Castle Kids: Taking a break from learning to teach

by Cathleen Cusachs / Beacon Staff • September 30, 2015

Emerson’s Kasteel Well program in the Netherlands had started to become something of an island—and not just because of the moats. It took Tyler Powles, some Dutch children, and a lot of work to bridge this gap between castle students and the locals.

Powles, a senior writing, literature, and publishing major, said he was disappointed when he arrived for his semester abroad in spring 2015. He said he felt that most of the students were spending their weekdays studying and their weekends traveling, without ever really getting immersed in the culture surrounding them. With this idea, he created the Service Learning Initiative, a volunteer program allowing Emerson students to help teach English to Dutch youth in the village.

“It seemed like the two things that [students] were very excited about in Well were the goats up the street and the children who play outside on the playground,” Powles said in a phone interview. “I was like, ‘Well I can’t imagine how we can serve with the goats, but I think we can probably figure something out with the children.’”

Well is a small village in the province of Limburg, the Netherlands, and is the location of Emerson’s renovated 14th century castle, Kasteel Well, used as their European Center since 1988. Although many service projects such as this were attempted, none were ever successful until now, Powles said.

He said he first had to discuss with the preschool and after-school program in Well, the campus’ Office of Student Affairs, and the campus’ executive director, before finally setting up the application process. Approximately 20 percent of 83 students applied, and only six were selected. Those chosen were then paired into three groups and each assigned a day. For the next seven weeks, the teams would show up at the same time on the same day at the same school for two hours. They worked with children ranging from babies to age 12.

This fall 2015 semester, due to such strong success, the program has more than tripled to approximately 20 accepted volunteers. There’s also two coordinators replacing Powles for this semester, Lala Thaddeus and Lorenzo Rossi. They’re assisted by a Dutch OSA staff member, Johnny Hermsen.

“My goal was to continue this program,” Hermsen, 34, said. “To talk to the owner [of the school to see if] they liked this program and they want to continue on, and find two people who want to coordinate and be the new Tylers—that’s how we called them in meetings,” he said. “I think we found two good ones.”

Through OSA, Powles sent out a recruitment email to all incoming fall 2015 Kasteel Well residents and spoke in Boston before the group flight took off. Rossi, a sophomore visual and media arts major, was approached by Hermsen and offered the coordinating position, but asked for Thaddeus’ help to ease some of the burden giving them more time to play with the children, they said. Thaddeus, a sophomore communication studies major, said this is especially important to her because of her multilingual background in English, French, Armenian, and Arabic. According to her experiences, she said she believes children are the most vulnerable to new languages.

“The coolest thing about the program is that we’re going to learn Dutch from children,” Thaddeus said. “I do have experience growing up bilingual and watching my siblings grow up bilingual and going to an international school where kids would come in not even knowing English and by a few weeks later or a month they’d figure it out.”

Over half of Europeans can speak at least two languages, according to a report by the European Commission from 2012. A poll done by Gallup in 2001 shows only a quarter of Americans can speak at least two languages. In the Netherlands, many do speak English.

However, most of the Emerson students at Kasteel Well do not put in much of an attempt to learn Dutch, something Thaddeus said should be emphasized more. This language barrier was a concern by many citizens of Well who worried body language and actions between the students and children could go misunderstood, Hermsen said. However, after seeing a success last semester under Powles, Hermsen said the owner of the local school, Kienderbemkske, is very enthusiastic about more volunteers.

“People in Well are always interested in students and the castle,” Hermsen said. “But the castle is the castle … And when do they see the students? When they walk towards the bus stop or when they go to [the bar] … I think it improves something in that they actually get to know the students.”

Applications for fall 2015 are in the process of being reviewed. Hermsen said he hopes the program not only continues to improve each semester, but also continues to improve the connection between Emerson students and their Dutch neighbors of Well. One of Powles’ favorite stories to tell is of a Dutch two year old who learned how to count to ten in English last semester and still does today.

“We could totally revolutionize the foothold we have in Well,” Powles said. “Every single semester they could be so excited to be getting this new group of students that’s going to come into this town and do amazing things. I think that’s an opportunity that’s been around for thirty years, but we’re just starting to tap into it.”