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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.

Jeanette Christenson: Featured Educator

July 2016

Jeanette Christenson is the ESL/Migrant District Coordinator in Logan, Utah where she helps schools make data driven decisions and supports classroom teachers to understand and effectively instruct language learners.

photo of Jeanette Christenson
Jeanette Christenson

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

JC: I’m currently the ESL/Migrant District Coordinator for the Cache County School District.
Prior to this position, I have worked with English language learners in various capacities, including teaching ESL at all grade levels, being the Assistant ESL Director for the district, and serving as a Principal. I am fortunate to have had experiences in many different roles in education.

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?

JC: Cache County has two districts: The City School District, in the middle, and the County School District, which surrounds all the area around Logan City like a donut. We have about 16,000 students enrolled in the district and 900 students are ELLs who currently receive language services. We currently have 26 schools in the district and we will be at 27 next year.

Logan, Utah is fairly rural and it has a quaint downtown area that has been revitalized. Utah State University is the largest employer and brings a different dynamic to Cache County–it has bought more multicultural students, which has enhanced the culture and the climate.

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

JC: Several things influenced my path into education and working with second language learners. When I was in high school, I remember learning about Christopher Columbus coming to America. I remember listening to the teacher’s questions and the students’ responses. I began thinking about the “hows” and “whys,” the outcomes and the impacts, and learning about the larger context of this event. I hadn’t thought about this event analytically before and this teacher opened my eyes to the realization that there are always more questions to ask and different ways to approach a topic. I appreciate this teacher so much for helping me and my classmates develop these critical thinking and learning skills. This kicked me to say, I want to do this for kids. I want to help them to learn that there is a world out there that is full of questions and they can help supply some of the answers.

I feel my job is to make a positive change in students’ lives and help them see they can make a change. In other words, even if I am a little tiny fish in a great big pond, I can still make a change for the better. I work a lot with general education teachers to help them see how much ESL students have to offer and see all that these students can do. Let’s take what they have to offer and build on it to make the world a better place for all of us.

What is your approach to working with general education teachers?

JC: First, you have to start with sensitivity training so that teachers know what it is like to be a language learner. During our trainings we try to give them a chance to experience this. For example, we do an art or math lesson in another language and discuss how this made them feel. We often hear, “Well I could do the math lesson if it were in English” and they share the frustration they felt when their language and background experiences were not being utilized. Starting with sensitivity training helps teachers realize what it is like for their ESL students to come in with this background that might be ignored.

Next we look at data and language growth using the WIDA ACCESS reports for several years. We look at areas where we have seen language growth and areas that we may need to focus more on next year. Then we talk about language supports that they can use on day one with their students, to ensure that all students feel like they are a part of the class and can participate in the learning. Our state has come up with a chart that helps teachers look at language growth and to understand that growth will appear to slow down as they go up in proficiency levels.

I work with teachers in different disciplines to understand language development and share strategies to support their students. For example, if they teach science and are going to use a certain diagram, I help them pick out the most important language for the students to get and talk about how they will need to revisit this language and provide multiple opportunities for students to practice and see this language. This helps teachers understand what are realistic expectations for their ESL students. For example, it might be focusing on five key vocabulary words, not twenty. And then I try to help the teachers think about how they will know when it is time to add on more. My support might come from presentations on strategies or approaches, meeting with teachers face to face or talking to them by phone about their students’ needs and what they need help with in their instruction.

I try to equip teachers with a lot of strategies that they can then insert in their lessons to meet their students’ changing needs. I try to help them determine the language they should focus on in a lesson by asking, “What out of this lesson is so critical that all students must understand or must be able to do before you can move on to the next lesson? This is the language you need to focus on. What strategies will help you do this?” It is hard because teachers will say, well they need to know it all! And they will need to in the end, but what do they need to understand tomorrow’s lesson? So we can continue putting the puzzle together.

I have also stressed to teachers, don’t dumb down the language. Use that academic language. Talk about the numerators and denominators. Often in Romance languages, there are cognates for these terms and ultimately, these are terms they are expected to know.

I also remind teachers that the strategies we are sharing with them are great for all students but they are essential for ESL students.

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

JC: I like using the WIDA Can Do Descriptors to help shift a teacher’s focus from what students can’t do to what they can do. It isn’t an exhaustive list but it is a great place to start. Our ESL teachers have started working with the new language focused Can Do Descriptors, Key Uses Edition. I am hopeful that during our fall PD we can plan how we will present these and use these Can Do Descriptors with general educations teachers. I always show them where they can get copies and explain how they can empower their work.

What benefits or strengths do English language learners bring to your classroom/school?

JC: The first benefit is the cultural environment that they bring from home and can share with all the other students, so that all students have the opportunity to learn about other cultures. Students learn what’s important to different cultures and learn that we are not nearly as different as we thought we were.

Language learners serve as wonderful models of strength and perseverance. When other students watch a second language learner struggle and then succeed, they get the message, “I can do hard things and I can succeed because I have been able to watch my friend face challenges in the classroom and they made it.”

Also, having these students in our schools helps children learn to communicate with each other when there is a language barrier. This is a powerful lesson. They learn to ask themselves, “What can I do in body language, or with pictures, to find a way that is different to communicate beyond using oral language.” Working on this strengthens brain development in all students.