When Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ Became an English Lesson

Sources: Haaretz – By Allison Kaplan Summer | All Things Michael

“Creativity is a must when your high school students are Somalis who have never read or written in any language,” says Shanna Peeples, who is giving lessons in innovation and collaboration to Mideast educators and policymakers this week.

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For Shanna Peeples, the 2015 United States National Teacher of the Year, the exhausted yet hopeful faces of refugees fleeing conflict and war in Asia and Africa aren’t just images on her television screen — they are the real-life students in her high school classroom.

The 50-year-old Texas native dreamed of travelling the world as a child. That never worked out — she has lived in her home state all her life and never took a trip abroad until now. “But as it turned out, the world came to me.”

It was a decade ago that refugee students from far-flung lands in Asia began arriving at schools like Peeples’ Palo Duro High School in the city of Amarillo. Their families had been relocated there by charities and refugee rescue organization because the huge cattle-raising and slaughterhouse industries offered up an ample supply of low-paying jobs for which little knowledge of English is necessary.

Teachers like Peeples and her colleagues were suddenly faced with the task of educating newly-arrived children from countries like Somalia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Iraq and Myanmar, many of whom knew no English and were often deep in culture shock. “One day a 12-year-old girl disappeared from my classroom. I found her in the bathroom, repeatedly flushing the toilet — she was fascinated by indoor plumbing because she’d never seen it,” Peeples recounts.

U.S. National Teacher of the Year Shanna Peeples meets with students of education at Beit Berl College in Kfar Sava.U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv read more: http://www.haaretz.com/blogs/routine-emergencies/.premium-1.674407

U.S. National Teacher of the Year Shanna Peeples meets with students of education at Beit Berl College in Kfar Sava.U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

She compares teaching groups of teenagers who have never stepped foot in a school in their lives to being a doctor in an emergency room: “It’s straight-up triage.”

Some of her students have been members of Somalia’s Bantu, an oppressed minority in their native land for whom learning to read and write was forbidden. They came into her classroom with no concept of written language.

Stumped at first as to how to begin teaching them, Peeples decided to seize on their “amazing talent for mimicry — they could repeat pop and hip hop lyrics for me in perfect unaccented English. That’s when we decided we were going to get a karaoke machine and that is how we are going to teach them — through Michael Jackson lyrics.”

She has deep appreciation for the late pop star, who somehow managed to  “penetrate the jungles of Myanmar and refugee camps in Kenya. When these kids sang ‘Billie Jean,’ it blew my mind — and really showed us that there were things we could do with them.” From that starting point, she said, the students were able to take their first steps towards fluency and, hopefully, literacy.

 

Read the rest of this inspiring story here

3 thoughts on “When Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ Became an English Lesson

  1. “…the late pop star, who somehow managed to “penetrate the jungles of Myanmar and refugee camps in Kenya. When these kids sang ‘Billie Jean,’ it blew my mind “…

    As a former teacher this filled my heart. This wld make Michael so happy. THIS is what he was about. Reaching out. Elevating others.

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