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“Passionate about Challenge”: Stephanie Chiu on Teaching the Korean Story “Ascending Scales”

Posted on September 12, 2023

New York City ENL teacher Stephanie Chiu.

You won’t find the Korean story “Ascending Scales” on any lists of “high interest/low reading level” suggestions for high school English Language Learners. This work of contemporary Korean fiction was written for adult general readers, without any efforts to simplify vocabulary in the original or English translation. More than that, the story’s plot is sharply different from the narratives that students usually encounter in assigned school reading, making it perhaps the opposite of a “predictable text.”

But this contemporary story of a girl growing up behind her family’s dumpling shop, trying to meet her family’s high aspirations in an often-hostile world, has a lot of potential to connect with immigrant students. New York City teacher Stephanie Chiu suspected that those relatable elements, combined with the story’s surprising structure, might offer just the right combination of interest and challenge for her students: English Language Learners in danger of “aging out” of high school without enough credits to graduate.

A teacher who is “passionate about challenge,” Ms. Chiu grew up in suburban New Jersey, attending a school with few culturally relevant texts on its reading lists. She is committed to giving her students a different experience, with literature that affirms their cultures while simultaneously “pushing them to think”:

When I select texts, I want to go beyond narratives that focus only on immigration and the ensuing identity struggles. I incorporate those kinds of important narratives in other parts of my curriculum, but I also want to extend further so that students engage with multidimensional portrayals of characters of color. This is another major appeal of using the Words Without Borders website to find texts and lesson ideas for my students.

To support students’ learning with “Ascending Scales,” she put together a unit that draws on popular culture—including video game design—to help students internalize complex concepts like the East Asian story structure “Kishōtenketsu,” which is reflected in the story’s plot. Her instructional focus on the story’s descriptive language, combined with engaging assignments like “fan fiction,” translated into complex and creative student writing.

Ms. Chiu used this video to explain the Kishōtenketsu story structure to students.

You can find Ms. Chiu’s full unit, including a slide deck, assignments, and examples of student work, in the linked Google Drive folder. We suggest starting with her guide to materials.

If you, too, decide to try teaching “Ascending Scales” or another challenging global story, do please let us know! We would love to support your teaching and share your successes.