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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 info@wida.us 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.

Erica Jimenez: Featured Educator

January 2016

Erica Jimenez is an Elementary Transitional Bilingual Education Resource Teacher at John Muir Literacy Academy in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. She is described by one of her colleagues as being a "bridge builder" amongst staff, students, and their families.

photo of Erica Jimenez
Erica Jimenez

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

EJ: I am an EL Resource teacher at John Muir Literacy Academy in Hoffman Estates, IL. This is my 16th year teaching. I started teaching as a bilingual resource teacher, then was a bilingual self-contained teacher for four years. Now I am back in an EL Resource position. However, it is a different looking position than when I first started, so it has been an interesting accumulation of experiences in the field.

In my current positon, I see myself as a coordinator for all the students on my ELL roster, in grades 3-6. Even if I don’t spend a lot of time directly with each one, I like to make sure that they are all getting their needs met, whether it is through me or another teacher that works with them.

Q: 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?

EJ: We are located in Hoffman Estates Illinois, which is a northwest suburb of Chicago in the Schaumburg School District, which is a very large district. At our school 55% of our student families are classified as low income, we have a 29% rate of mobility, 28% of our students qualify for ELLs services, and 12% of students have disabilities. Looking at the ethnic diversity of our school, we are 18.6% White, 24.5% Black, 31.1% Hispanic, 21.9% Asian and 3.9% identify as more than one race or ethnicity. All the pieces of the pie are almost equal, and it is really neat to work in a place where you see all different faces as you look across the classroom.

I think there are people who may consider our school a challenging place to work, but the people who work here embrace it. I feel that we are here to make a difference and sometimes you make more of a difference where circumstances are not necessarily deemed as “easy”. This is one of the main reasons I have wanted to stay at this school. I have a lot of opportunities to help make positive changes for students.
 
Q: Why are you an educator? What do you love about your job? What frustrates you?

EJ: What I love about my job is working with bilingual/bicultural children. I am not a native Spanish speaker but I have learned it over many years. Because I have had the experience of learning another language and culture, I really value this process, and I admire children who are able to function and thrive in more than one language and culture. I really want to help them celebrate this part of themselves.

One of my biggest goals is for people to not view bilingual students as having a deficiency, but rather as having a strength, or even something above and beyond what other kids have. It is an asset to be bilingual. Too often people think that kids who are learning English need to “catch up”. I am here to let the kids know that being bilingual is something wonderful about them. One way I do this is to form a relationship with them and to show them that I value all parts of them, not just the part that we assess in school.

Q: How do you connect and communicate with parents?

EJ: I always try to communicate with parents that whatever you do in your home language is going to help your child. Many times parents are worried that using their native language at home will make their child fall behind, and I make sure to share how we can learn to think in either language and that this will help in either language. I share the research around the benefits of bilingualism and language acquisition. If I am sitting in a parent-teacher conference and the teacher is encouraging them to read at home, I let them know that they can be doing this in both languages! In fact, if they want their child to be bilingual, they may have to work on the native language piece at home, depending on how the school’s program is set up.

Q: Your nomination stated, “Mrs. Jimenez's contributions to education could well be summed up as building bridges.” How do you see yourself as a bridge builder? With students? With families? With colleagues?

EJ: Everything in our school is team based. We all take responsibility for all of our students. I am not always the one working with my ELL students but the wonderful thing is that everyone is helping them succeed. We don’t see it as “well, all these kids are on your list, so you alone are responsible for their progress.” Everyone on the PLC is involved. This approach has made me reflect on my role as an ESL teacher, and ask “what am I bringing to the table to help the team with our ELL students?” I try to always look through my ESL teacher lens and find the connection that might be missing for our ELL students. As far as building a bridge, I try to help support people, so that even if I am not there with the students all the time, I can help the teachers plan to reach all students.

For example, during team planning in our Professional Learning Community (PLC), which consists of grade level teachers and any support staff (literacy coach, EL teacher, Title 1 teachers, and Special Education teachers that work with that grade level), we look at the content and language objectives, along with supports to address these. I always try to look at the big picture for the ELL students. I have to make sense for them throughout their whole day, even if I am only with them for a small period of time. Sometimes I think planning is the most important aspect of my job. It really helps that our administrator works to create co-planning time for our PLCs. This is essential.

Q: How do you work to incorporate and honor student’s languages and cultures into your instruction?

EJ: To me it begins with honoring the students in the instruction you have planned. If they bring different viewpoints to the table, you honor that. Because culture isn’t just about the food you eat or the music you listen to, it goes much deeper than that. Establishing a culture of honoring different viewpoints, respecting different opinions, and allowing students to express themselves is part of incorporating our students’ cultures. For example, I had a student from China who had learned different ways to solve math problems. By allowing her to share this and teach us all another way, we honored what she brought to the class. It also allows a different avenue for learning that might click for another student as well. We work with so many cultures, and it isn’t realistic to say that I am going to go out and purposely choose a text for every student that includes their culture, but if I am incorporating their input and creating a space to share our cultures in class, then we can honor all our students.

Q: How has WIDA helped you achieve your goals as an educator?

EJ: WIDA helped us to define what proficiency means, and what the language domains are. We have learned about the continuum of learning that our ELL students experience. WIDA has given us the tools to help understand what our students can do, and where we need to go with our instruction. Before, we didn’t know what we were aiming at, we didn’t know what the target was, except to become “English proficient”. Now, when I bring the WIDA resources (rubrics, Can Do Descriptors, etc.) to teachers, they get it. It is concrete.