Teaching English is a Laughing Matter

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Francis Rago must certainly have been born a teacher. He has all the qualities that only the best teachers enjoy: thoughtful consideration for his students, a gentle manner, a sharp wit and plenty of intelligence. For 36 years he taught biology at the Enrico Fermi High School in Enfield, and for 12 of those years he added an additional appointment in anatomy and physiology at Asnuntuck Community College. A busy man, and one devoted to his calling–what does someone like Fran do after retirement? He finds other ways to continue teaching, of course!

As a volunteer, Fran has taught inmates at Osborne Prison in Somers–students eager to learn, he reports. He has mentored a young man with special needs for the last ten years. Soon he will begin volunteer tutoring in a first grade classroom in Springfield, a new kind of teaching experience for him. The man never stops!

Observer readers will recognize Fran’s name from an article he wrote in our last edition, about a young Ukrainian woman and her two year old daughter who have recently fled from the war zone and are living with friends nearby. The mother, Anastasiia (the spelling is correct), came to the U.S. with what we might call school girl English, but not enough skill to speak fluently here. When Fran heard about the situation, he offered to tutor her–which he has been doing now for several weeks.

Fran set about teaching himself how to teach an informal kind of ESL mini-course. He did his research. He consulted former colleagues, language teachers with lots of experience. He was given the name of a textbook and workbook series for adult language learners, and promptly ordered them for his new student. In it are the usual grammar and vocabulary of our pretty difficult language; how could he make the process more interesting, he wondered? And in his usual creative way, he hit upon a solution.

Fran decided to teach Anastasiia by way of jokes. First he gave her a list of vocabulary words, on flash cards that he had made. Together they went over the words; then he would tell one of his favorite and not too complicated jokes, using the vocabulary words she was learning. Anastasiia is an able student; her progress has been steady, and she can laugh along with Fran. He has also has added some of his own poems to his pedagogical repertoire–anything to provide both practice and variety. Learning should be fun!

Anastasiia’s fiance remains in Ukraine, living in their apartment in a large complex in Kiev. Recently some of the structures in the complex were hit by a Russian missile, with the bombing very close to their building. In addition, she worries constantly about her parents, her sister, and her grandparents. She was the lucky one, the one who had a connection with the Sotil family, who live in East Granby and do a good deal of work here in Suffield; we’ve all seen the trucks from their tree service. The Sotils have welcomed Anastasiia and her daughter into their home.

Fran says that Anastasiia is touched by the friendliness and warmth of the people she has met here, and by their generosity. He suggests that in this age of uncivil behavior and sharp divisions in our country, it may be that as we watch the Ukrainian situation unfold we will be able to overcome to some degree our differences, in an altruistic effort to help others non-politically. Like the teacher he is, he never stops looking for the best in his students; what an irony that the dilemma of others in a faraway country may be bringing out the best in us!

The Observer wishes Anatasiia and her daughter success and happiness as they settle in among us, and sends the fervent hope that her family may be able to stay safe through the terrible turmoil in Ukraine.

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