Humor in the ESL Classroom

A teacher never forgets the first class – and I am no exception. It was back in ’88,and I was fresh out of grad school and had my first job at Tidewater Community College,teaching an English as a Second Language grammar class. I was very anxious going to class this first night, and I am certain my anxiety showed itself as I looked over the classroom full of students – 22 recently retired U.S. Navy sailors from the Philippines.

I guess I must have looked like the navy wife I was, for I was quickly peppered with questions as to my husband’s rank and where he was presently stationed. There were some raised eyebrows that he was an aviator, but seemingly relieved to know he flew helicopters.

Somehow I got through the first night, but at the next class, during the break, one of the men walked me to the cafeteria where I was headed to get a much-needed cup of something. He explained to me how tired all my students were because they work all day and then come to class, and it would help a lot, he suggested, if I could tell a joke to start the class, as that would get the evening started in a good way. I told him that was an interesting idea, but that I was a horrible joke-teller.

“That is no problem, ma’am – we will take turns telling a joke each night. I will arrange everything for you.” The next class, before I began my meticulously-planned lesson on past perfect tense, one student stood and told his joke, and their gentle laughter filled the classroom. I am now sure this all had nothing to do with relaxing them. These wonderful warm-hearted students were trying to relax me, which it did.

Ever since the end of Spanish American War, the United States Navy has had men from the Philippines serving on her ships. First limited to stewards, followed by enlisted ranks, and now both men and women serving as officers, the Filipino community has certainly served our nation well. It is this link with the U.S. Navy that brings so many of them to the Hampton Roads area. But this is not always an easy journey. My ESL classrooms at TCC are still graced with their presence, alongside many other students of various nationalities who have found their way to this country for afuture with opportunities.

Joseph Iguban was born in the Philippines, but his grandfather petitioned for him and his mother to come to the USA when he only 5 years old. Petitioning is long process; Joseph finally came to the States when he was 15, at which time he attended a high school in California. He was mistaken for a Spanish-speaker and delegated to a Spanish-speaking classroom. Needless to say, high school did not go so well for him and, after a short stint in a community college in California, Joseph enlisted in the Navy and served on active duty for eight years.

Joseph has since left the Navy and is happily married with an eight-month old daughter. He was in my advanced composition class this past spring. I also had a shy young European woman who was clearly having trouble making new friends in her new country.

Around the third week of class, the students were to work in pairs on an exercise creating a series of thesis statements. I teamed Joseph with this anxious young woman. The students were not 15 minutes into the exercise when I heard her laughing – loudly. I looked over, and Joseph was in the process of telling her something that she found very funny. A little joke, I am sure, to help her relax. It worked like a charm.

When I go to ESL teacher conferences and tell colleagues about the Filipino community in our area, they are always surprised to hear about these wonderful students I have. Sometimes we in Hampton Roads fail to take notice of them, but their warm hearts and gracious generosity are not to be taken for granted.


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