• Jan Voelker - ESL License '04

    Jan Voelker, ESL License '04

    This place called "Minnesota:" Learning English as a second language

    When Jan Voelker was ten years old, she and her brother boarded a plane in their Korean homeland and, many hours later, arrived in an airport in a very strange and confusing place.

    People called it “Minnesota.”

    The year was 1976, and Voelker, her biological brother, Bill, and childhood friend, Peter, were adopted by a family in the small farming community of Scandia. “We didn’t know a word of English. I thought everyone looked the same, and I couldn’t understand even basic sounds,” Voelker recalled of her first impressions. “My brothers and I just held on to each other and said, ‘Don’t let go of me.’”

    The next day she was in complete culture shock. At 2 a.m., she woke up hungry. Unable to communicate in words, her brother screamed to get their parents’ attention—and then made a slurping sound and shook his arms out in front of him. Soon, their parents solved the mystery: Jan wanted noodles.

    Thirty years later, Voelker, now a teacher in Bloomington, laughs about her first days in her new country. But experiences like hers repeat themselves even today as more immigrants, refugees, and even adoptive children arrive in the United States than ever before.

    “The United States is getting more and more immigrants—our country’s economy is especially dependent on immigrant labor,” said Ann Mabbott, who serves as director of the Center for Second Language Teaching and Learning at Hamline University, where Voelker is currently a student. “If you talk to immigrants, one of the things they’ll tell you is that Minnesota is a place where they can get a job and the schools are good. They come here because they want to work and they want their kids to have a good education.”

    Across the country, the demand for English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction has reached an all-time high—and along with it, the demand for instructors who are equipped to teach not only children but also adults, and not only in schools but also in workplaces. In Minnesota alone, the most recent census data indicates that the number of children ages five to seventeen who speak another language and do not speak English “very well” increased by 121 percent since 1990.

    Hamline’s advanced ESL instruction, formally established in 1984 through its Graduate School of Education, was among the first offered. Hamline was one of the first ESL programs in the country to achieve national recognition from Teachers of English as a Second Language (TESOL) and today it is one of the top ESL programs in the country.

    Before they had access to ESL coursework, “people just made do with what they had,” Mabbott said. “If teachers don’t know the law [shaped by a 1973 Supreme Court case, Lau v. Nichols, requiring equal access to English instruction for non-English speaking students] or best practices for teaching English as second language, they are less effective professionals.”

    As a grade school student in small-town Scandia, Voelker, now an ESL teacher herself, knew her teachers were doing the best they could to help her and her brother adjust. “Our principal loved us so much,” she said.

    “If someone even looked at us wrong, he was all over them.”

    But learning English was a much harder prospect. “I wouldn’t talk a lot. Instead, I would think in English,” she said. “It was like singing with the radio on: As soon as you turn it off, you realize you don’t really know the words.”

    She remembers the day she struggled to finally get the words out: “May…I…use…the…bathroom?” Excited, her teacher burst out: “What did you say?” Voelker was so scared she had said something wrong, she could only repeat: “Me… bathroom.” Even so, Voelker’s teacher called her mom that night to enthusiastically report: “Jan talked for the first time today!”

    Her teachers were wonderful, Voelker says. But it would have been an entirely different experience if, back then, they’d had access to a program such as Hamline’s.

    “ESL is smart, visual teaching,’ Voelker said. “You don’t use big words. Words are very clear and simple. In Scandia, people just didn’t always understand that.”

    What makes Hamline’s ESL program unique is that it doesn’t just equip teachers to teach English to immigrants and refugees. It also prepares ESL teachers to partner with children learning English in school and their parents, and helps employers be more effective in the workplace with non-English speaking employees.

    Mabbott said that most other ESL programs do one or the other, either focusing on teaching children in the classroom or specifically preparing students to teach abroad. Hamline’s program does both.
    “One-third of our students seeking an ESL license are people who’ve always wanted to teach,” Mabbott said. “They’re people who are making a career change, who either have an interest in other cultures or maybe they have a connection to the Peace Corps… one of the nice things about our program is that you can incorporate it into anything you do. It’s a field that can draw on other fields.”
    With nearly 500 students enrolled from as nearby as Minnesota and as far away as Korea, much of the ESL teacher education curriculum is offered online, as well as in the classroom. “These classes are very demanding,” Mabbott explained, “and offering them online doesn’t change that. But we are trying to take the hassles out of going to school for our students—
    and especially for those in rural areas who can’t drive for hours just to go to school.”

    by Jennifer L. Krempin

  • HSE News

    FOX9-TV will hold a live, televised gubernatorial debate at Hamline University on Sunday, October 19 at 9 a.m. with candidates Mark Dayton (DFL) and Jeff Johnson (GOP). A viewing party will also be held for students, faculty, and staff who did not receive tickets to attend in person.

    Hamline Professor of Sociology Melissa Sheridan Embser-Herbert participated on an educator's panel at the annual meeting of the Sociologists of Minnesota.