Vietnamese children liven up the classroom

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In a corner of a Grade 4 classroom two boys engage in some unusual bargaining: "You know any Vietnamese songs you can teach me?" asks one. "Sure," the other replies, "I'll teach you if you'll tell me all about Elvis Presley and how to sing "You Ain't Nothin' But a Hound Dog."

Unusual sounds begin to resound from that corner of a classroom in this suburban town where an unplanned curriculum in which children teach children is emerging.

This new educational experience is sparked by the presence of classmates who speak little or no English and know little of American customs. They are Vietnamese "boat people"; some of the "nontraditional" Asian immigrants that have been transplanted to a new culture.

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For the children of the Lindenwold Elementary School fourth grade, social studies has taken on broad new dimensions. World events on television usually have little impact on 10-year-olds. But the presence of two boys from Vietnam brings current events into the classroom.

"We read an article in Weekly Reader about the boat people," explained Anne Thompson, the energetic teacher of the class. "Then Whe and his brother Zan showed us on a map how they traveled from Vietnam through Asia and told us of their voyage."

That journey took 12-year-old Whe Ngo, his 11-year-old brother, Zan, and their family first to Indonesia, next to Alaska, then Kentucky, and finally to Lindenwold some 19 months ago where a relative lives.

The boys' father, along with other desperate Vietnamese, bought a 24-foot wooden boat to sail away from the ravages of Vietnam to unknown destinations. Sixteen people sailed in the boat for three days to Indonesia.

Finding time to teach English with no bilingual assistance to two additional Vietnamese students was a near impossibility for Mrs. Thompson, who already had a regular full load. She delegated the vocabulary drilling and reading for the boys to a bright 10-year-old student, Patricia DeLaine.

"Patricia gave the lessons in the corner of the room while I continued with the class," Mrs. Thompson said.

"Before I knew it she was even teaching abstract concepts."

For Patricia: "It gave me more responsibility and patience and understanding." Whe tried to teach her the Vietnamese alphabet. "But it was too funny for me," she commented.

Mrs. Thompson asked her mother-in-law, Florence, a retired teacher, to help the new students. Teaching began initially with "experience books" made of construction paper folded to make a book. As English words for familiar objects were learned and mastered, Whe and Zan wrote them in their books.

"The other kids laughed at first when the boys tried to speak English," Mrs. Thompson said. "No words end in hard consonants in their language; I had to explain that to the other children."

During the holidays the boys livened up the social-studies lessons with versions of familiar Christmas carols sung in Vietnamese.

Although from far different backgrounds, the students have learned to teach each other finding the most basic common grounds in arithmetic and art.

"Students in our math class go to Whe and Zan for help," Mrs. Thompson remarked. "It's incredible."

She added: "The kids 'ooh' and 'aah' over Whe's artwork. He worked very hard with some of the other children after school on a display case. Everyone admires Whe's drawing."

Mrs. Thompson said that Whe and Zan "taught me a lot, too."

"I don't think I ever realized what a struggle was until I saw them trying so hard to learn. You could see the anguish and frustration. At times they would pound the desk in anger and determination."

"I think I developed more patience in teaching concepts," she observed. "We teachers, after years of teaching the same thing, begin to take concepts for granted."

Nearby, in Somerdale, a seventh-grade teacher in the Park School shares the Lindenwold experience.He shows a paper with bar graphs on it to the class. "This is an example of how all your work should be done," Tom Dorswhaw said. "It's neatly done and this student doesn't even speak our language."

That student is 13-year-old Wei Chiao Phung. He has a 15-year-old sister, Chin Ching, in the eighth grade, and they too are boat people. They began school in Somerdale last summer.

"He sits there and listens to everything," a 12-year-old American classmate said of Wei Chiao, who speaks only a few English words. "He takes it all in."

"We're very lucky," another classmate said. "We get to see how someone has to adjust. If I were in his place, I don't think I could do it."

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