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WIDA's Featured Educator is a monthly interview with a classroom, district, or state-level educator on how he or she is making a difference for language learners. You can honor an exceptional colleague by emailing with "Featured Educator Nomination" in the subject line.

Briefly tell us why you think he or she is doing an amazing job. Please include the person's name, what they do, and contact information we can use to set up an interview. Thank you for helping us feature amazing educators of language learners.

Jennie Bordonaro: Featured Educator

September 2014

Jennie Bordonaro has been an elementary teacher for eight years, first in Texas and now in Minnesota. Currently, she is the behavior interventionist and the assessment and data coach at Vista View Elementary School in Burnsville, MN. She is very involved with the refugee population in her community—three years ago she organized a team of teachers and community members to support a Karen family who had just arrived in the U.S.

photo of Katie Milligan Harrison
Jennie Bordonaro

Q: How long have you been a teacher and how long have you been at your current school?

JB: I grew up in a really small town in Iowa where there was no diversity. Fortunately, my dad was a minister who really valued diversity. We later moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul area where he focused on cultural redevelopment of urban churches. He worked to integrate churches into neighborhoods, which often were undergoing rapid cultural and demographic shifts. He would push me to try different foods, learn about different cultures and have respect for them.

I decided when I graduated from college to take a job in Houston, Texas. I ended up in an urban school, with over 90 percent Hispanic families. I had two Caucasian students in two years there. After two years in Houston, in 2008, I got a job in Burnsville, where I am now.

Q: Where and what do you teach? What are your school and district like?

JB: I teach in Burnsville, MN, located south of Minneapolis. The district includes 10 elementary schools, three junior high schools and one high school, as well as an alternative high school. It’s a very diverse district, but the district is not universally diverse. There are schools within our district with high diversity and some with very little. And our diversity is somewhat new to us. Even 10 years ago, our classrooms looked a lot different than they do now. Right now, our district is around 30 percent English language learners (ELLs), spanning a range of more than 50 languages.

For the past two years, I’ve been the behavior interventionist and the assessment and data coach at Vista View Elementary. I also coordinate the afterschool program. While I primarily work in Vista View, I also serve as the district’s elementary Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) coach. In that role, I work with teachers from every other elementary school, and coordinate all the professional development for all the elementary PBIS teams in the district.

Q: What involvement do you have with ELL students?

JB: A handful of my students are ELLs. We don’t have an ESL teacher on our PBIS team, though I’m always trying to get one to come join us. Sometimes teachers can forget the lens they need to look through, and they inadvertently assume an ESL child has knowledge they don’t have. Sometimes I’ll find kids acting out because they don’t understand the content they’re being taught. Sometimes with ELLs, if they don’t receive comprehensible input, if they’re not following along, that can potentially lead to behavior problems. Teachers need to make sure they’re teaching in a way that reaches all their kids.

When I worked in a classroom, I co-taught with an ESL teacher, and we were really successful together. We presented at our state’s ESL conference, as we were pioneers, if you will, of co-teaching in our district. I learned a lot from her about how to reach all students. I’m really proud of work we did. Sometimes I’m sad we’re not in the same roles we were.

Q: What about your co-teaching was so successful?

JB: I think we really nailed content and language objectives. We would talk about every word choice in our lesson plans. We were always color-coding, where red would be our color code for content words, then blue for process words or verbs they would see in other subject areas. We were very intentional as to what was colored. Once we heard kids using a word and understanding it—showing that they had it down concretely—we would move on. The color-coding guaranteed that at the beginning of class and at the end, when we reviewed, we did a check-in to make sure that we were specifically teaching those vocabulary words.

The other thing I loved about co-teaching was that kids were able to adults interact together on an academic topic, and just hearing me and my co-teacher converse, hearing that dialogue, helped our students immensely. That’s something they don’t always get when they just have a single teacher in a classroom.

Q: Why are you an educator? What do you love about your job?

JB: It’s a cheesy answer a lot of teachers give, but I just love children. The way they learn and how you get them to learn has always fascinated and intrigued me. Originally, I wanted to be a Kindergarten teacher, but I realized I had a gift for older students and I’ve found that upper elementary has always been my zone. I think that they really become their own in those grades. They figure out who they are and they’re fun to talk with, because they’re developing ideas of what and who they want and hope to be. I enjoy pushing students to think about the future by working on different career units, helping them do research on what it takes to get those careers they want, and why it’s important to go to college, and what they you have to do in high school to get to college. It’s fun to help build them up.

As to why I love my job, and especially working with ELLs. A couple of years ago, I had my first immigrant student who was a newcomer in my class. The joy and light she had about everything in school was just amazing. Of all the children I’ve worked with, this one child was the one who most completely changed my perspective on teaching. She came in with no English at all, and it was fascinating to work with her. Talk about the growth a kid can make in a school year—she really learned a lot.

Q: Since then, you’ve gotten quite involved in supporting immigrant and refugee families in your community, isn’t that true?

JB: About three years ago, I looked into some summer opportunities, and I found a position offered by the Minnesota Churches Council (MCC), which is a nondenominational, multiple-faith group. I got a group of Vista View teachers together, and together as a whole staff, we became co-sponsors of a Karen immigrant family from Burma. Together, we were able to donate enough materials so the family didn’t have to purchase anything for their new home. A group of us went over and cleaned the apartment and got everything set up and ready for their arrival. We had a fully stocked apartment, sheets on the beds, clean clothes hanging in the closets—any little detail collectively we could think of was taken care of.

The family had been living in a refugee camp for 16 years. A handful of us went and greeted them at the airport when they arrived. I think a lot of people in our school, myself included, didn’t understand the arrival process. In my position with the MCC, which was a three-month volunteer commitment, I coordinated this family’s transition into daily life here in Minnesota. We set up a schedule where different staff from the school would take different weekends, helping them with setting up their new lives here and the acclimatization process. One person would take them to the grocery store, another would teach them to ride the bus. Since that time, the family settled in to their lives here, but I’ve stayed really close with them.

Q: Did this work create any shift in the way the staff at your school went about seeking out and making partnerships with your students’ families?

JB: Getting the school involved in the immigrant family project definitely gave our staff a context to ask questions. Quite frankly, many white middle class teachers don’t understand what poverty looks like. By seeing what this apartment looked like, it just gave them some context. I don’t think we changed anyone’s lives completely, but we definitely opened some eyes. Like, the family of that ELL they have in their fifth-grade class Is trying to get that paper signed and returned the biggest problem facing his family? Probably not.

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