Penn GSE Student Helps Local Immigrants and Refugees Learn English

Each of the five students in the English class is a refugee, each from a different country, each with a different language. The volunteer teacher, Anne Pyzocha, is a student herself, pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.

For two hours once a week during Penn’s Winter Break, Pyzocha taught classes at HIAS Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia nonprofit that has been helping immigrants since 1882.

“I use a lot of visual aids. You become an artist and an actor. I draw and mime a lot of things,” says Pyzocha. “It’s knowing how to break it down, to use words they already know to understand new concepts.”

Pyzocha is in the last semester of GSE’s two-year Master of Science in Education program, specializing in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, or TESOL.

​​​​​​​The volunteer teaching, which she will continue throughout the spring semester, is the “capstone” of her degree, known as “service learning,” and brings together everything she has learned while pursuing her Penn degree.

“I am providing a service to the community by teaching, but I am also learning through the service,” she says. “There’s a lot of reflection: What did I do today and how could I do this better? After the first class, I was thinking of how I could incorporate more task-based learning into my lessons.”

Pyzocha works with Sarah Peyton Kaufman, GSE’s Educational Linguistics Division program manager, who is a 2014 graduate of Penn’s M.S.Ed. Intercultural Communication program.

“One of the goals of the Educational Linguistic Division is to have our students, like Anne, giving back to the local community,” says Kaufman. “The idea of ‘service learning’ is important from the very first course, starting with tutoring and working up to actual teaching. It is great to have a presence in a city with so many immigrants.”

Kaufman said Pyzocha is a “standout” among the 150 students in the two-year TESOL program, selected to be one of five second-year peer advisors.

“Anne has been incredibly proactive in seeking to make other students’ experiences better,” Kaufman says, noting that she regularly has ideas for new initiatives. “Anne is definitely a mover and a shaker, and that’s noticed.”

For her class of ​​​​​​​intermediate-level students at HIAS PA, Pyzocha is teaching “survival” English, language needed to function: to speak to a landlord, get a driver’s license, make a store return, fill out a form or answer questions in an interview. One class during the break focused on how to ask for home repairs: words like plumber, electrician, locksmith.

HIAS PA (originally known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of Pennsylvania) provides legal and other aid to refugees and immigrants of any racial, ethic or cultural background seeking to escape conflict and deprivation.

Refugees who have been designated for resettlement in Philadelphia by HIAS PA receive case-management services from the agency for three months. This involves helping them transition to life in the United States and move towards self-sufficiency. These days they are coming from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo, Burma and Bhutan, among others.

For the English-language teachers, part of the job is to create a safe, supportive and positive environment for their students, who have experienced trauma and stress, says Valeri Harteg, HIAS PA refugee education coordinator.​​​​​​​

“We want to get them excited about learning,” Harteg says. “Our goal is to provide a solid foundation in the most important, basic English language concepts, in a context that is meaningful to them.”

​​​​​​​Harteg is the supervisor and mentor for the graduate-student teacher volunteers, including Pyzocha. In the past year, Penn’s GSE has provided at least one student a semester to HIAS PA.

The volunteer students bring the “cutting edge” TESOL concepts to the classroom, says Harteg, and are willing to try new approaches. “Having graduate students here who are studying the latest research in the field is really useful.”

Pyzocha shares her lesson plans, required for her GSE course, which helps Harteg build a curriculum library. On average, the HIAS PA classes draw 10 to 12 students each Tuesday and Thursday.

“The end goal for these students is to establish a life here, to get a job, to get steady income,” Pyzocha says. “They just want the best for their families. They want to get their lives back on track after being derailed so massively. I want to help them get to where they feel they can achieve a sense of normalcy again.”

Pyzocha knows a bit about needing to adapt to a new country and learn the language. She lived in Russia during a year abroad while in undergraduate school at Indiana University.  

Languages have always fascinated her. The U.S.  foreign service was her goal, so she chose a double major at Indiana: Russian and Eastern European studies, political science and a minor in French. She took classes in several other languages, even Norwegian, her great-grandfather’s native tongue.

But jobs were scarce when she graduated in 2010. Temp work in the legal sector made her realize she did not want a desk job. She decided she wanted to teach, and she chose Penn for her graduate degree.

The ultimate goal after graduating this spring is to teach English to athletes who come to the U.S. to play major league sports. Her particular passion is hockey.

“I want to work with the athletes so they can communicate with teammates and the coaching staff and conduct interviews by themselves,” she says. “Also to help adjusting to life here in the U.S.”

The often-contentious discussion about immigrants and refugees during the 2016 presidential election made her role as an English teacher seem even more important, says Pyzocha.

“A lot of my peers feel that way, that our jobs just got more political,” she says. “We need to share the stories of our students with the people who are putting in place policies. At the end of the day it is people that they are affecting; it doesn’t matter what their passport says.”


Text and photographs by Louisa Shepard. 

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