July 18, 2006, Published in the Chicago Tribune


By Naazish YarKhan

“Ha,ha, ha. Now whose the fairest of us all?” the wicked Queen chortled, sauntering away from the unconscious Princess Blanca Flor. The audience cheered for the cast, which ranged from elementary school–goers to high schoolers. The actors, the majority of whom were African refugees, represented 12 countries and all attend the after-school program run by Glen Ellyn Community Resource Center (GECRC).

“I’m not really, actually evil, but I liked being evil to the princess,” 4th grader, Nania Chol, says after the play. “Hey, I’m [sitting] right here you know,” retorts Elsita Alarcon, 9, who’d played Blanca Flor, just moments ago. “I always wanted to be a princess,” enthuses the 4th grader, who adores Shirley Temple and Hannah Montana. “I was surprised I got the part. We had to practice a lot to get it all memorized. It was so much fun!” she says. “How did we get the part? Last year, we were in a play called Rabbit in the Well, so I think they had a sense that we’re good actors,” she says on behalf of herself and Chol.

However, their enactment of Blanca Flor, the Mexican version of ‘Snow White’, was more than a play. It was a means to learn English, proper pronunciation and grammar, said GECRC Director, Daniel Zagami, who has a Masters in Intercultural Studies and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), as does GECRC Assistant Director, Margaret Kraai. “They practiced for three months, thrice a week, 30 minutes a day,” said Zagami. “Many of our students are from cultures that are traditionally oral. I really believe we can teach English by teaching the students oral culture. Kids have a great ability to memorize a lot of information. Instead of written exercises, we used drama to teach grammar, including verbs and tenses.”

Students are divided into groups based on Teacher’s Evaluations indicating literacy levels, and Assessments he and Krai developed and conduct three times a year. GECRC volunteers also fill in a daily Competency Log tracking students’ progress. “Most of the students [in the program] are behind their grade levels. There are clear improvements and in the summer when school is out, we know those improvements are because of the program,” says Zagami.

Between 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. each day, “we’re trying to hit things that they don’t cover during school. We teach them to write their name, address and phone number, learn to use a ruler, weigh things, learn synonyms, antonyms...”

The organization was created five years ago when Kasey Sanders, a current GECRC Board member, saw the need for ESL help for some Hispanic families who attended Lincoln Elementary School, in Glen Ellyn, where her own children studied. Today, the program is housed at Lincoln Elementary School itself, since most of its attendees attend Lincoln during the school year. Much of its funding is from the County and Infant Welfare.

“ I liked how everyone had their costumes and looked like their characters and got to say their parts very well,” says Catherine Tarpeh, 11, who arrived from Liberia two years ago, and played the Mirror on the wall. It took her two days to have red extensions, befitting her character, put into her hair. She likes them enough to keep them in until school lets out. Would she ever go back home? “No thank you,” comes the prompt response. Not surprising for a child who has fled the murderous violence that claimed her grandparents and uncles.

“We have 12 or 13 cultural backgrounds, including different languages and religions, and it’s a K-12 program, so we have different age groups too. It’s great to have that cultural diversity but it’s also challenging to accomplish the literacy goals that we have, and have kids work together, because of that,” says Zagami. He is interested in having the children perform at other locations too, so that they can continue to build confidence and practice their English.

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( This article originally appeared in the July 18th edition of the Chicago Tribune. )