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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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
Beletu Angagaw : Featured Educator
Beletu Angagaw has worked in early education on three continents. She now serves as the Early Head Start Coordinator at Quincy Community Action Programs in Quincy, MA. In 2014, she was selected to take part in the first WIDA Early Years Master Cadre, which offered a two-day workshop, webinars and ongoing technical assistance and training support to teachers of young dual language learners.
Q: What is Quincy Community Action Programs and what is your job there like?
BA: Since 2007, I’ve been working for the Quincy Community Action Programs as the Early Head Start coordinator, which includes both full or part day programs for children 15 month to 2.9 years old. We have several other program options including the Early Head Start Combination Option that consists of two 6 hours days a week, and two Home Visits a month (for children age 15 months to 2.9), and The Early Head Start Home-Based Option (Birth -3 years old). In addition, we provide weekly home visits, individualized curriculum, parent/child playgroups and services for pregnant women.
We have a very diverse population, with 26 languages spoken, with the primary dominant languages being Chinese, Arabic and Spanish.
We are located in a semi-suburban area and the majority of the families in our program are immigrants. They find us mostly through word of mouth. We are very connected with the community through WIC (Program for Women, Infants, and Children) and through local hospitals. We also have connections to the local schools and Quincy and Weymouth Early intervention programs.
For the most part, the mothers work part time and stay at home part time with their children. Many feel very alienated from their communities and neighborhoods. We host a socialization group once a week that invites them in to work on the education of their children as a team. It gives parents a chance to connect with other parents, socialize with peers and expose them to the center and educational materials. Our number one goal is to help them believe that parents are the first and most important teachers of their children.
Q: How did you get into early childhood education?
BA: I am originally from Ethiopia, where my mom was a teacher. She got me fascinated with being a teacher, someone who can be there for her students and be their role model. I got a scholarship to do undergraduate studies in Bulgaria, in Europe. When I went there, it was a completely new experience for me—new country, new language, everything was new. I had to learn the language within a year so that I could understand enough to get my bachelor’s degree. I was fortunate that the program I was in gave us the opportunity to visit different places. I went to visit day care centers and I got to know the people who worked there. I thought a lot about how the education of young children worked in different countries. The more I got into it, the more interested I became in it.
When I moved back to Ethiopia and I began working at an orphanage run by a nonprofit. Working at the orphanage gave me a lot of experience and showed me that people live differently and made me grow every day. In 1988, I came to the United States and moved to Cambridge, where I went to Wheelock College. Through this experience, I became more interested in early education among different languages and cultures, so I applied to work at the Tufts Educational Day Care Center in Somerville. I worked there three years, and enjoyed the experience very much, as universities are very diverse too and lots of different people work there. Then I started working at Quincy Community Action Programs.
Q: What experiences or practices do you use to get parents and children comfortable while attending your program?
BA: During their home visits we ask them for some words from their language that we can use. We write them down and post them on our classroom walls so that everyone can see the words and their meanings and try to use them. It’s so important to make both the parents and the children comfortable and give them support.
I have found talking about culture is very helpful. When I worked in Cambridge, we used to host international days there, where parents came in with different materials and shared their significance. The format was open-ended, not limited in time or in what it covered. People could tell a story or bring in a piece of clothing or food or whatever they wanted. We all shared and learned about all sorts of things, and it was a huge success! Everybody was so excited to hear the stories of their peers.
On one international day, one of the parents came to me and said, “I’m American. I don’t have any cultural heritage. What can I share?” I asked her, “Why don’t you go talk to your mother about your heritage? Find out if there’s anything with special significance in your house and bring it in and share it.” I was so amazed by the results! She went into her basement and found a picture of her great-grandmother and grandfather, who were immigrants from Italy. She shared that and the stories she had gotten from her mother, and it was an amazing experience.
At the time, I was working with two groups of people—families coming from Chinese-speaking households in the morning and Arabic speakers in the afternoon. I didn’t have any idea about Arabic culture so we invited parents and moms to come share about their culture and their history. We called it "Parents’ Café." It was a huge gallery of all the materials the families had brought in to share. It started a lot of conversations, especially about the family dynamic and how the gender role is played in Arabic culture. It was an amazing experience that we have repeated many times since.
Q: You were part of the WIDA Early Years’ first Master Cadre. Was that an informative experience for you?
BA: It was an amazing experience for me. I loved the Master Cadre because it reinforced my belief in the importance of embracing culture and diversity and in supporting children with their born language. It also gave me a chance to reflect on my teaching and on our program and to think about our best practices and partnerships and about how best to support our dual language learners. It gave me a clear vision of what I want our program to become and helped me develop effective goals. It also taught me how to share those goals with the teachers and our school administrators. There was definitely a moment when I sat back and said, “Wow, I’m doing all this?”
Q: How has your teaching or your work changed since the Master Cadre?
BA: Since the Master Cadre, I did a training with our staff in which we had a parents’ panel, and now I include it in every training I provide. It gets us talking about the importance of home language and culture, and hearing it from parents instead of from me is much more powerful. It gets the staff motivated and energized. Our parents have a lot of stories to share and that makes it exciting. I would say one of the best things we’re doing here is using parents as a resource.
One thing that came out of the Master Cadre was the idea to start a reading campaign. We did a lot of training with parents on the importance of reading at home. Often we heard about how hard it is to get bilingual books, especially Chinese-English or Arabic-English, so we ended up buying a bunch of bilingual books on eBay. I keep the books in my office and share them with the staff and parents. For one of our class lessons, we taught our family groups how to make books at home, which got them very excited.
Q: How do your own life experiences inform your teaching and your philosophy on language?
BA: I am an ELL myself. I know how hard it is to learn English when you are older. It’s sad to see my niece and nephews losing their mother tongue. Lots of parents are nervous that their children will have an accent when they speak English and that might hurt them in school or that it might make it difficult for them to get friends. I try to encourage parents to embrace their home language and encourage their children to learn it if possible. From my own experience, I can say that having that cultural connection is so important, and it makes learning other languages easier.