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Julie Bulthuis: Featured Educator

August 2016

WIDA "Featured Educator" August: Julie Bulthuis is an ELL teacher for Los Alamos School District in New Mexico where she collaborates with students, families, and educators to build on the strengths of language learners.

photo of Julie Bulthuis
Julie Bulthuis

Where do you teach? What grade(s)? How long have you been a teacher and how long have you been at your current school?

JB: I have been teaching for 23 years. I am currently an ELL teacher in Los Alamos School District and work at two elementary schools (Piņon and Chamisa) in the White Rock Community, which is part of the greater Los Alamos area. During the regular school day, I work with language learners in K-6, mainly in our ELL pull out program. However, our district allows for quite a bit of flexibility in our program design so I also incorporate some team teaching or inclusion.  I also help tutor Native American students in our Title VII Afterschool Program. These students are not all identified as language learners but to some degree they are, as almost all have some influence of another language at home.

What is your class, school and district like? Can you tell me a little about its location, size and about the composition of the student body?

JB: Los Alamos School District is about forty-five minutes northwest of Santa Fe and our city is home to one of the National Laboratories.  It is a very academic community with a lot of scientists. I have heard that we have the most PhDs per capita. There is a real emphasis on education and our district is known for the high academic standards. We also get a lot of out-of-district students who enroll in our schools. This can be quite the commitment by the families since some are driving 45 minutes each way to be a part of our learning community.
We are a monolingual district, unlike much of New Mexico, which is able to provide bilingual instruction in Spanish or Native Languages and English. We are very diverse culturally, linguistically and socioeconomically. We have between 20-35 home languages spoken among our students.

About 29% of our students come from Spanish speaking homes and about 3% are self reported as being Native American. This number might even be a bit higher due to reporting and identification issues.

All of our students bring very rich cultures with them, and many of our student families have historical connections to Northern New Mexico. We have representation from five of the eight northern Pueblos located near the Rio Grande, as well as the Navajo Nation and other tribes. Several different languages are still used among the Pueblo communities, and often students from the Pueblos are able to comprehend these native languages and maybe speak a few phrases, but most aren’t fully proficient.  Several of the Pueblo communities have language revival efforts to help increase native speakers.

Have the cultures of the surrounding communities informed your district’s curricula?

JB: This is one of my passions and the district has been wonderful in supporting me and my ELL colleagues to incorporate more trainings for teachers on how we can be more culturally responsive in our curriculum. During one training I brought in a Pueblo Governor, Pueblo educators and experts from the Indian Education Department. They shared teaching strategies, as well as historical context with educators. I am hopeful that with our Title VII parent advisory committee helping us out, we will be able to incorporate more of these cultures and history into our curriculum and find resources to support teachers in this effort. We also started a student club for Native American middle and high school students to help foster a sense of identity and community in the schools.

The Native families have also been a huge asset to our schools and they are incredibly generous in sharing their culture and traditions with all our students. For example, we have been invited to bring several classrooms down to the Pueblos’ Feast Days to see some traditional dancing. Families have invited over 50 children and the parent chaperones into their homes to feed us all.  The link between the different communities our schools serve has become stronger.

How do you work to engage families?

JB: We have amazing parental/community involvement in our schools. This is really a part of our school culture that might not be familiar to the ELL families so I do a lot of training to help invite them in and find a niche they can contribute to and a way they feel comfortable helping out no matter what language they speak. There is such a focus on high academic achievement in the community that I think this has helped with family involvement in our schools. Parents naturally seem to want to be part of this effort. Our international and ELL parents see this as part of the school culture and want to help out too. So I work with classroom teachers to help them find ways our ELL parents can be incorporated. This is really a whole school effort. Other parents serve as models for how they can participate too. I also help introduce parents into the classroom by bringing them in to do something in their comfort zone, maybe that is sharing a picture, helping out with an art project, or just watching at first. This helps them get to know the teachers and how the class goes. This might help them feel more comfortable to volunteer for another event and hopefully feel that they are welcome in the schools.

What is your approach in your classroom/school towards ELLs? What techniques/strategies have you found to be most effective in teaching ELLs?

JB: First, my approach is always relationship building with the students and their families; learning about their learning styles, preferences, and interests. Also, it is relationship building with classroom teachers and other staff members. It is key to create this network or partnership so that they know what I am doing and why, I know what they are doing, and parents are in the loop as well. We need to be in constant collaboration.

As for what I use in the classroom, I am pretty eclectic. It depends on my students, their backgrounds, and their strengths. I really believe in the Multiple Intelligence Theory and building on their strengths to help them get where they need to go with their learning. I also think it is essential to connect the learning to their lives. I do this by creating meaningful project-based learning that includes a multimodal approach. I do a lot of activities that pair oral language with visual components. I lot of my students are kinesthetic learners so I incorporate movement and rhythmic music to help engage and solidify their connections to the content. It can look chaotic but we are having fun and learning a lot! It is important they enjoy learning.

How do you determine/decide what language to focus on in a lesson? Describe your planning process to address the needs of ELLs, if possible.

JB: First I have conversations with students and have them self-assess what they feel confident about or good at and see what they are interested in. I make a point to incorporate their feedback and interests into my instruction. I develop a general roadmap of the language skills I want to address by taking to parents, looking at short-cycle and summative assessments, and by talking to their classroom teachers. Then, I look at commonalities across the groups and determine what everyone needs to learn. This allows me to set overarching goals and add the individual needs or goals for each student.

The next piece for me is to be in constant communication with the classroom teachers. I am so lucky to get to work with a really great group of professional people. They routinely send me their plans so I can help determine what ELL students absolutely have to take away from in a lesson to move forward.

I have learned so much from my colleagues, whether it be classroom teachers, the art teacher, nurse, counselor or any other staff member that contributes to each child?s education. They each help me determine what I need to do to support ELL students. I so appreciate getting to work in schools where everyone is open to sharing learning strategies, looking at data, and problem solving together so that I know I am not alone in this work.

Also, the other ELL teachers across the district support me and we encourage one another to do trainings, attend conferences, and to continue learning in different ways. It always comes back to collaboration and knowing the students.