall of language actually creates a space to be with a feeling, to feel it, and to move on. I am grateful to my intercultural friends for teaching me this lesson.