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February 11, 2008

The Perils of Valentine’s Day in an ESL Classroom

February can be a very challenging time in an ESL classroom. In addition to preparing my students for the annual Valentine card exchange, I have to explain the process to the parents as well. Many of the parents of students in my class were not born and or educated in the U.S. The concept of a class Valentine card exchange is completely foreign to them.

Over the years I have learned to navigate the treacherous waters of Valentine’s Day through old fashioned trial and error. In the beginning, I sent detailed notes to parents requesting that each child bring one Valentine card for each student in the class. I received everything from decks of playing cards to boxed sets of Christmas cards. Once I received an entire package of 24 baby shower invitations. I asked the student what the cards were for and he said “Your note said we needed 22 cards!” Another time I received 22 identical Hallmark greeting cards that all read “To my teacher on Valentine’s Day”. I was mortified that a parent thought I had requested 22 cards for myself!

Now, my strategies have expanded to include tactics such as copying the front of several boxes of school-type Valentine cards and sending them home as examples in addition to my usual note. At dismissal time,I bring empty boxes of Valentine cards with me so I can show them to parents when they pick up their children. I show the boxes to the students as well so when they are out shopping with their parents, they will be able to easily identify the correct items. We also have parent conferences in January, so I display a few boxes on the table and explain the holiday to the parents. Every year around this time you can find me lurking about the Valentine aisle in the local big mart stores posing as the unofficial “Valentine ambassador” and guiding families through their first Valentine exchange experience.

The best solution I have found thus far is to shop the sales after Valentine’s Day and buy boxes of Valentine cards for 10 cents each so I will be prepared for next year. Students can “shop” for their own Valentine cards and address them in class as well.  The superheroes are always a big hit with the boys and the girls love Dora or Hello Kitty.  You can always tell what's "hot" by the types of Valentine cards being sold in the stores. The students write their names on the back of each valentine card, but it can get tedious since we have 22 students- we have to break it down into a two-day process. 

Despite the unique challenges that teaching ESL students presents, it is very rewarding work. Everything my students do in our class is a “first” for them and I enjoy providing them with those first experiences.

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