MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. --
The United States military operates hundreds of overseas bases, with the Air Force settling in several countries in Europe, Asia, and more. Because of this international reach, Air Force bases often find themselves to be meccas of diversity, especially when it comes to language.
Rashawn Kitzman is one of five English Language Teachers in the school district, and she guides students along in learning English to help them adapt to life in the United States.
Kitzman began her journey in teaching English when she found herself frustrated at trying to effectively communicate with her students. “I taught in Arizona. We had a high population of Spanish-speaking students, and I didn’t feel like I was able to help them as much as I wanted to. I lived there for two years and then we moved to Alaska, and I felt the same way with our Russian population. I felt like I wasn’t able to meet their needs,” she said. After moving to Bismarck, N.D., Kitzman received her Master’s degree and soon fell in love with teaching English language.
While the program is available for students in elementary through high school, Kitzman currently focuses on teaching 12 younger students at Dakota Elementary and North Plains Elementary, as well as 27 others from three schools in Minot who speak five languages and come from a variety of backgrounds.
“Sometimes it’s not even that they were born in another country… a lot of times one parent is speaking their native language to their child, and that’s how they learn it; that’s their first language that they learn. Or, both parents are speaking a native language like German, Spanish, or Tagalog, and then they also have English in the home too.”
While Kitzman isn’t fluent in many of the languages that students and parents come to her speaking, she is still able to bridge the gap through the use of a phone program of interpreters for when an English-speaking parent is not available. “Honestly, I’ve never found a language that they don’t know how to speak, so I call using the interpreter and we have our parent teacher conferences with that if we don’t have a real person there. So, I’m able to communicate with their families in whatever language is best for them.”
Teaching students English has a variety of benefits. Since the United States is predominately English-speaking, youth are able to better navigate life in America and acclimate to their social circles. Bi or multilingualism has also been shown to improve cognitive functions and help with attention, which is a benefit that can carry on into adulthood.
“Even in our middle school and high school, they want to learn English because of the social aspects. They want to have friends, they want to do well in school, and they want to make their parents and their teachers proud,” said Kitzman. Parents also play a key role in their child’s success in the program, and the EL teachers work closely with them to ensure the child is given their best chance.
Students in the EL program focus on four key aspects of language: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. They learn about grammar, sentence structure, and also take an annual language proficiency test that gauges their progress in the class. Once the child has achieved a certain score on the proficiency test, their continuing need for the program is evaluated.
As with many aspects of society, COVID-19 presented a variety of challenges to educators, and Minot’s English language teachers faced extra hurdles during the pandemic. Communication became an even more prominent struggle during the age of virtual lessons, but Kitzman credited a variety of programs with helping her succeed in finding new ways to teach.
“I think communication was the biggest hurdle for my families because when you’re using an interpreter, it takes twice as long to have a conversation and also to help the parents understand how to use the technology that the students needed to use. We did Google Classroom, and I would use Jamboard, which I have fallen in love with. And so my lessons definitely did change, but I think it was more the communication and getting the parents the knowledge that they needed to have to help their child out at home. This year I only have three students online. We’re in March so we have a routine now, but it’s still changing the way of thinking. We’re just thinking differently instead of having a paper and pencil.”
While her primary goal is to teach English, Kitzman emphasized the importance of honoring the students’ individuality and cultures. “The information and the knowledge that our EL students bring to our schools is just wonderful. The different cultures and different traditions that they have… it’s just a lot of good conversation, and I try to incorporate that into my lessons.”
In order to celebrate the diversity of Minot’s children, the English Language teachers hold a multicultural festival each spring. The festival includes demonstrations of different languages, cultural dances, and other diverse performances that give a glimpse into the lives of multicultural families. The event has been delayed two years in a row due to the pandemic, but they hope to find some way to continue the tradition so that students can share their cultures with the other families of Minot.
Robert Alan, an American writer, once said, “Cultural differences should not separate us from each other, but rather cultural diversity brings a collective strength that can benefit all of humanity.” Kitzman and the EL teachers of Minot are important mentors helping students to broaden their horizons and to not only honor where they came from, but where they are headed in the future.