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KU researcher, students working with KC-area charities to educate new citizens

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

LAWRENCE — Immigration has been a hot topic throughout the recent presidential campaign and years prior. A University of Kansas professor and students have been working with Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas to learn from and help each other while working to educate both future American citizens and future teachers.

M’Balia Thomas is an assistant professor of curriculum and teaching, specializing in teaching English to speakers of other languages, or TESOL, at KU. She has been leading an engaged scholarship program with Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, which offers free citizenship education classes to refugees who are resident aliens living in Kansas City. Thomas and her students have been volunteering their time and professional skills to work with the program's students, as well as provide insight on curriculum and teaching methods. The work has given KU’s future educators a real-life example of how their work can make a difference in the lives of everyday people.

The Kansas City area is home to a large number of refugees who have been resettled and are working toward legal citizenship. Catholic Charities’ citizenship program has focused on reaching Kansas City’s Burmese (Myanmar) population, though its students have included legal residents from the Middle East, East and West Africa and Mexico. The citizenship courses help the residents prepare to apply for naturalization, which consists of an English and civics test and interview with a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services officer. Thomas and students have helped to hone teaching English as a second language skills, as well as help teachers address complex concepts many Americans take for granted — such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — to individuals and families learning in a language that is not their first.

Many of the concepts and philosophies Americans hold dear are incredibly abstract and contextual. Furthermore, aspects of the naturalization process reflect older, “legalese”-type language that is not commonly used today, such as the Oath of Allegiance. They are also not common in many parts of the world, and students who grow up in the U.S. have the advantage of having learned about them from an early age. Ensuring teachers have the skills to relate the concepts in a way the English language learners can access can be a challenge, but it's one future educators need to understand.

“I try to teach my students how the concepts we talk about in class play out in real life and how teaching ESL and content-based instruction happen in a class when students are learning a new language and new concepts,” Thomas said. “The students are understanding more deeply what it means to teach content with real, practical applications for real people. For people in citizenship education classes, the stakes are much higher. Being able to vote, having the securities and rights many of us take for granted are what they’re working for.”

The citizenship education classes prepare individuals for the in-person interview and written citizenship test. The test includes 100 possible questions about U.S. history and civics. Test-takers are asked 10 from the pool and must get at least seven correct.

“The 100 questions consist of knowledge most native-born students learn over a period of time in school and just by observing in their daily process of being Americans. These students have to intentionally learn this information and do it in a language they are still struggling to learn to read, write, speak and understand,” Thomas said. “It’s a bit like the reminder that Ginger Rogers performed all of her steps backward and in high heels.”

Thomas and her graduate students, who will go on to teach English as a second language, observe classroom practices, how students are learning, what they learn, who volunteers are and their skill levels. That information is used to evaluate and work with Catholic Charities to improve the services they provide. The KU students — several of whom have worked with refugee populations — learn about bridging theory and practice, while undertaking projects such as further revising and assessing the courses’ curriculum and writing dissertations on culturally responsive volunteering.

Kat Tonnies is a KU master’s student in TESOL who plans to work with refugees and immigrants in Kansas City after finishing her education this month. She got involved in the project to add a theoretical approach to her practical experience and has taken away many lessons that will aid in her career.

“I learned that as a teacher, I can never make assumptions about my students and their backgrounds," Tonnies said. "In addition, I learned that the materials I use in the classroom and how my students approach them affect how and what they learn. I want to continue to raise awareness among my family and friends about the process of refugee resettlement and immigration policy in the United States. There is so much misunderstanding in the public about what it takes to come to the United States both legally and illegally, and I hope I can dedicate my professional career to deepening understanding among the public and within communities I work in.”

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