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She Walks in Their Shoes to Understand Their Challenges

EL Teacher Honored for Work with Refugee Students

At Bowen Elementary School, English Learner teacher Katie Lett’s students recently filled out “All About Me” forms. Soon they would write details about themselves on paper hot air balloons to hang from the ceiling. They shared their thoughts out loud.

What if you had one wish?
“A motorcycle!”

Second-grader Melody Tlung settles down to read
Second-grader Melody Tlung settles down to read

Your talents?
“I can sing.”

What makes you proud?
“I’m proud of my sister because she helps me build a sandcastle.”

What is your favorite food?
“Happy Meal.”

Lett’s 216 kindergarten through fifth-grade students at Bowen and Glenwood elementary schools come from Bhutan, Burma, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Nepal, Sudan, Tanzania, Thailand and Vietnam. Many are refugee students, resettled in West Michigan from war-torn, unstable regions. Their families have faced violence, trauma and turmoil.

But in Lett’s classroom, students chatter happily, raising their hands to share good news (“I went to the park!”), sprawling on the floor with books in their hands and spelling words slowly and carefully. “Be respectful. R-E-S-P-E-C-T-F-U-L” they spell, while giving input on what should be on the classroom social contract, a list of rules.

Lett works hard to know her students in small ways, by asking about their hopes and dreams, favorite memories and colors; and in bigger ways, by visiting their homes, offering their parents assistance on everything from how to help their children with homework, to winter coats and transportation.

Lett also gets to know them in a huge, macro way by visiting their native countries, immersing herself in their culture, eating their food, and developing a sense of what they’ve seen and left behind.

Second-graders Ranish Dhakal and Abinash Tamang read together
Second-graders Ranish Dhakal and Abinash Tamang read together

A Leader in Literacy

Lett’s commitment to her students is why she was named to the second annual “30 Under 30” list by the International Literacy Association, a global advocacy and membership organization. The list highlights nonprofit leaders, classroom teachers, authors, volunteers, researchers and social entrepreneurs who have created and implemented an initiative that improves instruction or access to literacy tools in the classroom, community and online.

“Miss Lett is nice,” said second-grader Nirmal Kafley, from Nepal. “She’s kind. She talks to me and she’s my friend.”

Lett, 27, grew up on the east side of the state in Memphis, Michigan, with “everyone who looks like me, believes like me, thinks like me.” She has taught in Kentwood Public Schools for four years, first as an interventionist in an EL classroom. Working with EL students soon became her passion, and she was hired as an EL teacher three years ago. A Grand Valley State University graduate, she returned to school to get her Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages endorsement. She plans to complete a master of education degree in TESOL.

“What makes Katie so effective is her unwavering, sincere passion for working with not only EL students, but EL families,” said Bowen Elementary School Principal Blair Feldkamp. “That is the key. She sees the whole picture.”

Lett’s students have been in the U.S. for from one to three years. They work on listening, speaking, reading and writing every day in her classroom. It’s incredible to see the progress over the months and years, she said.

When she first started as an EL teacher, Yoeshi, a student born in Thailand who had lived in a refugee camp in Burma, said only the words, “Ah, yep” for the first four months of school. Then one December day he said, “Excuse me, Miss Lett, that is not mine.”

“That, for me, was a moment of extreme triumph, to see that in him,” she said.

Lett refers to Yoeshi as a “benchmark kid,” a student she’s seen meet milestones to become a classroom leader. She has dozens of these types of stories, of students who grow leaps and bounds when given the chance.

Students who join her classrooms are understandably below grade level. They begin to read by learning letters and letter sounds, she said. “Once they have had that foundation they are able to grow more in their content areas.”

A student looks up from his work
A student looks up from his work

Extra Steps Matter

Truly meeting the needs of students means also meeting the needs of parents, Lett said. She makes home visits to build relationships and drives parents to conferences and other important meetings.

She has organized professional development conferences for teachers, both in the U.S.and Thailand, and workshops for parents to bridge cultural and literacy gaps. She is developing an adult ESL program for refugee parents so they can learn the language while establishing a relationship with their children’s school community.

She also teaches English at night to adults at Wyoming Community Education, and serves as secretary on the board of the West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center.

“I want to be a part of the whole picture, not just the kids learning but also the adults,” she said. “The whole idea of immigrants and refugees coming over is just incredibly inspiring to me.”

Kentwood EL teacher Amina Mohamad nominated Lett for the “30 Under 30” recognition. “In an era of xenophobia, it is people like Katie who give a voice to the voiceless members in our communities,” she wrote in the nomination letter.

Mohamad said Lett identifies students’ non-academic needs, such as food and clothing; she has asked Kentwood staff to donate winter clothing and snacks.

“Knowing that financial difficulties are taboo, Katie ensured that her students are not stigmatized for this by establishing a culture of giving in the school,” Mohamad wrote. “Thus, it has become the norm for students to come into her class and ask for jackets, shoes or snacks without feeling ashamed or embarrassed.”

‘If I could actually go there’

Lett immersed herself in Thai culture last summer while teaching English. She plans to go next to Nepal and Tanzania. “I feel like I can’t learn as much as I could if I actually go there and live like they’ve lived and seen what they’ve seen.”

In Thailand, she said, she began to relate to her students at a new level. “I felt that struggle a little bit, of what it feels like to go to a new country and not know the language or the laws or any of that, and how it felt when somebody actually reached out a hand to me.”

Lett’s classroom is adorned with flags from students’ home countries and photos of them surrounding her, wide smiles across their faces.

These are the faces that give Lett her perspective.

“They teach me so much about what life is really about,” she said


30 under 30 List

West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center

Lett was recognized internationally for her work with English Language students and families
Lett was recognized internationally for her work with English Language students and families
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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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