Featured Educator: 2023 WIDA Fellows at the WIDA Annual Conference

January 12, 2024

A handful of the 2023 WIDA Fellows joined us for a session at the 2023 WIDA Annual Conference. WIDA staffer Analleli Hernandez posed some questions to the educators. Learn more by reading the conversations below, which have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Analleli Hernández: What is one belief you have about serving multilingual learners? And which experiences or ideologies have informed that belief?

Claudia Martinez: My story doesn't begin here. As a matter of fact, I should not be here. At the age of four, I was standing outside my grandparents' house, and I was yelling at the top of my lungs. I was begging my parents to take me with them. They were emigrating to the United States. It's still hard for me to talk about it. I was eventually able to join them but, in the process, I was incarcerated at the immigration center, so I have that trauma. When I joined them a few years later, I didn't know them. We were strangers because I had stayed with my grandparents. It was really hard. And then coming to the United States, being exposed to a different culture, going through all the stages, it was just hard. I was exposed to the American education system, and I had some amazing leaders that encouraged me to become a teacher. I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school and to go to college and now I have my doctorate and that's a lot of work.

Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world. As a teacher, I teach my students that if I can do it, they can too. I think it is important for teachers to have a teaching philosophy. You must have your beliefs about how you can make a difference. And some of my beliefs include having a continuous growth in innovation. We must continue to grow as educators and learn new strategies. I believe in equality and inclusion. It's our duty to fight for the equality of education of our students. They deserve the best and only the best. I won't take no for an answer, I make things happen. I also believe in cultural relevance, embracing cultures and community collaboration. You also must have passion and dedication as a teacher.

Puja Mullins: My core belief about serving our MLs is that we are raising the whole child. No longer are we able to separate the school from the family from the community. We are a hub for nourishment for our kiddos. The whole child, for me, represents who they feel they are here and what they bring with them.

I have been an immigrant many times over. I had to flee during the gulf war and live in an airport. I was fortunate enough to have educators who swept me up and gave me that proverbial hug that I needed. And so, the two pieces that I really think about are our students' social and emotional identity and their experiences. So many of my efforts in my local district and in the county have been to attend to what our newcomers and MLs bring with them. And that could be the trauma, but it includes all their assets, hopes and dreams that we can actualize with them. The other piece is their identity.

Sarah Parrish: I do not come from an immigrant family. I come from a place of white privilege. My lens is about how can I use that privilege to make our education system what it should be for all children and that includes multilingual learners. I believe that the experience of a multilingual student is different from that of a student who is monolingual. If we look at what our MLs bring to the table and think about what they need, then we will make schools better for all children, them included. This belief came from going from a school primarily for newcomers to a school where our population is about 1,000 kids, 6th to 8th grade, and 13% are MLs and classified as ELs. Only a small percentage of those students are newcomers.

At my new school, we started an advisory program to focus on social-emotional learning. You can't teach a child without reaching for their whole person or involving their family.

Our students bring incredible assets. They bring language and culture into the classroom in a variety of ways.

This work is becoming more and more complicated in beautiful ways. We must affirm everyone’s identity. Everyone's story is important, whether you're a newcomer or not, our education must be better for all of them. We are looking at an opportunity gap that is wide.

Sarah Parrish: Speaking of concrete steps to building successful culture around MLs at schools: Leadership buy-in is huge. Professional development around everyone understanding that they are all our students and including that idea as part of the school's work. Allowing newcomers to translanguage is incredibly important for their development. So, that could look like letting them read what everyone else is reading in their native language and that means direct translation from what is already being used, not a different thing. And that they can respond in their native language. They need to learn content while they are also learning language. Every child has an adult that they see every morning that can be their person in the school. Every child has a relationship with someone. That was a good initiative to bring to the culture.

Analleli Hernández: How do you build trust with other educators, students and families? What does that require of you?

Jennifer Cárdenas: For me building trust with my students and families is much easier than building trust with my colleagues. I do a lot of co-teaching. I try to do this because in South Carolina, teachers aren't required to have any training or certification to teach MLs, so they often feel kind of lost if they get more than one student. But once educators hear the stories of these students and build relationships with them, they really want to help them.

Gail Cappaert: In regard to building relationships and trust with colleagues, I'd recommend a lot of patience and a lot of listening. Try to understand where people are coming from, because almost everybody really wants the best for the kids. Sometimes people just don't know. I think we study, learn and experience so much that we can forget that some educators don't have the same information. They really think that somehow the home language is going to interfere with English. That's such a common perception. We need to pull them away from that. I hope to be a resource and someone that people can come to to ask questions. Where they won't feel judged.

Elizabeth Fernandes: Trust is about the confidence we have in another's character and competence. When I think about those two things, I think about what I do to show my character and competence with my colleagues. I think about showing up as my true self and being clear about my passion and my intentionality of working towards good outcomes for our students together and conveying that passion. And connecting with my colleagues... in a non-judgmental way and believing that we're in it together.

Jennifer Cárdenas: I'm not in the classroom everyday anymore but I was, and I remember what that was like and the expectations that were placed on me were just sometimes overwhelming. As a co-teacher, you don't have a lot of time to plan, but many of my plan days are just listening to my colleagues vent about things that are happening and things that I don't have to deal with anymore. Sometimes, it's literally just listening.

Sarah Parrish: Children are humans, adults are humans, and they really aren't that different. Once you get that, you can approach things differently. Like, I can't get mad at teachers for not reading their emails in the same way that I can't get mad at kids for not reading the directions, got it.


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