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The House on Mango Street

I love to read.  I consume books for breakfast, lunch, dinner, midnight snack.  Although I’ve embraced technology with an e-reader, I still purchase books from bookstores.  I know, it’s such a novel concept!  I love holding an actual book in my hands.  The touch, feeling, and smell of a book is just something else.  As cliché as it sounds, books take me on a journey to places I’ve never been and introduce me to characters that I love and others I love to hate.  Each book enlightens me through experiences that I carry with me as they become a part of me.  Throughout my many book adventures, there are a few that I can read over and over again.  It doesn’t matter that I know what will happen and how it ends.  Each and every time I re-read it, I gain a new perspective or find something hidden deep within the words that I didn’t see before.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is one of those books for me.  If you haven’t read it, give it a try.  The book centers around a girl growing up in Chicago.  Her family is from Mexico and each chapter is a snapshot of her life; things that happen to her or others, things about her family and culture.  Don’t be deceived by the simplicity of Cisneros’s language and style.  There’s a lot embedded in the text that leads to countless discussions and teaching points.

I’ve used this novel with adult ESL learners many times.  Initially I used it to teach parts of speech, particularly adjectives.  However, the themes and topics found in the book are universal as they evoke connections with my students, despite where they come from or what language they speak, that foster engaging class discussions.  Often I have had to  limit or curb the discussions due to time constraints.  In some of those cases, I had students write about their thoughts.  I don’t read the entire book.  The vignette nature of the book allows me to pick and choose chapters in pretty much any order.  Most chapters are unconnected so you don’t have to worry about filling-in-the-blanks of the plot.

My lesson for The House on Mango Street touches upon all four ESL modalities:  speaking, listening, reading, and writing.  My goals for this lesson are two-fold. First, I wanted to get to know my students better by asking them about their goals, dreams, and plans for the future. Second, I want them to start thinking about how to talk about themselves so that they’re able to do so both during an interview as well as in a cover letter.  I choose a few excerpts from the book to focus on and begin with a quick overview of the book.  Sometimes I preview any vocabulary I think the students may have trouble with.  It depends on the vocabulary used as well as the students levels in that particular class.  Then I explain what adjectives are (they are describing words which modify nouns).  We go over some examples where students identify the adjectives.  Once I’m confident they understand it, we move onto reading the book.  I invite students to volunteer to read a few sentences to a paragraph if they’re comfortable.  From here, we discuss what happened in the story and if they have any questions/comments.  Finally, we go back into the text to hunt for adjectives.

The writing component ranges from responding to something that happened in the story to connecting it to their own life.  It just depends on which chapter I use.  I model prewriting by using an idea web.  Depeding on the level of the student, I let them draw their ideas instead.  From here, I show how to take the ideas and turn them into a paragraph.  We then share our stories, which is my favorite part.

While I was teaching at Almacen this week, a teacher from Spain observed my lesson.  She was interested to see how I use the novel in my teaching, as she uses it to teacher her learners in Spain.  I didn’t have a chance to find out more about how she uses it in her teaching, but I was glad that she stopped by and asked about the lesson.  Sometimes as teachers, we are so focused on our little classroom niches that we forget that there are others who are like you.  It was nice to meet her, however briefly and share some of my insights and lesson.

Have you read or used The House on Mango Street in your lessons?  If so, how?  Are there any other novels or short stories you’ve had success with?

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