Anna Cholewińska and Polish School in Bellevue

Photo: Marta Bras
Photo: Marta Bras "Project SIS: Polish women in Seattle" Anna Cholewińska

I came to like Anna Cholewińska almost immediately! Who knows?! Maybe because I believe that all Annas are action-oriented women who ooze amazing energy?! Or maybe because Anna Cholewińska truly inspires me as a person and as a devoted teacher!

Among many other things that she does, Anna is the founder and the head of the Polish School in Bellevue.
Thanks to her I still believe it’s important to do something good for others and give back to the community.

Project SIS wouldn’t be the same if Anna aka Ania didn’t take part in it! 

How do you remember your arrival and what surprised you the most in the U.S.?

I visited the States for the first time back in the 80’s when I got invited by my friends. Back then, I was only a guest, so I didn’t have to worry about my living, nor imagine how my everyday life in America would look like.

When I arrived in 1991 our every-day reality looked a lot different to what I remembered from my vacation.
The first shock came with the amount of money we had to pay for our health insurance.
We were quite poor – initially living off only one, then later, two scholarships. But our family grew, so it wasn’t easy at all. It is hard to believe, but at that time we had – after paying rent, insurance and tuition for our graduate programs – $50 per week.
We used to joke that it was neither enough to live nor too little to die. It was more than 25 years ago, but still – even then it was very difficult and simply not enough for a decent living. But … we managed to survive.

The biggest surprise to me, apart from the cost of living and the dramatic drop of standards of living – was the university and the system of studies.

After years of studying sociology in a quite theoretical way at the University of Warsaw, I discovered that you can study differently. Studies in the United States were designed to equip you with more practical knowledge of the subject. Obviously, the theory was also important, but always in reference to practice.
That’s when I learned how to study.

I was gradually getting bigger and I had more important tasks from the professors I was working with; I was interacting with the students more often, and I was responsible for smaller or bigger groups of students more frequently. That helped me later in my work for Polish schools as well as in my daily job.
Today, when I work with the students at City University of Seattle I recall my beginings very well.

You established Polish School in Bellevue, you teach at the City University of Seattle, you also have 3 wonderful daughters, run a house, and write a culinary blog, for many years now, you have been greatly participating in the Polish community life – how do you manage all of these?

Photo: Marta Bras "Project SIS: Anna Cholewińska"
Photo: Marta Bras “Project SIS: Polish women in Seattle” Anna Cholewińska

I never thought I would have so much on my shoulders. Not that I’m lazy, but I simply never suspected I would get involved with so many things.

Some time ago I read that Leonardo Da Vinci once said something like, ‘You don’t have enough time? Get busy with one more thing.’
I think that there is something in it!

We often complain that we don’t have enough time but when something new comes up we are able to incorporate it into our calendars. Take kids for instance! When the first child arrives, we think we think we don’t have time for anything.
But when the second one arrives, we surprisingly manage to reorganize and all the time we need is miraculously found.

And that’s how it worked in my case as well – it’s all the matter of organization. Though, we also need some help and cooperation from other people.

The Polish School in Bellevue would have never existed without amazing teachers! It’s true that leading a school requires a lot of work that most of people probably don’t realize, but I am very lucky I worked with great people from the very beginning!

We are all greatly devoted to the life of our school because we want our children to make the most of it.
Both teachers and parents are involved in making it work! I cannot even express how grateful am I to the parents who are willing to help and come up with various initiatives all the time!

Many people would not handle juggling so many things!

It seems to me that I simply like to be busy and I cannot imagine sitting still.

I started appreciating working for the community only after I moved to the U.S. Here I learned that it’s important to get involved. I remember that when I was a schoolgirl my parents wouldn’t even go for parent-teacher conferences, and coming to the school to do something absolutely wasn’t a case! My teachers weren’t too happy about that.

Similarly, my parents did not volunteer at school at all, and it was not until the 12th grade when my mother eventually came to the school to help other parents/volunteers prepare some food before my prom only because there was enormous pressure on parents to help with that event.

When my girls were younger, I started volunteering at their schools and I saw first hand how important it was. Clearly, I first had to learn all of this from American parents! That’s how I realized that if I don’t get engaged with my children’s school life, my children will lose something important – their potential to be truly bilingual.
At the beginning, I was working in the Polish School in Seattle and later I opened the Polish School in Bellevue.

Seeing how children attending Polish school learn how to read and write as well as watch the progress they make each year, lifts me up! It’s similar with other stuff – small or big successes encouraged me to grow and do more. Failures would put me down for a moment, let me re- think what I did wrong and how I could improve in the future.

I don’t even think [about] how I manage to juggle so much stuff – I just do it. Planning helps and thanks to it I usually handle all my pursuits, but obviously, I meet some bumps on the way.

Polish School is probably one of the rare places where children can speak Polish with their peers. What do the classes look like?

In the first year, we had only 19 students whom we divided into 3 classes.
At the moment we have around 100 students and 11 classes. A great majority of children speak Polish at home, but we also have some students who don’t know Polish at all.

Our school teaches in many different ways. We mainly teach Polish language – how to write, read and how to speak well. We also teach Polish geography, but not the way I was taught at school – there is no place for boring lessons on chernozem in Lublin area or coal mines in Silesia!

Years ago I found a book called “ABC of Polish Regions” and I immediately fell in love with it.
The book showed each voivodeship, its unique features and a legend associated with the particular region.
It was a great inspiration that made me think that’s what the students need! I wrote practical instructions to the book and that’s how we made the basis for interesting geography lessons!

When it came to teaching the lesson, I would also bring tons of supporting materials such as maps and even regional food (!) so that the students could taste the Polish regional tastes. I think the funniest and hardest case was bringing the horseradish soup (titbit of łódzkie vivership). The students had to eat the obligatory three tasting spoons of the soup – some students would tip it, others asked for more. I still remember this soup and other regional foods.

Apart from the language itself and geography, we also teach Polish history.
Not the whole history of Poland of course! In our conditions, it would be impossible, but we choose the most important events in the Polish history. Very often, historic, geographical, and most of all, cultural information complement each other, and this way children are able to associate it all.

I was wondering how to teach younger children about Polish Independence Day and I figured we present it as Poland’s birthday! So we sang “Happy Birthday” (Pol. Sto lat) in Polish, and even got a cake with candles! Poland’s birthday is now well incorporated into our teaching program!

We prove that you can teach younger children about Polish traditions that they will remember!
Younger students receive lots of projects on particular subjects; older ones make things such as Easter palms, Easter eggs, or Easter cakes – there’s no space for boredom! Just recently, I asked our graduating students what they liked and remembered most about the school – they answered that those unusual lessons were their favorites!

When our students leave the school they are pretty well educated and I believe knowing Polish will pay them off one day!

Polish culture is deeply rooted in the Catholic religion and Jan Twardowski is one of Polish most recognizable poets who was also a priest. Does it mean that the school is somehow religious?
And why did you choose Jan Twardowski to be the patron of the school?

I met father Twardowski when I was a teenager. He baptized me and prepared me to the sacrament of Holy Communion. He also baptized my oldest daughter. I was lucky to see him teach and interact with children.
I also read a lot about his work with handicapped children. When I was establishing the Polish School in 
Bellevue I thought that his teaching would go hand in hand with our school. Back then it was the very first school by his name. Does it all mean that we are a Catholic or religious school? Definitely not.
We teach Polish language, Polish history, geography, culture, and that’s our goal.

Both among teachers and children are persons of different or no faith. Polish history, culture, and literature are full of Christian and Catholic connections, but we do not impose Catholicism on anybody. That’s a fact that we cannot escape. We mention it on our lessons and during some of our school events such as the Christmas play or Easter meal that’s annually prepared by our teachers.

And what textbooks are you using?

We’ve been using textbooks from Chicago for many years, and we still use them in the younger classes, but we decided not to use these books with older students. One of the reasons was its strong emphasis on religion. Another factor that added to the change was the fact that the books were never updated. These books are exactly the same as they were when my oldest daughter was using them 15 years ago! Therefore, I started to look for some alternatives. Due to the significant difference in teaching styles, the textbooks for children attending grades 1-3 in Poland do not work for us in the USA. Some Polish textbooks for younger students are also way too difficult and are packed with too much information. On the other hand, textbooks for 4-6 graders work for us just fine, so I incorporated them as our teaching aids. I am very happy we can now use well-adjusted teaching materials!
Though, I am also worried that the recent changes in the Polish educational system may withdraw our textbooks from the market.

What advice would you give to parents who would like their children to speak Polish? Is it enough to send kids to Polish School?

Polish School is a great help, but children need to also speak Polish outside of school. Let’s think – can we learn a language in only 62 hours a year? No.

To be able to use a language well we need to use it as often as possible. That’s why it’s very important to speak Polish with kids. In my opinion, speaking Polish at home shouldn’t be even a matter of discussion.

Children, even the smallest ones, can beautifully handle the English-speaking and Polish-speaking worlds.
They can fluently switch from one language to another. Parents sometimes worry that their children may sometimes not manage English at school but it’s not true. With time children spend more and more time in their English-speaking environment, so they can handle the language perfectly. On the other hand, school shouldn’t be the only place where one speaks Polish.

Another thing is the contact that children will have with their family and friends in Poland. How they will communicate with grandparents online or during visits or vacations – that will make children feel connected with Poland and they will need the language.

When kids are older, you can think about sending them to Poland for summer camps. From my own experience and observations, I know that after such a summer, children use Polish much better.

And the last advice I can give is definitely contact with literature and movies. We can easily use pop culture to learn the language. All the movies for kids are easily accessible on DVDs in Poland, and you can ship them here quite fast. Once you are buying the movies in Poland, they have both Polish and English language options.

Let’s read to our kids in Polish. We’ll see how even those who are a bit older enjoy it! Let’s buy audiobooks and listen to them in the car, at home, on trips. It’ll all result in our kids’ bilingualism. I’m sure kids will sometimes rebel at all this but one day they’ll appreciate knowing Polish.

I’ll also add that nowadays when attending Polish School, you can take [a] Polish language exam that’ll be shown on your high school diploma. That can help in your college application.

I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t ask you: how are you motivated, how do you get inspired, and what can I wish you today?

Actually, I don’t know. I’m sure I’m partially motivated by obstacles and the fact that not all believed (and still don’t believe) that our school is necessary. There is an abundance of myths and legends that I cannot even think of anymore. But when I hear such fake news I get both angry and motivated at the same time. That’s how pert I am! However, the most important thing is that I love what I do! I look around, observe others, and incorporate the best practices into our school.

Our children develop and grow with us – this observation ensures me that what I do is good. When I later hear that Polish came in handy (LOL! Unbelievable – but it happens!), I know that all these efforts pay back!

I recently found a box with a small collection of cards from both students and parents.
I felt truly touched when I read them once again. The most beautiful cards were the ones written by small children – you know, the ones with untrained handwriting with orthographic mistakes, but from the heart! Going through this box gave me an enormous boost of energy for the months to come. I would have never received it if it wasn’t for Polish School in Bellevue.
This is the biggest prize and the biggest joy!

Photo: Marta Bras "Project SIS: Anna Cholewińska"
Photo: Marta Bras “Project SIS: Polish women in Seattle” Anna Cholewińska