It’s 7:55 a.m. and Christy Tripp-Arkema has a lot of energy. Her cheery voice welcomes students, “Good Morning, Vietnam!”
It’s one of many cultural references she makes to her class of English-language learners as conversation flows over the next hour. She takes a minute to talk about the popular 1988 movie referenced in her enthusiastic hello: “It’s about the Vietnam War, which you may or may not be studying soon in U.S. History,” she says.
She explains jokes that involve word usage in punch lines: “Did you get your haircut? No, I got all of them cut.”
She defines words, both proper and slang. She explains what a quinceanera is, with help from a Hispanic student who plans to have the coming-of-age celebration this summer.
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Tripp-Arkema seems to like to learn along with her students. There’s excitement in her voice as she introduces topics, tossing caramel candies to students who show effort. Through daily dialogue, she’s learned about their lives and journeys, which helps her help them navigate school and life.
She goes beyond simple English instruction to teach them about everything from appropriate and inappropriate words and their contexts to clothing items worn for various occasions and how much a summer job should pay — anything that might help them be successful.
She smiles when considering what she loves about teaching students from all over the globe who have landed in her classroom. “They make me love it. They are amazing,” she says of her students’ hard work in vocabulary, speaking and writing. “They are so respectful. Most of them are so grateful for the help, and really want to do well in school. It’s so rewarding.”
Tripp-Arkema has taught English-language learners in Byron Center Public Schools for 10 years. Prior to that, she taught Spanish and ELL at Comstock Park High School for two years, and Spanish at Unity Christian High School for 14 years.
Learning Together, Far and Wide
At Byron Center, which has a small ELL population, Tripp-Arkema spends her days with 17 high school and 14 middle school students, most who have higher-level and some with basic English skills. They come from Central American, African, Asian and European countries — “All the continents except for Antarctica,” she says. Some were born in the U.S., but still need help with language fluency and comprehension.
One student explains that he is in ELL class to help him do better in other classes. Tripp-Arkema quickly reminds him of the strengths he continues to develop. “You are actually very gifted,” she tells him. “You are above most American students because you speak more than one language. Don’t ever lose that. Keep speaking your Portuguese as much as you can at home.”
Tripp-Arkema often makes connections to students’ home lives. She helps them learn how to do taxes and apply for jobs. She gets to know families, sometimes joining them for meals. She helps students unfamiliar with U.S. traditions understand prom, homecoming and other American events.
Just about anything can be a learning experience, she demonstrates. Tripp-Arkema had her students watch her being interviewed for this profile so they could learn interviewing skills. Beforehand, she discussed the word “interview” with them, studying the meaning of the prefix “inter,” and she practiced interviewing ninth-grader Isela Garcia for a faux job.
‘Felt like a God Thing’
Teaching wasn’t where Tripp-Arkema envisioned herself as a Calvin College student. She wanted to go into youth ministry, but didn’t want to become a teacher. Her father encouraged her to pursue an education degree because it held more promise financially, she said. She followed his advice, majoring in Spanish and secondary education and minoring in religion and theology. After student teaching at City High School in Grand Rapids, she was asked to apply for a Spanish teacher position at Unity Christian.
She interviewed and got it. “It just felt like a God thing. It landed in my lap and it felt right.” She’s now in her 25th year of teaching.
“I love it. I’m so glad that my dad told me to be a teacher,” she said, laughing. She spends time in the summer traveling and participating in mission trips. She and her husband, Tim Arkema, have two children: Logan, 21, and Eviana, 14. She is also a student-exchange coordinator and has hosted dozens of foreign students.
‘Just Fun and Amazing’
Her students are thankful Tripp-Arkema became a teacher, too.
“She helps a lot. She helps us with our other classes, helping us to get work done on time, and turn in late assignments,” said Isela, who is Hispanic though native to the U.S. “Her class helps with every class I’ve got. If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t have the grades I have today. When she’s around it’s like you want to work harder.”
ELL student Ghien, who preferred not to share his last name, moved to the U.S. from Vietnam 11 years ago. He said Tripp-Arkema helps him understand what he’s reading and do better in class. He said he likes her funny personality. “She is excellent. She usually helps students a lot. She usually goes to classes with students and helps them out. She explains the questions then I answer the questions. I understand it better.”
ELL student Arvin Nguyen, whose parents are from Vietnam, said Tripp-Arkema builds teamwork in her class by doing “trust falls,” when a student deliberately and literally falls into the waiting arms of peers. “She’s just fun and amazing. She’s energetic… She explains questions to us and gives us a better meaning of what the questions are asking.”
Tripp-Arkema’s interest in other cultures expanded in college when she visited other countries as a Spanish major. Learning about different perspectives, beliefs and ways of life opened her eyes, she said.
“There’s not always one answer. Everything is not black and white and it’s really important to walk in someone else’s shoes,” she said.
A ‘Bridge’ and Advocate
Tripp-Arkema is also adviser of the high school diversity club, Accept. Unite. Act, and the Gay Straight Alliance. She strongly believes in advocating for students who come from various backgrounds and have other differences.
She started a diversity club at Comstock Park, and when she came to Byron Center. “I saw a need for all students to become more globally competent and aware of different kinds of diversity so they would graduate with more experience and knowledge,” she said.
Both groups focus on building appreciation for each other. “For me, the relationship is the most important thing — just getting to know the kids and advocating for them, to educate them as much as they can to go into the real world and and be tolerant people themselves.”
As for GSA, a student invited Tripp-Arkema to be adviser and she agreed. “I wanted to make sure all kids have had a safe place to be themselves and I have learned and grown and changed a ton because of that club. It has been the most amazing club I have ever been a part of. It has opened my eyes in many ways and educated me more than books or other resources could.”
Through the clubs and in her classroom, she wants to hear people’s stories and about their experiences. In AUA she’s heard about what it’s like to be black in Byron Center, to have disabilities, to speak another language and to live in poverty, she said.
“It’s really important for all of us to understand each other’s stories in order to be better educated, relate to each other and be more welcoming and tolerant with each other.”
Tripp-Arkema often serves as a bridge for students, sometimes providing a voice for those who might not know how to or feel comfortable speaking up for themselves. “I definitely advocate for all of these kids,” she said.
Principal Scott Joseph called Tripp-Arkema “a hard worker (who) cares deeply about each of her students, and works to meet them where they are in life to do her best to understand their circumstances.”
“She is empathetic and kind. Her students know that she will work to help them become the best people they can be.”