Nominate an Educator
We at WIDA feel that educators are heroes. They routinely go the extra mile to see their students learn and grow. Please help us celebrate the hard working educators in your life!
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 email@example.com 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!
Beth Cantwell: Featured Educator
Beth Cantwell has taught art and been a Positive Behavior Supports Coach at Van Hise Elementary School in Madison, WI, for six of her nine years as an elementary school teacher in Wisconsin.
Q: What are your school and district like?
BC: Van Hise Elementary is a K-5 school with 404 students, including 111 English language learners. Van Hise is located in Madison, WI, the state’s capital city. It’s also the home of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), a huge research university. The Madison School District serves about 27,000 students in 49 schools, including 32 elementary schools. In Madison, there’s strong support for the arts, and we have art and music in all of our public schools.
Our school has a little different make-up than the typical Madison school, because of our location near the university. We have a very varied international population with students from 45 different countries. A lot of our students are here just for a couple of years as their parents are working on a Ph.D. or working at UW. Ethnically, we have a great amount of diversity - we have about 80 students from Asian countries, which is atypical for Madison schools - as well as around 40 students who are identified as having two or more races, and about 20 Hispanic students. We pride ourselves on our cultural community with amazing events throughout the school year that highlight and celebrate our diversity.
Q: As an art teacher, why was it important for you to pursue ESL certification?
BC: In 2006-7, I had a kindergarten class of all Spanish speakers. I had no expertise in how to teach ELLs. I found an ESL certification course through Edgewood College in Madison. It was wonderful to delve a little deeper into some of the specific cultures of the students I teach. I spent time learning to understand how it feels to immigrate to another country. Certification really informed my best practice. It’s about being a smart teacher, establishing routines, building community, making kids feel appreciated and understood, and respecting and learning where students come from - their culture, family life structure, and home life. With art, so much of my teaching is through modeling. And the modeling I do as a result of my ESL training is great for getting my students connecting with art. They can engage right from the start, and that’s useful for all students.
Q: What do you love about your job? What frustrates you?
BC: I love my job! The staff, families and students at Van Hise are amazing. I feel like I found the perfect job for myself; I am doing exactly what I should be doing. Teaching art to elementary aged students is so exciting. I get to introduce them to so many new materials, ways of thinking, and we have so much fun. I feel very lucky to be able to work with and connect to so many different students each week. Out of all the frustrations teachers deal with, the biggest hurdle for me is always funding. Fortunately, the parent-teacher organization (PTO) at Van Hise is amazing. Their support for the arts is incredible. Without our PTO, I wouldn’t be able to run my program properly. Even paying for supplies for my students would be a problem. The PTO gets me through the year, from the basics to some really exciting programs. Right now, we’re currently raising $10,000 for a visiting artist, which is the second time we’ve undertaken such a project, so it’s something I know we can accomplish.
Q: What is your approach in your classroom towards ELLs? What techniques or strategies have you found to be most effective in teaching ELLs?
BC: I spend a lot of time making sure my ELL students understand I’m available for them. So much of that comes from allowing them be comfortable in art class. One goal is for all of my students to have confidence to say, “I don’t know.” I want them to know that in art class, it’s okay for them not to understand and that I want them to ask questions. We are all learning together, and from one another. I work hard to create a place where learning is available and attainable for everyone.
I try to help out my ELL students by assigning them art buddies. The kids, of course, love that job, and are very eager to help. The art buddy makes sure the new student can find the materials they need and helps them learn about the space. They also are there for them to help them feel comfortable and looked after. I also do a lot of comprehension checks to see if everyone understands what we’re learning. I go into each of my classes with the understanding that my ELLs might be receiving the content in a little bit of a different way, but my path is a little bit easier than most other subjects because so much in art can be learned through observation. I look at my classes as an opportunity to teach English through art. Art can be a great gateway into language.
Q: What benefits or strengths do English language learners bring to your classroom and school?
BC: We spend a lot of time studying art from other cultures and countries, things you wouldn’t see day-to-day in Madison. I’ve started an “art from around the world” display. It’s interactive, meaning the kids can play with it. Over the years I’ve been developing it, a lot of my students have gone back to their home countries over breaks and brought back pieces of art. In the past few years, the collection has doubled. I encourage all of my students to see, touch, and explore the art. It’s a great reminder to keep cultural content in all of my teaching.
Q: You have said that you work hard to forge connections with the parents of your students. Why is that important to you?
BC: I think it’s so important to build personal connections with my families. I love really knowing them. It’s tough with 400 students, but I work really hard to really know every student. I get to know their personalities, what makes them tick, and I like to know their parents by sight - what kid they’re attached to. I like knowing who people are and what they are about. I think it makes my job more fun and I feel more connected. I want my kids to feel that, how much I truly care about them. Even though we only have an hour together each week, I want them to know that there’s a personal connection there.
Q: Do you and your colleagues have the resources you need to teach ELLs adequately? What would you most like to add to your available resources or training?
BC: Our school’s incredible bilingual resource teachers and supports staff are a huge asset, but since there are so many different languages in our building, I still sometimes run into situations where I feel a bit stuck, where I want to communicate more clearly but I don’t know how. I would love to have access to more bilingual resource teachers or specialists from different language backgrounds. Right now we have Korean, Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish, but so many other languages are spoken at our school.
Q: What is your work like with your school’s PBS initiative?
BC: My positive behavior support (PBS) work has been going on in the district for the past four years. PBS is for all children in the building, not just for children who misbehave. It’s about building a sense of community and universal principals that guide our decision-making. It aids every student, but I find it particularly helpful for our ELLs and our kids who are new. We’ve created a common community language so every child can have an understanding of what we are about.
After implementing PBS at Van Hise we initially saw a 50 percent drop in behavior referrals, where there’s a situation that somebody has to respond to, and this year, that number is down 73 percent. The district recently honored my PBS team and me for our PBS work, and that was a really big deal for us. We work really hard and feel like we are on a great path together, so it was nice to be noticed.
Q: How has WIDA helped you achieve your goals as an educator?
BC: I feel really fortunate that I was exposed to WIDA so early on in my career, because it was very easy to integrate WIDA principles into my practice, as I was still developing it at the time. Because I was just getting my English language certification, I was still figuring everything out, and so I was able to implement all the good WIDA ideas into my teaching from the beginning.
Between my ESL Certification, and the professional development that WIDA provided, I felt like I could implement ideas and strategies I had learned right away, like slowing down my speech, or being dramatic and more intentional with my movements and word choice. WIDA showed me just how important those things can be.
Featured Educator Archive