March 2015
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Elizabeth Gibb, McClatchy Adult School, Sacramento, California, USA

For 14 school years, each new class in Advanced ESL has gone home with a cookbook that is by and for them. What started as an opening English warm-up exercise has become an annual project. This ESL class, taught by ESL instructor Dr. Ellie Fisher, is popular. The students are willing to do the hard work she requests of them. The cookbook that they get to hold in their hands is tangible proof that they are valued for who they are and what they bring.

In an interview with me on an afternoon in November 2014, Dr. Fisher said,

Cuisine is symbolic in its representation of our times, culture, and traditions. In a talking exercise about memories to start class, students always spoke of food they missed. The students took seriously that what they missed the most, the food of their native countries, is representative of their homes. Food is the scent and aroma of pride: pride in one’s culture and traditions. Everything is decided at the table. It is the central focus of our lives, and that is why it is so memorable.

Working in the position as chief psychologist in 1992 for Contra Costa County, Dr. Fisher was contacted by the director of a local adult school. She was asked to counsel staff at the local ESL education facility that had suffered a tragic loss. A phone call put Dr. Fisher in touch with the ESL community, and she was touched by the individuals with whom she came into contact. She also found herself another career.

After receiving her TESOL certificate from University of California, Berkeley, she accepted a position teaching at the Acalanes Adult School. That was more than 20 years ago. She has been assembling “Cookbook of International Cuisine” for 14 years. What started small is now more than 100 pages. The cookbook project is integrated as part of the ESL class for the entire year. Students come to class to talk, learn grammar, write, and work on their contribution to the year’s cookbook. “It is a wonderful exercise in English, and the students have to convert amounts,” reported Dr. Fisher. The cookbook takes many hours, often because the students find it difficult to write the recipes. How much is “one spoon”? Students are shown examples of recipes from previous years’ cookbooks.

Encouraging the students to give recipes is an exercise in patience, persistence, and repetition. “I make announcements of the students that have given me recipes and of the students that I am still waiting on.” Dr. Fisher helps each student write ingredient names and amounts as well as recipe names in English. Along with working with the students to write the recipes of the food they miss and remember, Dr. Fisher formats and assembles the recipes into a book. The recipes are categorized (appetizers, desserts, etc.) and arranged one per page. Dr. Fisher adds a message to the year’s students at the beginning of the cookbook.

For 14 school years, each new class has had a cookbook that is a product of its effort. Every contributor (students and staff, family and friends) is given a copy of all the recipes assembled. Each recipe is credited to the originator along with the name of the country of origin. The collecting of recipes is a unifying exercise and experience for the year. Students’ attendance is strong throughout the school year. In June, when the cookbooks are distributed, students search the cookbook for their recipes. Much discussion is generated through comparing and sharing. Dr. Fisher makes use of her years of professional experience, both as a psychologist and an ESL instructor, to help her students acclimate to life in America.

Elizabeth Gibb, MA Ed. Ms Gibb received her Adult Education Teaching Credential in the state of California in 1999.  Originally teaching in the field of art, subbing in an ESL class introduced Ms Gibb to the world of the adult English language learner. ELL-U provided the opportunity to learn about second language acquisition.  She currently teaches an ESL class in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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