September/October 2022 Issue
August 30, 2022

A lesson on hope amid Ukrainian war

Author: Matt Hamilton
Source: NYSUT United
Poland and Ukraine students
Caption: Yonkers Federation of Teachers member Shai Stephenson and her students smile for the camera with their New York-themed props at a summer camp for Ukrainian and Polish students in Cieszanów, Poland. Photo provided by Shai Stephenson.

They traveled to Poland to teach English. They brought back a lesson on hope.

Four NYSUT members joined a delegation of 15 educators from across the nation in July for a two-week summer camp to work with students from Poland and war-torn Ukraine. The trip — organized by the American Federation of Teachers and partner organizations — was designed for English language immersion for 12-to-15-year-olds affected by the disruptions of war.

Beyond language lessons, the aim for Yonkers Federation of Teachers members Colette Hebert and Shai Stephenson; Syracuse Teachers Association member Jean-Pierre Rosas; and Alexandra Hernandez of the United Federation of Teachers was to provide some semblance of normalcy for the students.

“One of the kids said, ‘You know what? Things are going to be OK,’” Hernandez, a bilingual special education teacher, said. “They felt they were not alone, that they really had people who care for them and are going to be beside them no matter what.”

The Ukrainian kids came from the western part of the country, and the impacts of war on them were clear to the educators. So too were the impacts on the Polish students. One of the camp’s goals was to help them embrace Ukrainians as more than 1 million refugees have poured into their country, according to the United Nations.

The days consisted of English lessons. In one, Stephenson paired students up for speed “dating” conversations, three- or four-minute chats in English with a partner on different topics before switching up the partners (Hubba Bubba gum, a novelty brought over by another teacher, was a favored conversation piece). In another, Rosas read short stories with his group and discussed settings, characters, conflict and resolution.

Then there were outdoor activities and games, field trips into the surrounding area, and campfire s’mores.

Social-emotional learning was an underpinning of the camp.

“Even though this was in Poland, I feel like it’s so important in any classroom you’re in; you have to tap into their emotional well-being before they can learn,” music teacher Hebert said. “It’s important to make sure they’re OK first.”

The reality of war was a constant reminder.

The camp is located in Cieszanów, roughly 10 miles from the Ukrainian border and two hours from Lviv, where Russia has shelled. Hebert and Hernandez said that when a police or fire siren would go off in town, some students became visibly scared. Rosas, an ENL teacher who does free haircuts back in Syracuse, traveled to a nearby refugee camp to cut hair and said there was a feeling of “heaviness” among the people.

Even still, there are smiles in photos from camp and excitement when the educators reflect on the memories they’ll bring to their own classrooms in September.

“It’s amazing to be part of a union that cares so much not only about their members, the teachers and the children, but that goes outside even our own country to provide hope to other countries,” Hernandez said. “I was just amazed and so proud to be union, to be part of the AFT, to be UFT, to be NYSUT.

“That’s what we do. We show up, we participate. I was just so blessed to be part of that, of representing my union so proudly.”

As camp ended, there was a graduation, which exposed the students to the American cap and gown tradition. Rosas explained to his students that in the United States, people put meaningful messages or images on their caps.

At first, students picked the flags from their home countries. But then a Ukrainian added a Polish flag. Others followed suit, mixing and matching.

“Nobody planned it, but to see them put that piece together, that was beautiful,” Rosas said. “To see them do that was a meaningful moment because we were doing what we were supposed to be doing, which was integrating them and helping them support each other.”