Mary Vizcay and Mika Phinney

For our May Dual Language Teacher of the Month, we decided to do something different than our normal individual nomination. This month, we are honoring Mary and Mika, a Spanish and English teacher duo in the Kindergarten Dual Immersion class from Holbrook Language Academy in Concord, California. Their Principal, Ms. Marga Marshall, brought these two to our attention. Ms. Marshall is incredibly dedicated to her school and their dedication to bilingual education, and wanted to make sure that these two were nominated together. After all, how many in the dual language field have the experience of teaching dual language with a partner? Many have this experience, and if this pertains to you, feel free to nominate a dual language teacher duo at your school by utilizing the form at

Teaching dual language is incredibly challenging, rewarding and requires a great deal of persistence and extra attention. Many would not be able to give students the amount of attention they deserve without their classroom partner. When we asked Ms. Marshall about her desire to have both teachers featured, she said, “The reason why I’m nominating both teachers is because they are both the perfect team for the program and it wouldn’t work without them. At Holbrook Language Academy we follow the partnering model where one teacher is the Spanish model (Maestra Vizcay) and the English model (Mika Phinney) in Kindergarten.

These two teachers are not only exceptional in the teaching profession, but showcase their love and passion for bilingual education daily through their dedication in classroom for the students, the time they take to do parent workshops in the evenings, collaborative planning, and conferences with parents when needed make the TWDI program at Holbrook a leading one. They truly are what a Two Way Dual Immersion program with teaming should look like. #sebilingüe –Principal Marga Marshall

With that, we couldn’t be more thrilled to share a bit about Mary and Mika and their amazing classroom at Holbrook Language Academy!

Mary and Mika have both been in education for a many years. Mary has been dedicated to bilingual education for the last 23 years, as a bilingual classroom teacher, a bilingual intervention coordinator and interventionist and a bilingual literacy coach. Mika has been in education, in both Title I and Spanish-speaking populations since 1994. She has worked in a variety of capacities; classroom teacher, literacy coach, intervention coordinator, K-5 art teacher/coach, Teacher Leader for the Turnaround Arts Initiative (President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities) and dance teacher.

Their interest in being involved in education has been a long time coming. Even before Mary knew that she wanted to be a teacher, she was always finding opportunities to work with children and teach others. At a young age, she became the tutor and teacher for her best friend who was a struggling student.

I remember reading books aloud to her because her dyslexia kept her from enjoying reading. It was in those moments that I discovered my talent for teaching and the reward that comes from teaching others.

Teacher of the Month - Mary Vizcay and Mika Phinney

Continue reading to find out more about this inspiring dual language duo…

Many teachers cite that one teacher inspired them to help others as they helped them. Mika is no exception, as she remembers how her 5th grade teacher made her feel important.

I have memories of a crockpot full of chicken soup on a cold day; her metamorphosis into the Wicked Witch while we watched a movie in a dark room; a fifth grade sleepover. Though, not necessarily academic, these activities made me feel important in her eyes and made that a year of great learning. I try to carry this feeling into my daily teaching. – Mika Phinney

These two stellar educators arrived at Holbrook because they were both seeking a positive community with a vision for language and culture. They considered it to be a beautiful thing to work in a place where everyone wholeheartedly believes in dual language programs and supports the students on their journey to being bilingual and biliterate. In addition, they were drawn to an administrator that is supportive of her teachers as they strive to do the best for their students. Holbrook Language Academy is a place that honors students’ cultures and truly works to create global citizens.

Teacher of the Month - Mary Vizcay and Mika Phinney

My favorite part of being a teacher is seeing the joy and confidence students feel when they work hard and finally understand a concept. I especially love working in kindergarten and teaching students to read. There is something special about seeing a whole new world open up for students when they read their first book. I love that teaching gives me the opportunity to constantly learn, make a difference, and be creative. –Mary Vizcay

When Mary first started in bilingual education, she recalls having few books, materials or curriculum in Spanish. She describes it as a job that required creativity and commitment. She remembers translating and pasting the text into her favorite books, recording her own listening centers, and making the most of her materials. Since then, bilingual education has come so far, and yet she still enjoys the creativity that is required to be an excellent bilingual educator.

I LOVE the moment when the lightbulb goes off and a student realizes she/he is reader! I especially like working with students in small groups, as they discover how letters form words and those words have meaning. I have been fortunate to witness the power of the arts in education. Students build bridges between artistic thinking and content curriculum. I have seen them use the arts to deepen their comprehension and understanding of many concepts, be excited, motivated and have fun along the way. – Mika Phinney

Mary and Mika have made their views on bilingual education known to the public as well, as they have both been active in presenting and lecturing about dual language education.

Mary presented with Silvia Dorta-Duque de Reyes at CABE, about cross-linguistic transfer and how to build cross-linguistic units in the primary grades. She also received a grant through the NEA foundation to help improve writing instruction in English and Spanish for kindergartners and first-graders. They designed writing lessons for teachers to use across the district and also developed a rubric to analyze and compare student’s writing in English and Spanish. Along with this process, Mary lead teachers in using the analysis of student writing to build targeted transfer lessons.

Mika has given the following presentations: CABE – Visual and Performing Arts and Science Integration as Motivators for Student Excellence, NAME – Family Art Backpacks: Transforming Family-School Partnerships through Art and Story. She was the Co-Developer and facilitator of the Family Art Backpack Program – Co-Developer and facilitator, and also the co-writer of chapter in press – ” Family Art Backpacks: Building Family-School Connections Through Art and Story” in Art as a Way of Talking for Emergent Bilingual Youth, edited by Berta Berriz, Vivian Poey and Amanda Wagner, Lesley University. This book highlights effective arts practices to improve literacy and language skills of emergent bilinguals.

Continue reading to find out more about this inspiring dual language duo…

Both Mary and Mika brought research into their classroom. Mary has learned so much from Silvia Dorta-Duque de Reyes, saying that Silvia’s expertise took her teaching to a new level. She learned to be more explicit in her teaching for cross-linguistic transfer, and better organized her foundational skills and sound-spelling instruction to promote proficient biliteracy. Silvia also gave her the opportunity to work with her at Benchmark to develop curriculum for cross-linguistic transfer. Mary was also able to use the ideas that she learned in the NEA grant to continue to develop lessons that target the needs of dual language learners. Through the analysis of student writing, she was able to see what skills are transferring from one language to another and address any errors in transfer that students are making. Mika utilized her experience in the Family Art Backpacks project.

Hearing and recording student responses for the Family Art Backpacks has confirmed my belief that the arts are integral to learning for emergent bilinguals. Students can and will show their learning in creative ways when given the opportunity. The open-ended experiences provided by the backpacks allowed them to decide how to respond. Students chose a mixture of languages, made connections to classroom learning by using a variety of literary techniques, as they created artistic responses to the reading.- Mika Phinney

Mary and Mika believe their classrooms stand out because they are a place where learning is fun. They build concepts through exploration and games, and cherish the moments when the students don’t even realize they are learning because they are having so much fun! They believe in creating curious learners who want to know more and are willing to take risks to find the answers. They believe learning happens through all modalities: dancing, singing, observing and creating to explore and construct our own learning.

Teacher of the Month - Mary Vizcay and Mika Phinney

Often times, they feel as though their curiosity leaves them with unanswered questions at the end of a lesson. They encourage students to continue to think and research these ideas at home and come back with possible solutions. Students become excited to share ideas and things they created at home to show they are expanding their learning.

The FAB (Family Art Backpacks) program excites typically less-involved students to get involved. It facilitates grand and elaborate responses to its themes. By providing the opportunity to explore without parameters, students jump in and are excited to create and respond. They naturally make connections between classroom learning and their home experiences and come to school excited to share the objects, artifacts, writing and books they’ve discovered. Utilize this advice in your classroom to make learning exciting for both families and students. Building these bridges from school to home can be crucial in your child’s understanding of materials.

Continue reading to find out more about this inspiring dual language duo…

Mary and Mika describe their school leadership at Holbrook Academy as passionate, positive, and collaborative, as their principal Marga Marshall makes sure of. They describe their students as curious, thinkers, and confident. Setting these positive terms for your classroom can help you set goals, and make sure you are setting this expectation in your classroom.

Biliteracy is the ultimate goal for our students. We want our English speaking and Spanish speaking students to be able to speak, read, and write at high levels in both languages. The beauty of the dual immersion classroom is that at different times of the days different populations can be the experts and students learn from each other.

As Mary and Mika are teaching kindergarteners, it can be challenging to convey this message to their students. However, they have very clear ideas about why they want to be bilingual and biliterate. They have discussed and shared these ideas during their community circles, and they also ask any visitors in their classrooms to tell them about how being biliterate has helped them in their lives. They discuss the brain benefits of being bilingual. Their students are so proud of everything they have learned this year!

In addition to developing their understanding of how English and Spanish are connected, they explore other cultures and the kids are excited to learn the commonalities between cultures and languages. This year they have “traveled” to all the continents and explored the language, culture and environment of various countries. Students have discovered that Spanish shares many of the same sounds and sílabas with both Swahili and Japanese. This was an exciting discovery that brought home how being biliterate opens doors to new learning.

Mary and Mika strive to not only teach language but culture. In doing so, they are creating a group of students that have a love and appreciation for diversity. They believe that being bilingual opens the door to other cultures and will help them understand people from other countries. They believe their English-speaking students will have a greater appreciation for immigrants coming to this country that are learning English. Through their studies of world cultures, students are independently noticing and recognizing the commonalities they share across the globe, in addition to what makes us unique. At kindergarten- they are truly already global citizens.

We hope our students will remember that we loved them and believed in them. We hope to show them that learning is fun and knowledge is power. We want them to see themselves as problem-solvers and explorers, to know that they are the key to their own learning.

Teacher of the Month - Mary Vizcay and Mika Phinney

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