Conversations with Tim: How a team of educators and administrators built a successful bilingual program

October 27, 2023

In this edition of Conversations with Tim, Tim is joined by Piedad Kaye, an administrator at the Mannheim 83 School District in Illinois and director of the bilingual and ESL program, and Michelle Kotwica, the multilingual learner specialist in the district. Piedad and Michelle have been working together for years to change paradigms in the district and build an asset-based bilingual program that merges language with content. They join Tim and Merideth Trahan, WIDA chief of staff, to discuss how they worked with other educators to build the program and give advice for others looking to do the same.

Listening option: Listen to the audio here or continue reading the conversation below, which has been edited for clarity and brevity.

As you read and/or listen to this edition of Conversations with Tim, look for these top takeaways:

  • Giving teachers dedicated time to plan with other teachers is one key to success. This fosters a collaborative culture and encourages teachers to reach out for help, ideas and resources.
  • Piedad and Michelle have made getting to know each newcomer student and their background a priority in their district. They conduct comprehensive interviews with newcomer families to learn as much as they can in order to serve these students in the best way they can.
  • From the WIDA Annual Conference, to the La Cosecha dual language conference, to visiting the biliteracy institute in Boulder, Piedad and Michelle are constantly seeking out learning opportunities, research and resources for multilingual learners and educators.
  • It’s a team effort to build a successful program! It doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen without a team of people dedicated to the work.

Tim Boals: We have with us today, Dr. Piedad Kaye. She is an administrator in public education and has over 31 years of experience in the field of bilingual and ESL education. Her experience ranges from working in kindergarten through high school. Piedad has conducted extensive research on bilingualism and biliteracy. Her commitment to Mannheim District 83 has garnered great success in parental involvement and participation in the multilingual community.

Michelle Kotwica is currently the District Multilingual Learner Specialist at Mannheim District 83. She has been in education for 20 years and has worked with K-8 multilingual learners throughout her career. Michelle is also an adjunct professor where she teaches the ESL Methods & Materials course to teachers seeking an endorsement in ESL as part of teacher preparation.

Michelle and Piedad, great to have you with us.

Let’s start by talking about each of your educator origin stories. What brought you to the field of teaching multilingual learners and what keeps you in the profession?

Michelle Kotwica: I’ve been teaching for 20 years, all with multilingual learners. I started as a third-grade teacher, moved to K-5, and then 6-8 ESL resource. I then took on an ESL instructional coach position and now I’m in the district multilingual specialist position working with all K-8 teachers. Looking back, I recall taking Spanish in middle school through college and that’s where my curiosity and interest in other languages and cultures started. In my first teaching job I had many Spanish-speaking students and I started to grow even more interested and passionate about learning about other languages and cultures to better understand and serve the students in my classroom. That led me to get my master’s in ESL endorsement to learn even more about multilingual learners and apply that knowledge and advocacy to not only my teaching practice but now take it into my new role where I can share that information and welcome knowledge with colleagues. And learn from them to best advocate for our multilingual learners and ensure they’re getting a fully comprehensive education to ensure their success.

Piedad Kaye: When I was in second grade in Colombia, South America, my parents announced that they had been admitted to Georgia Tech University to study in the engineering program. They were young, adventurous parents and they threw the three of us in a plane, and back then it was propellers, so that tells you how old I am. And we came to the United States. My dad bought a little book at the airport called “How to Speak English with Ten Nouns and Ten Verbs” because they didn’t know the language. They went to the university. The first year was learning English and they had to pass the TOEFL. While they were studying, I was picking up a lot of the language.

I came in and they enrolled me in third grade, so it was the perfect grade because I already had literacy and numeracy. I could make a lot of connections. We didn’t have a bilingual teacher, but we had teachers who were quite friendly and somehow knew what to do. They labeled things and they repeated things for me. Mom and Dad going through that English program helped me quite a bit in picking up the language. Then I went back to South America when I finished high school. I went to university in Colombia at University of El Rosario, and I studied linguistics. Then I came back to the United States, and I went to Indiana University and got my teaching degree and then my master’s from Purdue and then my doctorate from National Louis University. I love it because it fascinates me how the mind learns to connect a morpheme with a grapheme and make sense of the language. In the 32 years that I’ve worked, I’ve prided myself on making people understand that once you break that code you can kind of sail into understanding and making sense of the language. And I stay in the profession, Tim, because I love my work. I think we make a difference every day in the lives of our multilingual learners and their families. To me, it’s really a mission.

Tim: That was a great story and a great reason to love teaching. How do the two of you work together, whether on a daily basis, weekly or within the scope of a school year?

Piedad: From the first day I got to Mannheim 83, which was 11 years ago, Michelle was an ESL teacher and I met with teachers to see what we could do to build the program. Biliteracy had just come into the district and work with ESL teachers. Michelle and I built a strong connection because she was very honest with me. She didn’t sugarcoat anything. She told me exactly where we were struggling in the district. So, I found her candidness to be incredibly refreshing and we were able to take it from there.

Michelle: And since then, we’ve worked very closely together. So now, especially in my new role, at the beginning of the year we set goals and discuss monthly projects and targets for completion based on district, school, teacher and classroom needs. And then we’ll meet periodically or as needed to review and adjust those goals. In general, we maintain open and frequent communication through email, phone calls and in-person. Whatever is needed at that time—communication within planning professional development, sharing resources with teachers, scheduling team, department and individual meetings and so forth. We communicate often to ensure we’re meeting teacher and student needs.

Piedad: We both really listen to teachers, and I think that’s where we share commonality. I’ll never forget being a teacher and the many hurdles that you have to face every day. When they bring hurdles to us, Michelle and I discuss it. We figure out what resources we can provide to teachers, and we let them know we appreciate their struggle. One of the things we have found that works well is giving teachers time to plan with other teachers. Our ESL team meets with the monolingual teachers whom they support, and we facilitate that in a very creative way. We get floating subs, because there is a sub shortage everywhere. The teachers set a schedule. They meet with the teachers and then they plan the curriculum. They are usually about 3 weeks ahead of where they’re going. So that makes a very effective way of planning together. We seek resources for all our educators. Michelle will go and seek out books in Ukrainian, in Polish. I just flew to Miami to seek books written by authentic Spanish speaking authors so we can bring that into our classrooms, libraries and into our instruction.

Tim: That sounds like you have a lot of particular ways, Piedad, that you support and facilitate collaboration throughout the district. How about supporting multilingual learners and their families—can you describe any successful partnerships or programs between the district and the community that support learners and their families?

Piedad: When our families come in, of course we follow the protocol of the home language survey, but then, following that, before we screen our students, we get a complete family history. One of us will sit down with the family and get a profile of their struggles. For example, now that we have Ukrainian kids, we ask, “What experiences have they faced?”

Michelle and the teachers develop a very comprehensive family interview that gives us a lot of insight into the family. We’re quite prepared to face the needs of our multilingual learners as they come into our district. Then we screen the kids and decide where we’re going to place the kids. We always let the parents know that we are going to do the best that we can for their children. No matter what the language, we get interpreters, we have technology to translate. We want parents to know that they are in a different country, but we are going to do the best for their kids. That creates this incredible confidence between parents and us and educators.

Michelle: In addition to all of that, we also have a wonderful program called Tapestry. It’s at our middle school, which is now being brought down to some of our elementary buildings as well. The Tapestry program is a social-emotional connection intervention provided by the West 40 staff. It provides students with an opportunity to achieve academic success based on one-on-one mentoring, social-emotional learning support, goal setting and even linking families to school and community services. With a recent influx of newcomers, the team has created an expedited referral process for some students due to their often-difficult journey to us. It’s truly a wonderful connection for the school, families and communities.

Piedad: During our parent-teacher conferences, teachers share the ACCESS reports with families. Everybody has learned to understand the acquisition of language and the proficiency levels. That’s very new to parents from other countries because of the way we present it and make it such an asset-based, positive process. We teach language and content at the same time.

Tim: For each of you, what resources or professional development opportunities have been most valuable to you?

Michelle: Personally, after moving from elementary school to middle school, I wanted to learn more about our multilingual learners and their journey after leaving us in fifth grade. That’s how I’ve recently gotten more into multilingual professional development to learn more about secondary resources and strategies to use with our students who have been in the ESL or bilingual program for more than five years. I’ve really enjoyed learning about and sharing information with colleagues about how to amplify language and learning for our students and maintain rigor but help make content and language accessible for all students and bridge or strengthen content and language. Overall, I love learning and knowing the latest research and strategies that support multilingual learners so I’m constantly watching webinars, reading and attending conferences, especially WIDA, La Cosecha, anything that I can get my hands on and take a team with me for more learning and collaboration.

Tim: That’s great. It’s what makes the field so interesting, too, the constant learning that we all do. Piedad, how about you?

Piedad: I have encouraged our teachers and our administrators to understand that those who do the work and those who we read and who publish, are just as excited as we are to share what they’ve learned with us. We invite a lot of the best researchers to our district. With that, we’re able to create a plan for professional learning for our teachers and we base it on the Ellie Drago-Severson pillars which really leads to in-depth learning. That brings a lot of understanding of our practice to everyone in the district—administrators, bilingual teachers and all our specialists. We go to the WIDA Annual Conference and pick up lots of resources, meet with the researchers, which is wonderful. You and I have been to the biliteracy institute in Pueblo to understand literacy in another language. Also, there’s a biliteracy institute in Boulder we go to. Then La Cosecha in New Mexico, that’s always wonderful.

Tim: That’s a big one. Andrea Honigsfeld, too. I think I’ve seen you at some of her workshops on collaboration and I bet a lot of your staff have benefited from the specific nuts-and-bolts information that Andrea does such a wonderful job of giving teachers.

Piedad: She is wonderful. I think about 10 years back we did her first book study, and she was gracious enough to join us for a book study. Then we were able to bring her into the district and she came and worked with all our teachers and all our teams on building effective co-teaching models of instruction and collaboration and that was huge.

Another conference we like to go to is the IRC Bilingual Conference. We present a lot there; we meet with a lot of people from the state. That conference brings all of us from around the state and nearby states, which gives us an opportunity to talk about what we’re doing and what practices are effective. And then, of course, those of us who are in leadership meet afterwards for dinner and talk about what’s happening. We discuss the newcomers we’re getting, the challenges that we’re facing. It’s a great way to collaborate, exchange ideas and brainstorm.

Tim: That is a terrific conference and one I’ve enjoyed attending over the years.

Merideth Trahan: The next question is really about how you help teachers support and encourage children’s home language in the classroom.

Michelle: I would say in the last few years there’s definitely been a more positive push to ask for more materials and resources in other languages to meet students’ needs. Teachers and literacy coaches have been finding texts and materials that are available in other languages and that are more culturally relevant, in general. We’ve been working with our technology coaches to get updated tech ideas and apps to translate materials as needed. And help find ways to build and add oracy to lessons and make content more comprehensible.

We’ve been engineering texts and learning targets, including more videos or visuals to help build background knowledge or active prior knowledge. Together, the teachers, teams and admins really do a fabulous job on finding ways to build relationships with our students, especially newcomers, to find connections and help bridge cultures and make students really feel safe, comfortable, welcome and ready to learn. The bilingual team truly goes above and beyond to learn more about each individual newcomer, their backgrounds, to get to know them and the nuances of each country or city that they’re from, to help make the students feel comfortable. For example, in one grade we have several students from Mexico, but all different cities with vastly different experiences and backgrounds. Learning about each student, making those connections and building relationships is really important to student and teacher success.

Merideth: What do you think has shifted? You said in the last few years there’s been a real increase in resources and requests from teachers—what shifted?

Piedad: I think what has shifted is we’ve been able to change the paradigm. The paradigm of collaboration, where all our teachers understand that all children are academic language learners and the teachers have embraced that. That’s what I believe you mean, am I right Michelle?

Michelle: Yes!

Piedad: We collaborate with the literacy coaches. One of the media specialists, or librarian, went with me to Mexico to build up her library and, in doing so, all the resources she brought she shared with the other librarians in the district for elementary and middle school. I believe that change didn’t happen immediately, but we worked on it for a couple of years, and it started taking hold. Now teachers and administrators from all over are coming to us and asking us to help them understand something or where to get resources. That’s very satisfying, very rewarding. Also, for the biliteracy component of our program, because we have biliteracy from kindergarten through eighth grade, ESL is a big part of biliteracy. Teachers have to understand that the trajectory towards biliteracy looked a little bit different and the acquisition of both languages for students looks a little bit different. Our bilingual teachers are teaching content and language at the same time. And really having everyone understand that took a little bit of time, but once they did it has gone very well. One of the things that was a lesson to me, if there’s somebody who is not on board or questioning, have a meeting and explain why everything is connected and why it’s important.

Tim: It sounds like you’ve changed a number of paradigms in your school district. I mean, the notion of collaboration and valuing content instruction, but also this value that you place in the native language and cultural assets that students bring to the table and really pushing beyond just Spanish language to Spanish literacy development as an equal partner in English literacy development. And I think what we’ve come to understand through the research and through practical successes like your district is that that does not take away from the process of learning English; it actually adds to and enriches the process of learning English and getting kids to full proficiency in both languages, while also keeping them on track to being successful for college or career as the case may be. So, hats off to you, Piedad and Michelle, because it’s a whole team effort. It really takes everybody on the bilingual and ESL team and working with everyone in your buildings.

Piedad: One of the successes we’ve had is with our bilingual parent advisory council. We wanted parents to model literacy for their kids, so we have a book study. Our bilingual parent advisory council is invited to everything in the community. They have become like a real parent representation of our district in the community. We have multicultural events, and they sponsor them.

It was funny because the first multicultural event we held at the middle school, after COVID, we had 800 parents show up and the firefighters were saying, “Dr. Kaye, you’ve got to get these parents out of here, we can only hold 600.” So, this year, we limited it to 400 and that worked out well, but it just shows how the community comes together.

I give everybody my cell phone number, every parent that I meet has my cell phone number. Because I want them to know I’m there to help them, any time day or night they can call me. We advocate for them. When they do, we take action and try to just find resources for everyone. The fact that they can reach out and call someone at any time is wonderful for them.

Merideth: You’re your own call center!

Piedad: [laughs] But truly, parents really respect times. I’ve only gotten a couple in the middle of the night. In 11 years, maybe two or three. And then, given that, I call our superintendent. Our superintendent and our school board are incredibly supportive and embracing of our multilingualism, so they know that our families coming from other countries often bring lots of challenges that we need to support.

Tim: Wow, that’s great. I mean having that support all the way up to the superintendent is so crucial to the success of programs. This is a great portrait the two of you are painting of the years of work that has gone into getting your program to really maximize the successes of your students. I applaud you for that.

Piedad: Thank you.

Tim: What is one piece of advice that you would give others in similar roles to yours? Maybe, in particular, about that road to getting there?

Piedad: I also want to say, remember, this is a team effort. I’m not taking all the credit at all. Because it can’t happen without the teachers and I often tell them, “I need you more than you need me. Because if you don’t make it happen, it won’t happen.”

One of the pieces of advice I would give anybody really directing a program with success is that they be part of the cabinet—part of the central office, so that they can make policy decisions. It’s important they make policies, procedures, curriculum decisions, because that particular group must be represented just as everybody else is represented. I do appreciate it when people ask me questions about how they can become more of a leader in the field. And that is my piece of advice. Make sure that when you do talk to your superintendent say, “I need to be an integral part of this decision-making process.” It’s a positive impact on students, families and all the resources we have in the community.

Michelle: I would emphasize how important communication and collaboration is. It’s important to have rapport with teachers, to be vulnerable and honest and have discussions about things going on, what they need, how we can support them. Even regarding professional development, having teacher input or having it aligned specifically to our units and curriculum has been very impactful lately, but that takes communication with teachers to find out their needs and current lessons to tailor the professional development to make it beneficial. It also goes both ways, hoping that they feel comfortable enough to communicate with me or with us as well and be honest or say, “Hey, this didn’t work,” or “I didn’t see that fitting. What else can we do or try?” Work together to problem solve and collaborate to, in the end, make our students most successful.

Tim: That’s great. It’s definitely trial-and-error as you go along. And being open and honest in communication with everyone.

Piedad: Also, the mindset that just because you don’t agree, an administrator would retaliate in a punitive way, that’s something we do not accept. We need to hear the negative as well as the positive. I know that everybody there is trying to do the best that they can for our kids. So, the negative? Bring it to us! That’s just as important. Like Michelle said, communication can be positive or negative, either way it’s accepted without any retaliation or negative outcome.

Tim: That’s a really important point, I think. Creating that cultural space at work where people feel free to be open about their opinions and people feel free to try something and make a mistake sometimes, right? Isn’t that all part of life? And we learn from that and the next day we can do better.

Tim: Merideth, any final thoughts from you?

Merideth: I’m so excited to hear about your work and the energy that you both bring. I’m so grateful because I know that it’s a challenging time right now. The pandemic made it hard. Students are struggling with a lot of issues, but the commitment that you make, and especially with the parents, I know that reinforces that value for the children when they go to school because they’re getting it from their educators and parents because there’s a trust built. Really empowering to hear it.

Piedad: The parents are so funny. When I first got there, they were kind of quiet, they were very reserved. And now, they tell me what they want, they are employed in the community, they went to interviews, it’s just a different community. We love it!

Tim: It has been a joy to have both of you here this afternoon. What a great number of ideas that you’ve given us today on really nuts-and-bolts topics of how to make a program work and how to make schools work for our multilingual learners. I really appreciate that, and we look forward to seeing you at the WIDA Annual Conference.

Piedad: Thank you so much. It was wonderful to speak to all of you.

Michelle: Yes, thank you so much. We’re very honored to be here, so thank you.


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