Teachers Honored As First in Their Class

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007

With a year of study in France, extensive training in German and Spanish, and a sheaf of degrees and certifications, Colleen Dykema seemed well-prepared to embark on her first year as a teacher of English to second-language learners in 2000.

But that first year, Dykema began learning from her students when she asked one of them the opposite of "happy." She expected the student to say "sad"; instead, the 12-year-old Bangladeshi girl said "hungry."

"The 'aha' moments don't all belong to students," wrote Dykema, who teaches English to speakers of other languages at Swanson Middle School.

Dykema is Arlington's recipient of this year's Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award. The annual award, which carries a $3,000 prize and a Tiffany crystal apple, is given to one teacher from each of the Washington area's 19 public school districts and to one private school teacher.

Suzanne Lank, literacy coach at Maury Elementary School, is the Alexandria public schools' winner.

Dykema sees her role not only as providing a conduit to a new language, but also as a link to a new culture. In an essay, she wrote that she and her colleagues are "a second family and an anchor in a new land for students and their families."

Dykema, who has taught at Swanson for seven years and in District schools for nine years before that, has pushed her teaching beyond the classroom. She has taken students to the coin laundry to learn to identify clothes and use possessive pronouns, and she has had them act out "Romeo and Juliet" in costume.

As co-founder of the Swanson Family Book Club, she meets with students and their families to help engage parents in their children's learning. For events such as school concerts, she often transports families to and from the programs so that students can attend.

In an annual Ellis Island simulation in which seventh-graders take on the role of early 20th-century immigrants arriving in the United States, Dykema encouraged her students to give interviews about their own experience as immigrants, helping to integrate them into the activity.

"She is sensitive to the needs of students and goes far beyond the normal expectations for a teacher," said Swanson Principal Chrystal Forrester.

She is also known for introducing students to her favorite holiday, St. Patrick's Day. Linda Chillin, a former student of hers who is now a sophomore at Yorktown, recalled Dykema bringing in students from another class to demonstrate Irish dancing and music.

"Some of the kids in my class had never heard of Irish music or Irish dancing, and it was so much fun to dance along to the beat of this new rhythm," Chillin wrote in a letter supporting Dykema's nomination for the award. "There is something to be said about a person who teaches how to be part of something."


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