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Teaching English to refugee family goes beyond lessons for student

  • Woman posing with hand on hip

Posted on January 26, 2017

"Macalin kayga qaaliga," meaning "my dear teacher" in the Somali language, is how Sarah Cullip was commonly addressed while teaching English to a Somali refugee family in Grand Rapids last year.

Cullip, an English education major, prepared to teach the family while taking an English as Second Language teaching practicum course taught by Laura Vander Broek, associate professor of English.

The practicum offers pre-service teachers the opportunity to teach English to recently resettled refugee families, unaccompanied minors, and immigrants through one of three social services and faith-based organizations based in Grand Rapids.

Cullip was assigned a Somali family who arrived in the U.S. in early September, after they spent the past nine years residing in Ali Addeh Refugee Camp in Djibouti. Cullip said she originally envisioned herself tutoring a father or mother, but on her first day, she faced eight eager learners: a mother and her seven daughters.

Cullip learned some Somali language from the family while working with them and said she valued the linguistic and cultural exchange.

“I was able to greet them in their language, which I think is a really important personal connection,” Cullip said. “It’s not like I am the teacher and they are the student, we met halfway in learning each other’s languages.” 

Vander Broek observes all of her students in their field placements and provides them with feedback. She said working with the families is a process, and she wants to be able to help students throughout their experience.

In the classroom, students have a chance to debrief. Telling stories and learning from each other is a key part of the process, Vander Broek said. Sometimes, something completely unexpected happens during a session, and telling those stories can be the best way to learn.

“Students have to be ready for anything — helping families make doctor appointments, sharing a meal with the family, or teaching a family about U.S. currency,” Vander Broek said.

Cullip’s relationship to her assigned family goes further than their meetings. She regularly communicates with them through the texting app WhatsApp, through which she can receive images of homework the daughters are working on and send back corrections and tips. WhatsApp also helped the family communicate with their father, who is still living in the refugee camp.

This semester, Cullip will conduct her honors senior project on refugee resettlement and integration of refugees into K-12 education. She wants to continue working with and also researching other refugee families in West Michigan. Vander Broek and Cullip will co-present strategies for effective teaching of refugees at a conference in Copenhagen in March.

-- written by Lucas Escalada, student writer