For each of the previous 15 summers, NIU College of Education doctoral student Laura Crisp has spent six weeks teaching teens from China and South Korea.
The students come to the United States for multiple-year stays, most arriving in time for eighth-grade, and live with host families for the duration. Their goal is become fluent in English, perform well on the ACT or SAT exams and then attend college here before returning home with a U.S. education.
Enrolling in the summertime NWC Dunamis program, with classes scheduled seven days a week, keeps their learning in forward motion while schools are closed.
Crisp, who is purusing her Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction to become a more persuasive motivator of learners, delivers courses in test prep and in crafting successful college applications and essays. She also teaches AP courses in government and human geography, squeezing a semester’s worth of material into six weeks through two class periods each day.
Last year’s experience in Nashville was unlike any other, however.
“When President Trump went to meet with Kim Jong-Un, it put the United States, the Koreas and China all over the news,” says Crisp, the district librarian for Prophetstown-Lyndon-Tampico CUSD 3.
“In many ways, typical high school students have little idea what their government does or how it operates until they take a class, so it was a really interesting time. We started every day talking about the news and looking at this,” she adds. “To go from having zero interest to being able to talk about the Electoral College shows how much they grew in what they knew and understood.”
She’s not the only student in NIU’s Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction program with fun summer plans.
Jenna Melberg, who returned to the college to acquire a greater understanding of how people learn, is headed for Angola to teach English to teens and adults.
“It’s the coolest thing ever. I went last year, and probably will go every year that they will have me,” says Melberg, who discovered this opportunity through a connection with the Rev. Mike Solberg of Union Church of Hinsdale. “I really like having the opportunity to share what I know with people who want to learn. That’s very rewarding for me. The people of Huambo are very grateful.”
Melberg was invited to Huambo – Angola’s third largest city – as part of the inaugural faculty for an English-language school with the mission to prepare professors to teach at a bilingual university set to open next year in the central highlands.
Igreja Evangélica Congregacional em Angola (IECA), an autonomous Reformed Protestant Christian denomination in Angola with approximately 1.5 million members, will fund and operate the university.
Although Angola’s official language is Portuguese, residents of Huambo also speak Umbundu.
“They come in very different levels of ability to speak English, from someone who has maybe one year to someone who has 10 years. It feels much like a one-room schoolhouse of kindergartners through eighth-graders,” says Melberg, who teaches fifth- and sixth-grade math and English Language Arts in LaGrange, Ill..
“They also have different levels of self-confidence.,” she adds. “There are some who know more but might be hesitant to talk. Others are much more confident; they know they’re growing in their skills. They do not want to make the same mistakes twice. They are very eager and committed students.”
Students will spend “a lot of time talking with each other and practicing conversation,” she says.
Occasionally, that dialogue comes directly from a theater script. “We threw a little bit of drama in there so they could practice talking to each other in a way that was rehearsed so they could feel confident they had something to say,” she says.
Participants also are asked to read level-appropriate books and to write about what they’re learning from them. “Last year, the majority of books I brought with me were on science topics,” she says, “so we wrote about biology, different types of animals, the objects in the sky.”
Interacting with students out of the classroom reveals how much they’re learning, she adds.
“If you have an opportunity to meet the Angolans, you’ll see that they’re very friendly, social people,” she says. “It’s fun to watch them over time as they get more confident in their English, and you can see their humor and joy coming out, even though they were speaking English.”
English instruction, ironically, also launched Crisp’s summer gig.
“I was teaching at a private school in Galesburg, and the people who run this program were just starting out – it was their first year – and they were looking for someone who could be an English tutor,” she says. “I was a tutor at their kids’ school, and I had taught in China for a year right after I graduated from college, so I had some experience in teaching English as a second language.”
As she taught conversational English to that inaugural group of young visitors, “we realized that we could be much more aggressive in what we did over the summer because they were much more motivated. We could add English grammar or vocabulary or idioms.”
When the summer program eventually moved from Peoria to Nashville, the Sterling, Ill.-based Crisp remained involved, taking up temporary residence in an Airbnb with her husband and children.
“I absolutely love it because these kids are a window in the world for me, and I think of myself as being a window into America for them,” she says. “I tell them, ‘You can ask me anything,’ and they will ask me all sorts of things that might seem taboo in class, or things they won’t ask their host families.”
She especially enjoys witnessing their academic dreams.
“They feel relieved to be able to pursue the things they want rather than that aggressive hamster wheel they feel they’re caught in,” she says.
“It’s wonderful to see them come here and sort of blossom, knowing they can pursue any of these pursuits and take those back, bringing with them the best of what America has for them. All of them want to go back after graduating with the best of what we have added to the best of what South Korea and China has given them.”
Melberg’s doctoral quest is based on her interest to make literacy more accessible. She became a doctoral student because “I have a need inside myself to keep pressing and to keep finding out new things, and NIU offers that for me,” she says.
“I finished my master’s at NIU two years ago, and I really wanted to come back and continue the research and learning I did in my previous degrees,” she adds. “For me, literacy is all about empowerment. Being able to read and write enables people to make the changes they seek to see.”
Crisp, who supervises all of the libraries for her district’s four schools, wants to improve on the job.
“How can I do my job better? How can I get more students reading? How can I get students reading better? What are the mistakes I’m making? How am I not best serving my population? Do I have the books that are responsive to their needs?” she says.
NIU’s coursework is already helping.
“I absolutely love it,” Crisp says. “I will go to class on Thursday nights, and on Friday morning there are things I take with me to change the way I behave in my building. I think, ‘That is something I’ve never thought of, and I’m going to do something differently.’ My classes at NIU really inform my practice.”