Chris Bessonette

An exciting way to challenge one’s self is to continue learning and getting feedback on current work as well as reflecting on how classroom strategies can be improved. While it may be a stretch, the same way teachers hope their students grow, teachers should also experience the fantastic manner of growing in their own capacities. Teachers encourage deeper analysis of why and how things are accomplished whether it be math or science. Why should teachers not be expected to demonstrate a deeper pursuit of understanding their growth as educators?

This month’s Dual Language of the Month Award recipient hails from Jackson, Wyoming where Dual Immersion Instructional Coach Heather Goodrich attributed Kindergarten teacher Chris Bessonette’s ability to grow as a district and community leader through a commitment to excellence:

In his classroom, Chris is tireless in his quest to support his students’ biliteracy and bilingual development. He works to provide culturally relevant, sheltered instruction for all students, but especially for his English Language Learners. He works closely with his Spanish team member to bridge learning between the two languages and to support true biliteracy development…he is able to bring his understanding of language development to all of our language learners throughout the district…reaching not only our Dual Immersion students but also those students who are not in Dual Immersion and therefore in even greater need of culturally and linguistically diverse instruction.

Continue reading to see why this Wyoming Dual Language Teacher of the Month ‘s independent and collaborative practice of dual language education receives this month’
s certificate .

Where are you from?

I grew up in Yamhill, Oregon. After attending college in Iowa, working in Austria, Germany and Yosemite, I put down roots in Jackson, Wyoming, where I teach the English side of a 50/50 dual immersion kindergarten class.

Did you always want to be a teacher?

Both my parents were teachers and principals and I knew in high school that I wanted to become a teacher, too. But it took me a while to settle into a classroom. After studying elementary education, I spent the remainder of my 20s working internationally and as an Outdoor Environmental Educator in Oregon and Yosemite, California. I also led backpacking and rock climbing expeditions with the National Outdoor Leadership School before working as a classroom teacher. Education in some form has been my career to this point and for the foreseeable future.

Strong thematic teaching helps students to connect ideas across content areas which are more authentic to kids. That way they aren’t learning math, reading and writing separately.

Where did you receive your International Baccalaureate training?

I was first exposed to the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum while working at the American International School in Salzburg, Austria, but I received my training while teaching first grade at Dresden International School in Germany. Here I saw the power of thematic teaching, inquiry-based learning. Strong thematic teaching helps students to connect ideas across content areas which are more authentic to kids. That way they aren’t learning math, reading and writing separately. They learn about how families are unique or caring about the Earth. Themes combined with concrete activities engage students and inspire a lot of questioning which leads to learning.

Continue reading to learn about dual language education in Wyoming and Chris’s commitment to dual language education.

What can you share with us about the growth of dual language education in Wyoming?

There are only a few immersion programs in Wyoming. This is in part due to numbers. Wyoming is sparsely populated with only about 586,000 people on the 2015 census. As of 2016 Wyoming had a little more than 91,000 students attending public schools across the state. But immersion programs have steadily emerged. Jackson started its dual immersion program in the fall of 2010, while Casper, Gillette and Laramie have also begun Spanish/English dual immersion programs more recently. Casper also has a Mandarin immersion program, too. The past two years the Wyoming Department of Education, Teton County School District and the University of Wyoming, has hosted the English as a Second Language and Dual Immersion Conference, which has raised awareness statewide. That being said, dual immersion still feels new and different here in Wyoming.

How did you arrive at Jackson Elementary School?

After teaching in Germany, my wife and I wanted to return to the mountains of the western US. I spent three years teaching at Journeys School, independent school in Jackson that uses place-based education. After a few years, I transitioned to Jackson Elementary School and found inspiration teaching in the dual immersion program.

Teacher of the Month - Chris Bessonette

What was your involvement in the development of the dual language program at Jackson Elementary School?

Since joining the then four-year-old program, I’ve engaged in a number of ways. I volunteer for almost all curriculum development opportunities and while working with colleagues, I try to share how the DL program differs from traditional classrooms. I see this as an opportunity to promote both understanding and instructional practices that support EL students. For example, dual teachers received professional development around Beeman and Urow’s Teaching for Biliteracy, which suggest using a concrete activity to introduce new learning concepts to build background knowledge for all students. Our kindergarten DI team has worked hard to incorporate these activities into all of our units of study and traditional kindergarten teachers have experimented with this, too. With my IB background, I have promoted thematic instruction within our dual and traditional programming. Teaching for biliteracy also suggests ‘bridging’ key vocabulary across two languages in DI classrooms. My teaching partner and I have embraced this practice and shared our challenges and successes with our colleagues.

Teacher of the Month - Chris Bessonette

Over the past year and a half our district has planned a transition from a K-2 and 3-5 school to three k-5 schools, including one new school. Throughout this process I’ve shared suggestions that support all students, including those in the DI program, with as many stakeholders as I could. In the end, the school board voted to open a dual immersion school opening in the fall of 2018. It is exciting to be involved in creating a new school culture that will focus on promoting academic excellence, bilingual/biliterate and multicultural competency.

Continue reading to explore collaborative techniques Chris uses to improve his practices and help others do the same.

What does a day of collaborating with your Spanish team member look like?

Collaboration with my partner is imperative for student growth. We start with the kinder team of dual immersion teachers (six currently) planning thematic units of study that last six to eight weeks. Beginning with the end in mind, we identify who will teach, assess and extend the state (Common Core) standards in English and Spanish. As we do this we consider which standards would be better taught in Spanish or English and how we can scaffold each concept across both languages. Anchor texts are chosen in both languages that connect to the thematic statement for the unit and we choose concrete learning activities to build background and personal experiences with the topic before we dive into learning. We meet formally each week for about an hour to more specifically plan who is teaching what and how we can support each other. This includes identifying vocabulary to bridge to the second language of instruction each week and we also share formative assessment information to identify which students need extra support, who is proficient and which kids need extensions. As each week unfolds, we check in daily to see where we are at with our week’s plan and how students are responding. We also discuss behavior including social and emotional challenges that arise.

What motivated you to record and share your instruction practices with colleagues?

“You don’t have to be perfect to be excellent,” is a saying my dad reminds me of from time to time. And my mother-in-law said Monday was her favorite day as a teacher because she hadn’t messed up yet. I fully acknowledge my imperfections and try to be open to suggestions that will help me become a better teacher. Each day teachers provide feedback to students on their progress; to improve, I must be open to feedback, too. By examining ourselves honestly, we can grow, and a supportive team of teachers means more expertise to help everyone improve.

I fully acknowledge my imperfections and try to be open to suggestions that will help me become a better teacher. Each day teachers provide feedback to students on their progress; to improve, I must be open to feedback too.

What can you share about the recognition you received at the National Teaching Channel Conference?

If the reward for sharing a 20-minute video is a trip to Berkeley, then sign me up any day! All joking aside, the professionals at the Teaching Channel are a fun, creative and committed group. They, too, have experienced the power video study can play in improving teaching practice. Most of the participants at the Teaching Channel conference were administrators so it felt important to provide a teacher’s perspective during workshops and breakout sessions as we discussed using video to reflect and enhance teaching without evaluating teachers.

How and where do you find coaching that fits your needs of culturally and linguistically diverse instruction?

In Teton County School District, we’ve benefited greatly from Heather Goodrich as a dual immersion instructional coach. While she has worked across our program, from kindergarten to eighth grade, she has still made a tremendous impact on each teacher. As a program that relies on close partnerships that communicate well, Heather guided professional development on dialog versus discussion. This was needed as we are a passionate group of teachers that have many ideological similarities, but a few difference that could have been divisive. Heather has also challenged us to work more efficiently with partners as we delve deeper into teaching for biliteracy.

Teacher of the Month - Chris Bessonette

What are your hopes for current and future dual language educators?

Honestly, I think more about hopes for dual language education in general more than I do for DL educators specifically. I hope dual language education grows across the country because I believe it is great for kids and communities. Not only do all students learn content more equitably, but they learn how to help each other, understand that people who are learning English may be confident and eloquent in another language, and they learn to be patient and supportive as they rely on each other to understand new languages. I wholeheartedly believe that diverse languages and cultures add greatly to communities and schools. Adopting a language and culture as an additive perspective, in contrast to a language deficit model, is one of my hopes for educators in dual language programs and traditional classrooms. Another hope for dual language educators is that they and DL programs are better understood by parents, colleagues and communities. Educational change takes time, and parents often seem surprised that school isn’t the same as it was when they were kids fifteen to thirty years ago.

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