UND students help New Americans embrace change

Chyna Lynner and Kayla Dembek put their teaching skills to the test as volunteer instructors for local English Language Learner program

Chyna Lynner, Kayla Dembek and friends

UND College of Education and Human Development students, Kayla Dembek and Chyna Lynner, both from Minot, N.D., have been volunteering to teach English to New Americans through Global Friends Coalition, an organization that helps refugees adjust to the Grand Forks community. Photos courtesy of Kayla Dembek and Chyna Lynner

It’s no secret that comfort can foster apathy.

If you want to see what you’re capable of, you have to step outside that cushy comfort zone.

That’s what UND College of Education and Human Development students Kayla Dembek and Chyna Lynner, both from Minot, N.D., did when they volunteered to teach English to New Americans through Global Friends Coalition, an organization that helps refugees adjust to the Grand Forks community. Neither one had experience in English Language Learner (ELL) teaching, but they found themselves learning on the fly once a week at the Kvasager Learning Center in Grand Forks.

“It was kind of scary at first,” Lynner said. “It was something that we kind of jumped into.”

But what the two lacked in experience, they made up for with enthusiasm, and their students have responded positively in return.

“It’s our energy,” Dembek said with a smile. “We don’t want to just sit there and have them read out of a book.”

It didn’t take long for Dembek and Lynner, both part of their College’s Department of Teaching & Learning, to get hooked on English language teaching, or any type of teaching. Both left their original college majors and concentrated on elementary education instead — a natural fit for their friendly, outgoing personalities.

“I think there’s a big difference when you do something you are passionate about,” Lynner said. “The work you put into what you’re doing is much more successful.”

Chyna Lynner and Kayla Dembek

English isn’t the only thing that Chyna Lynner (left) and Kayla Dembek teach their students. They also make sure the New Americans are succeeding in life. Photos courtesy of Kayla Dembek and Chyna Lynner

Growing together

The biggest challenge in ELL teaching is the different levels of proficiency, Dembek said. Some students have learned English before arriving stateside; others haven’t. Some have been in Grand Forks for years and others arrived only two weeks prior. Classes vary in size, and up to five different languages may be represented.

“We have to figure out where they’re at and decide what they need to know,” Dembek said. “We have to figure out what’s going to be most essential to them.”

Having two teachers instead of one is a bonus for the unique classroom setting. Dembek and Lynner group the students based on fluency, and everyone benefits. But in order for students to grow more comfortable with English, they have to get uncomfortable.

“We’ve had translators in our class before and students become reliant on them,” Lynner said. “The goal is that they are able to develop skills that help them communicate effectively in their community.”

Luckily, a common language for communicating is not required. Dembek and Lynner have learned what emotions to show and how to use gestures to interact with students until they are fluent in English. As the new arrivals merge with the Grand Forks community, Dembek and Lynner are there to answer any questions and share learning experiences with the group as they discover things together. Every class is like a new experience.

“We’ve learned to teach on our feet and be responsive, which you need to do in any classroom,” Dembek said. “Especially as a beginning teacher, you go in thinking this is how it’s going to be, this is how my lesson is going to be run. You realize at some point that your plans may change, and that’s OK.”

More than words

English isn’t the only thing Dembek and Lynner teach the students. They make sure the New Americans are succeeding in life — which encompasses a long list of different activities.

Dembek helped a mother register her sons for school. Lynner fixed a kitchen shelf in a women’s apartment. Both have given the occasional ride. But whether in the classroom, driving around town or learning a new job, everyone in life needs a teacher, says Lynner.

But teachers may be even more critical for new arrivals who want to succeed but don’t yet have the tools to maneuver well in a new environment.

“We’ll ask them, ‘Why are you here?’ and all of them say they want a job,” Dembek said. “They want to be stable and be on their own.”

“If people coming into our country want to work, we should give them the education they need so they can do that work and provide for themselves, instead of being on financial aid,” Lynner said.

Dembek and Lynner, natural-born teachers, are doing their part. They’ve gone so far as to invite random people they just met to their weekly class. Lynner is considering a master’s in ELL teaching, something she never would have thought of doing before this experience.

“We kind of put up barriers because we’re used to normalcy,” Lynner said. “It’s about being culturally aware and embracing the differences.”

 

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