Graduate teaching assistant tutors ESL children

Michele Roehrig

Kent State graduate student Arwen Niles tutors children in English as a second language at Wait Primary School in Streetsboro. Niles affectionately describes her time with the children as the highlight of her day. MICHELE ROEHRIG | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

There’s a place 15 minutes outside of Kent filled with color, giggles and fun. A friendly dog roams the halls, receiving strokes as it passes. But this inviting place can feel unfamiliar to the children who are not used to the culture.

Fortunately, a familiar face takes them to a room where they start to make sense of their surroundings.

That friendly face is Arwen Niles, Kent State graduate teaching assistant who tutors non-English speaking children at Wait Primary School in Streetsboro.

Niles said nearly 20 students from across the world, from Korea to Mexico, are in the Streetsboro school system, more than double the number of immigrant students from last year.

“One family moves into a neighborhood, and then families just congregate,” Niles said, who has been tutoring since fall 2005. “There’s no real reason we have this many children.”

Niles pulls students from classes twice a week not to only teach them English, but acclimate them to American culture. She introduces them to things such as Tootsie Rolls and popular children’s books such as Corduroy. In return, Niles learns about the students’ worlds.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship, bringing stuff to class,” said Niles, who speaks English and Spanish. “I learn about culture, and they need someone so badly.”

Most of the children at Wait Primary begin speaking hardly an English at all. They learn quicker the younger they are, but most pick up conversational English within a year.

“A lot of times they have a little list of questions in their heads — assignments, a joke someone told, some kind of interaction they had with a peer that they want help making sense of,” Niles said.

Niles, as well as several other tutors, help the children with classwork, which is taken at lower levels, and standardized tests. However, no matter how proficient the students are in English, their GPA stays with them through high school.

The Streetsboro school system is proud that so many immigrants feel welcome at their schools, said Agatha Van Brocklin, the curriculum director of Streetsboro City Schools.

“We are a public school,” said Van Brocklin, who hired Niles. “It is our job to accept all children and provide the best education to them. We welcome all children.”

Furthermore, the other students seem to adore the children. They are “the popular ones,” Niles said.

As a dream job, Niles wants to teach in an urban, low-income public school with Spanish-speaking students. She is interested in approaching non-traditional forms of English, such as African-American Vernacular English, commonly known as Ebonics, by viewing it as a separate language entirely.

For now, Niles enjoys working with the students.

“It’s such a highlight of my day,” Niles said. “Most of the time, even when I go in exhausted or overwhelmed with my university responsibilities, I walk out so glad that I went in. Maybe that’s the key — in the midst of all the homework, projects, exams, planning, grading, etc. that make up my day in Kent, the time I spend in Streetsboro is unbelievably refreshing.”

Contact graduate studies reporter Michele Roehrig at [email protected]