Change My Life Forever

September 2004 — Volume 8, Number 2

Change My Life Forever

Maureen Barbieri (2002)
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Pp. x + 228
ISBN 0-325-00473-0 (paper)

Change My Life Forever describes the author’s work over a two-year period, inside and outside the classroom, with ELL students from China as a staff developer in a public middle school in New York’s Chinatown. The first two chapters provide general descriptions of the school building, staff and students, as well as some of the strategies for teaching reading and writing which Barbieri employed in several classrooms. Chapters Three through Five each focus on an individual student, his or her struggles and his or her growth over the two-year period. Chapter Six makes the case for including poetry in a literacy program, and Chapter Seven describes an extra-curricular group Barbieri and another teacher designed especially for girls. Chapter Eight follows up on the high school pursuits and achievements of some of the original group of students. This last chapter is followed by five appendices listing types of books used in various ways in Barbieri’s program, by a works cited section and by an index.

In Chapter One, Barbieri introduces herself and her role as a literacy staff developer at Intermediate School 131 (IS 131), a school for 6th through 8th graders in the heart of New York’s Chinatown. The ESL program is a transitional one, with some classes taught in Chinese and others taught in English; the mix of classes a student takes is determined by his/her English ability level. She finds the children there “quiet, shy and undeniably sad” (p. 7) and the faculty “disheartened” (p. 5). She persists in her efforts to help teachers move away from disjointed skills-based instruction and towards an interactive workshop approach to teaching reading and writing. Through a teachers’ book club, she introduces interested faculty to quality young adult literature, and continually tries out new stories and poems in the classrooms to find pieces that will resonate with the students. She also brings another consultant, who is a Chinese immigrant, into the school on a monthly basis to help the teachers understand their students better and engage with them more meaningfully.

A sixth grade class which began making substantial progress in reading and writing is the main subject of Chapter Two. The students respond well to reading E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, and as the year progresses, to the writing activities Barbieri designs around the book. The classroom teacher develops a more positive view of his students and becomes more engaged in creating meaningful curriculum for them. Chapter Two also describes the weekly after-school book club developed by Barbieri and another teacher. Several of the books prompt the teachers to take the students on field trips to extend their knowledge. For example, mention of Degas’ paintings led to a trip to the Metropolitan museum.

Two of the sixth grade boys from Chapter Two are placed in a mainstream language arts class for seventh grade: Chapter Three follows J.J.’s development as a reader and writer, while Chapter Four is about Cong’s growth. The chapters contain many excerpts from their writing to illustrate the points Barbieri makes about teaching literacy, such as making connections between the text and student lives, or using writing to summarize and predict. Chapter Three describes the use of author studies, literacy pen pals and writing workshop as effective techniques to build literacy. Chapter Four introduces a generations study project as a way to build on students’ own backgrounds and knowledge.

Chapter Five uses the work of a third student, Yi, to illustrate the variety of functions served by writers’ notebooks. Daily writing allows students to “respond . . . brainstorm . . . freewrite . . . [make] observations” (p. 85). Writing helps Yi in such diverse ways as allowing her to work through traumatic experiences such as leaving her country and learning of her grandfather’s death, and on the other hand enabling her to compose her own poems. Chapter Five also continues the description of the book club and of student excursions into New York City to deepen their knowledge and build a sense of community.

Barbieri’s own appreciation of poetry, her recognition of the students’ use of metaphor and imagery in their writing, and the importance of poetry in a literacy curriculum provide the rationale for Chapter Six. This chapter mentions poems read in class as stimuli to discussion and writing. It includes many samples of student writing. Chapter Seven describes the development of a club for girls that starts out as a book club, but the members soon expand their activities into making art, taking trips around the city, and talking about what is important to them. Chapter Eight describes the high school successes of J.J., Cong and Yi, as well as several other students, in academics, art, as well as their growth as individuals.

The first three Appendices are lists of books organized alphabetically by author last name. Books listed in Appendix A would be useful for the Generations Project described in Chapter Four. Appendix B lists useful picture books and Appendix C lists poetry books. Appendix D gives suggestions for classroom libraries, divided by grade level, while Appendix E lists titles for teacher use, both for professional development and to broaden teacher appreciation of young adult literature. The Works Cited section includes both literature Barbieri used in the classrooms she describes in the book, as well as books about teaching reading and writing.

As a former New York City public school ESL teacher at a high school with a large Chinese population, I initially looked forward to reading this book. Many of the author’s experiences with students and with the unwieldy and unresponsive public school system resonated with my own. I also share some of the author’s beliefs, for example, about the value of using student interests when constructing curriculum and the power a dedicated teacher has to effect meaningful change in the lives of her students.

However, ultimately I was disappointed. Since Barbieri was working as a staff developer at IS 131, I expected the book to describe her work with teachers and to detail the strategies they used (preferably focusing on the most effective ones). Instead, the book is essentially a chronicle of Barbieri’s experience, supplemented with “case studies and classroom vignettes” (back cover). There are references to the difficulties of collaborating with overworked teachers in a large school and a few paragraphs about three or four teachers scattered throughout the book. Strategies are mentioned as a stimulus for the discussion and samples of student work which follow, and their steps must often be inferred. For example, my curiosity was piqued by a reference to “‘text to self,’ ‘text to text’ and ‘text to world'” connections (p. 29) students can make while reading. However, the student notes that follow the reference do not clearly illustrate each of these types of connection, and to learn more, the reader is referred to another book. The book did not provide as much of an opportunity to “discover new ways to make room for your students’ diverse voices while improving their literacy in English” as the back cover claimed.

Even as a narrative of a teacher’s journey through the learning process with her students, this book will probably appeal more to new ESL teachers or to practiced teachers who are beginning to work with ELL students for the first time. By her own admission, Barbieri had no ESL background and had not worked with immigrant students before coming to IS 131. (This makes me wonder why she chose/was chosen for this position). Thus, the book describes a number of false starts she endured as a result of the time it took her to recognize the importance of her students’ cultural background to their learning process, and of her expectation that ELL students would respond to the same literature American students respond to. Experienced ESL teachers will already be familiar with the ways ELL students differ from mainstream students and will see plenty of their own students’ writing, and so they may not benefit as much from reading this book. Annotation of the book lists in the appendices would also have made them more useful tools for both experienced and novice teachers.

Gwen B. Riles
West Seattle High School
Seattle Public Schools

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