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Learning English opens door

Many volunteer teachers over Barton School’s 40 years were retired teachers like its founder, Amsel Barton, who felt it was too early to put her teaching skills on the shelf.

The pastor of First Presbyterian Church offered Amsel use of a Sunday school room and suggested she find one or two students.

Audrey Wagner
Audrey Wagner teaches Yulan Li

The school began in December 1968 with a divorced Japanese war bride.  By January 1969, there were eight students and eight teachers in the Adult Literacy Program, which was renamed Barton School in 1971.

Some teachers volunteer to help students improve their ability to read, write and converse in English out of their desire to relate with people of different cultures.  Students have come from 75 countries.

In recent years, several volunteer teachers have been offering their services teaching English because they came to the United States as immigrants or refugees and understand challenges the students face.

Wardé Bayyuk, who grew up in Lebanon, studied chemistry and taught school in Jordan, began teaching two years ago after retiring from work as secretary at the Cathedral of St. John.

Audrey Wagner, who came to Reardan from Australia to visit her sister who had married a farmer, also married a farmer and settled there in 1954.  She has been teaching students at Barton since 1986, when she learned about it from a former pastor’s wife.

For Daniela Kosinski, who came to the United States from Poland in 1981 not speaking any English, it’s her way to give back.

Teachers also include one from Japan, one from Thailand and two students majoring in English as a Second Language at Eastern Washington University. 

Along with the opportunity to teach and build intercultural relations, the teachers and staff—all of whom are volunteers—help their students with their goals to improve their English skills so they can become citizens, engage in everyday conversations, find jobs and pass entrance exams for college.

The lessons are held from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for nearly 40 students. 

Most of the thousands of students complete the three years of tutoring Barton School offers.  Some have gone on to own their own businesses. 

Each is better able to navigate in daily living by learning how to use a telephone, understand a bank statement, participate in a political party caucus or prepare for their child’s parent-teacher conference.

Now there are about 70 teachers, because not all teach every day. In the 1970s and 1980s, many students were Vietnamese. Barton School’s current students are from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, South Korea, Taiwan, China and Cambodia.

About 20 students are on the waiting list
, waiting for more volunteer teachers.  The church’s space for the school is also nearly full.

Mildred Scheel, who started as a volunteer teacher in 1977 and is now volunteer director, said her pay is the appreciation and hugs of students.

“I want to improve world conditions,” she said.  “I read the newspaper and feel there is little I can do, but if I help one person from one country, it’s helping work for peace.”

Mildred, who taught home economics for 25 years at North Central, Shadle Park and Lewis and Clark High Schools, describes the school as a mini United Nations in more ways than cultural diversity.

Mildred said her second student was from China.  The student had three daughters and a husband in China.  She learned English to be educated and after five years brought her family here. Her daughters, who were in their teens and 20s when they came, also attended Barton School.

“We often need to use diplomacy to deal with relationships of students from different countries,” she said.  “For example, one Muslim man could not go to coffee hour, because he was not to socialize with women.  We need to be aware of such taboos.”

Having traveled and lived in Europe, Kirsten Harrington started teaching because she wanted to connect with people of different cultures.  From living in the Netherlands, she understands how hard it is to live in a country and not know the language.
Kirsten moved here eight years ago from Seattle and began attending First Presbyterian when she was looking for a place to volunteer to teach English.  She learned of Barton School.  She started as a teacher five years ago, but saw need to do activities with students, such as role playing to help a Russian student learn how to read a menu and order food.

A bequest from a former teacher and grants provide books, supplies and citizenship materials, said Kirsten, who now helps with administration.

Programs are independently tailored to students.  Teachers use materials that interest their students and them, gearing them to their student’s level of reading and understanding.
Students come with varied levels of English.  Some had advanced degrees in their home countries but are unable to use those degrees because they lack English skills.  Some are doctors and dentists. Some can read and write English, but need help with conversation.

Much of the teachers’ training is on the job, but they also attend an annual English as a Second Language (ESL) conference at Gonzaga University.

“One mother said she had not taught anyone English. I reminded her she had taught her children English,” said Kirsten, whose children are in the church’s pre-school with children of other teachers and the students.

For information, call 747-1058.

Copyright © March 2009 - The Fig Tree