Learning English Through Storytelling


Imagine getting up on stage and performing a monologue in front of a room full of people, the bright lights of the theater radiating heat on your face as you open your mouth and let the words tumble out. For many, this scenario sends a shiver of fear down the spine.

Now, imagine doing that in another language – one you’re still learning. Scary thought, right?

That’s exactly what students enrolled in Muscatine Community College’s (MCC) English Language Acquisition (ELA) program recently did through “Fork-Tales,” a one-of-a-kind performance organized by former Iowa Poet Laureate Mary Swander.

Students from Togo, Brazil, Ukraine, China, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Sicily and the Democratic Republic of the Congo spent several days working with Swander to craft their stories, focusing on the many ways in which food unites us all.

“You see distinct food traditions, but yet a blend of food traditions,” said Swander, who recorded the students’ stories and arranged them into a script. The play was part of Swander’s work as the Artistic Director for Swander Woman Productions and Executive Director for AgArts, both organizations she helped create that focus on agriculture and the arts.

“You see how food traditions overlap and bond cultures together. There are also a lot of weird foods in this show, too,” she laughed.

From being offered deer meat to eating an armadillo, to neighbors in Sicily bonding over espresso, the ties food has to family, ethnicity, place, social settings and community were illuminated as students shared their own fork-tales. Students performed the play at both MCC’s Little Theatre and Grinell College in Grinnell, Iowa.

“I was a little nervous,” said Domenica Vitale, who emigrated to the U.S. from Palermo, Sicily 15 years ago. “But it was a good experience, through the show you recognize everyone misses their country and everyone brings something, whether that be traditions, food or memories.”

Vitale recounted visits with her mother and family in Sicily, where food is never far from anyone’s mind.

“Sunday is the tradition, my mom’s tradition,” Vitale said to the audience. “When I was home, my mom made pasta, pasta with tomato sauce. And then, she make Milanese. And a salad. And expresso coffee.”

For Vitale, the experience of performing the play and taking ELA classes at MCC has been two-fold.

“It’s helped me speak much better than before,” she said. “I’ve made friends and we all feel like family, we have a lot of fun together.”

ELA Instructor Rachel Riley Smock echoed this sentiment, expressing her pride for the students’ accomplishments.

“You have to remember this is not their native tongue, most people don’t like getting up in front of an audience anyway, but then to have to do it in a language other than your own is quite frightening and they were just so brave and did a brilliant, brilliant job.”

The play not only displayed diverse cultures, humor, and the commonality of food, but it also provided a unique hands-on learning opportunity, helping everyone improve his or her English-speaking skills.

“The thing I really have enjoyed seeing is some of our quieter students who don’t speak that much in class really come out of their shell and become quite the performers,” Riley Smock said.

English Language Acquisition Classes at Eastern Iowa Community Colleges

There are students from all over the world taking ELA classes through Clinton, Scott and Muscatine Community Colleges. Classes are offered at multiple locations, including Clinton, Muscatine, Davenport, Bettendorf, Columbus Junction and West Liberty.

Whether students are looking to learn the language for the first time, or seeking to improve upon current skills to move up the ladder at work, EICC can help. Classroom, small group and computer instruction are used to promote reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. Students learn about personal communication, conducting business, work-related communication and civic engagement.

All EICC campuses offer non-credit ELA classes for free. The Scott campus also offers a credit option.

To learn more, visit eicc.edu/ELAclasses