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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 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.

Karolina Mills: Featured Educator

May 2017

WIDA “Featured Educator” May: Karolina Mills taps into her own experience of moving to the United States and learning multiple languages to support her students and colleagues in Vineland, New Jersey.

photo of Karolina Millse
Karolina Mills

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

KM: I am an ESL teacher for Grades K-5 at Solve E. D’Ippolito and Petway Elementary Schools in Vineland, New Jersey. I have been teaching for 17 years. I was born in the Czech Republic. I studied English at the Pedagogical Faculty of Palacky’s University in Olomouc. I taught English as a foreign language there for five years. After earning my master’s degree in 2003, I moved to the United States.  I have been teaching in Vineland Public School district since 2005.

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?

KM: Vineland Public School district is located in Southern New Jersey. The district is one of the largest districts in the state. It includes 17 schools and over 11,000 students.  Vineland has approximately 800 students who are in the process of learning English. Over 90% of those students speak Spanish as their first language. Therefore, Vineland has a bilingual program for Spanish-speaking students from Kindergarten through Grade 12. Other languages include Chinese, Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, Hindu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Vietnamese, Haitian Creole, Urdu, Yoruba, and Polish.

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

KM: I chose to be a teacher because I think teaching is a mission. You are holding the future of young people in your hands, and you can have a lifelong impact on their lives. It is a privilege and a responsibility at the same time.

Another reason why I took on this challenge is that I do not like stereotypes in my life. If you are a teacher, every day of your career is guaranteed to be different. I love it. I have also always had a passion for languages. Growing up in Europe, knowing languages is a must. I speak fluent Czech, English, Polish, and Slovak. I have a solid knowledge of Russian and German, and fair understanding of Spanish, Italian and Latin.

Since I went through U.S. immigration and naturalization process myself, I am able to better understand the struggles and obstacles of all those who do not speak English. I am compelled to help them prepare for life in another country, encourage them to look for the second chance they hope for, and motivate them to contribute back to our society in the future.

What frustrates me? A lack of empathy and understanding for ELLs. Knowing another language is such an asset! Occasionally I encounter a certain degree of indifference or reluctance towards cooperation with ESL professionals. We, the ESL specialists, are there to help and assist with smooth transition and integration of any ELL student into general classroom setting.

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.

KM: My goal is to focus on cooperating with the homeroom teachers, share best practices, and make it easier for all teachers to meet the needs of ELLs in every setting. I have been actively participating in our revision of the district ESL curriculum to reflect and align with the ELA curriculum, creating interactive pacing guides for ESL teachers to follow, and developing scaffolds for mainstream teachers to use with ELLs in their classrooms.

When I plan my lesson, I keep in mind the ELP levels of my students. I check the ELA pacing charts to see what is the main focus in their homeroom for the week, and I base my lesson on their immediate needs. Sometimes we work on skills, sometimes on reading and comprehension strategies, and sometimes we use learning supports to enhance vocabulary. It is also important to include the language of other core subjects such as math, science, and social studies.

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

KM: “The more languages you know, the more you are a person.” ELLs are particularly curious, intelligent, and eager to learn.  They have a broader mentality, better focus, and unique understanding of differences. They contribute to their classrooms by sharing the information about their culture, heritage and ethnicity. Their peers are learning about diversity, and are better able to promote acceptance and tolerance within our school. They also extend these traits to our community as well.

How do you encourage ELLs to learn? How do you accelerate their language development and ensure their equitable access to content learning?

KM: I believe that knowing the student is the most important thing. If there is no relationship between the teacher and the ELL, there is no motivation or zeal to learn. I strive to establish these relationships as soon as I meet the ELLs for the first time. We become a family. They are very precious to me, and I treat them as my children. It is important to advocate on their behalf if necessary.

The second most important factor is effective collaboration between the ELA and ESL teachers. Careful planning and assessment are essential parts of the process. I believe that the ELLs should be treated as equally as any other students. They must be exposed to the same grade-level content as their English-only speaking peers and given an equal opportunity to learn.

How do you assess your students’ language learning? How do you use the results of formative (ongoing assessments of progress towards instructional goals) and/or summative testing (such as annual tests like ACCESS)?

KM: Keeping in mind the students’ levels of English, we use WIDA resources and rubrics for all of our assessments. Both formative and summative tests are key factors in monitoring the students’ progress and determining the future course in second language acquisition. Can Do Descriptors are an essential tool for our general educators.

During the summer, I work at the central registration office by helping with proper student placement. We have been using the W-APT screener for this purpose. We are also planning to use the new WIDA screener for the next school year.

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?

KM: Dr. JoAnne M. Negrin, Supervisor of ESL, World Languages, Bilingual Education, Performing Arts, and ESSA in my district has always been very supportive and encouraging. She provides and organizes trainings, webinars, meetings, and other professional development opportunities. She inspires us to venture out to other districts to provide our expertise and share our best practices even at the state level. She has been advocating for her teachers and students to ensure our needs are met. She is a very dedicated and compassionate administrator.

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

KM: WIDA has been instrumental in the Second Language Acquisition process in our state. The organization provides districts with the WIDA (ESL) standards and ACCESS for English Language Learners (ELLs) assessments. I use WIDA for recertification in preparation for our state test ACCESS 2.0, for standards, Can Do Descriptors, W-APT resources, rubrics, online professional learning, etc. I particularly appreciate the download library?there is a plethora of materials, links, references, and resources I use daily in my lessons. WIDA helps create a sense of unity in what we do, and how we do it.