Amid the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, SUNY New Paltz professor of teaching and learning, Andrea Noel, is working to support Ukrainian refugee children during her fellowship at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. Noel and his colleague in Wroclaw, Marta Kondracka-Szala, organized a successful fundraiser on GoFundMe to help Polish teachers working with Ukrainian children with the aim of collecting books and learning materials that could overcome the barrier of language in the classroom.
Ironically, Noel was in Poland to study the period just after World War II when Wroclaw was the site of so many refugees and how education was imparted to children leaving and entering the city. “Wroclaw is a special area due to the land swap right after World War II,” Professor Noel said. “It was part of Germany for over 500 years, but after the war it became part of contemporary Poland and the Germans were expelled from the city. Polish citizens were encouraged to settle in the city and its surroundings; and so you had this time, between 1944 and 1945, when there were all these German refugees and Polish migrants, and that’s really when the Polish public education system was being rebuilt…. It is a fascinating area historically, in terms of migration and refugee flight and the ways in which children have been served educationally and emotionally in times of chaos. What worked? What went wrong? »
While she is in Wroclaw, teaching and researching these exact questions, the city has once again become a major site for refugees – this time Ukrainian mothers and children fleeing their homeland because of Russia’s war on them. “It’s not unheard of in historical terms, because the Poles were under Soviet rule, the ‘Polish People’s Republic’, until 1989,” Noel said.
What she has seen and continues to see is “the Polish people opening their homes and their hearts to these refugees”, she said. Noel readily admits that while she speaks German, she does not speak Polish, beyond the cache of words and phrases she has been able to pick up since arriving in January 2022. Wanting to do whatever she can to help, she teamed up with Kondracka-Szala, her colleague from the University of Wroclaw, to find ways to support teachers facing a large influx of Ukrainian refugees.
Kondracka-Szala has a doctorate in education “with expertise in the use of music in the classroom,” Noel said. “We hit it off straight away, and she has so much energy and knowledge and is so passionate about these children who had to flee their homes. Congratulations to her and to all the teachers I saw in Poland, working so hard to find schools, homes and jobs for these families. Marta was able to find the resources online, meet the teachers, help assess what they needed and find it. What we realized they needed were school supplies that helped support children who don’t understand Polish.
Noel pointed out that in her first literacy classes she taught in Poland, her students and colleagues often asked her what it was like to teach in the United States. “I realized that we are much more used to having children whose first language is not English who come from all over the world, and first generation families. We have entire programs and teachers dedicated to teaching English as a second language. We may not always do a great job with it, and we can certainly continue to improve our ELL. [English Language Learner] curricula and pedagogical skills, but we are not indifferent to them, as they are in Wroclaw.
What Noel and his colleague did was start a Go Fund Me where they were able to raise funds and buy learning kits for several public schools in Wroclaw that had Ukrainian students. “Marta did a lot of the research online and found places to order these learning materials, and we were able to deliver 41 bags full of materials to preschool and primary school teachers in Wroclaw.” These include books, posters, games and reference materials on how to work with bilingual learners. Thanks to this campaign, they were also able to provide schools with a wide selection of Polish/Ukrainian books, as well as books only in Ukrainian.
They were able to identify and help provide bilingual materials to over 275 Ukrainian students who are in transition and generously receiving instruction from Polish public school teachers. These included schools with children from preschool through primary and secondary school.
“One of my friends [who fled Ukraine] is here with a teenage daughter, and she works three part-time jobs to survive. Her daughter is a teenager. She is very sad. He misses his life in Ukraine. From my studies, the impacts of trauma are intense and I worry about these children, so we’re doing everything we can to alleviate that stress.
As for how people can help, Noel said their campaign is over; but if people feel called, they can “reach out locally to refugee families, whether they are Ukrainian or from other countries. Embrace them in every way possible and help improve their experience.
“These materials were all funded by generous donors to my GoFundMe campaign. Also, my colleague here in Wroclaw [Marta] devoted many hours, as did a group of students in his teacher training program. These generous people really make a difference.
When she received her scholarship in 2021 and was asked about what she hoped to achieve in terms of teaching and research in Poland, Noel said: “I hope the current research will provide guidance on the best way to serve children and families under similar stress. in our contemporary times, especially in creating and maintaining programs for migrant children and their families.