Teachers are innovators, constantly finding new ways to supplement their students’ education in fun, creative ways that make learning enjoyable. This could not be more true of Vanessa Garcia, our October Dual Language Teacher of the Month! Vanessa utilizes the arts to solidify her students’ education, and provides them with a sense of creativity that goes beyond books, allowing students to explore with an artistic mind. Vanessa’s dedication to her students exemplifies the qualities that we value at DualLanguageSchools.org, and we are thrilled to honor her as October’s Teacher of the Month!
Read more to learn how Vanessa became such an inspirational force in the classroom…
How long have you been teaching?
I have been teaching since 1991. I started as an Early Childhood teacher for the Child Development Program in San Francisco, CA. I obtained an Early Childhood Associate Degree from the San Francisco City College. When I moved to Concord, I got a job as a substitute teacher for Mt. Diablo Unified School District. At the same time, at night, I worked as teacher for the Loma Vista Adult Center. I taught English as a second language to a group of mostly Hispanic, very motivated adults. I started working at Meadow Homes Elementary (my current school) in 2002 as a substitute teacher. I loved being a substitute teacher in my district because I not only worked in Concord, but in adjacent cities as well. I worked in Pittsburg, Pleasant Hill and Walnut Creek as well. My experience as a substitute is what solidified my commitment to get a teaching credential and work as a teacher. Meadow Homes was always my favorite school to substitute because it is where I felt most needed. I got a fellowship at the University of San Francisco and completed a credential program and a Master in Education in 2004.
I feel it’s my duty to create an environment where they feel valued and they are interested and motivated to come to school.
You’ve worked in a range of positions from intervention teacher, CARE team coordinator, newsletter editor, PTA auditor, secretary and even presenter at CABE. What motivates your consistent activity in schools?
As an introvert, I initially was very reluctant to participate in any leadership opportunities at Meadow Homes. For many years I worked alone in my classroom, even having lunch by myself most days and finding collaboration days a painful chore I had to participate in. But then we had a change in leadership and I had the opportunity to work for our late principal, Dr. Mary Louise Newling. When my personal life made it difficult for me to keep up with the demands of teaching a regular classroom, she gave me the opportunity to have a more flexible schedule as an interventionist at my school. With a more flexible schedule, I was encouraged by Dr. Newling to help with the PTA (I served as the secretary), the school newsletter (editor and translator) and in the CARE team, I received the student referrals and helped coordinate the meetings. I did all of this while working with small groups of 4th and 5th graders helping them catch up on work. I think these opportunities are what made me come out of my shell, and also provided a perspective on how a school functions. There are so many pieces to take into account. In 2014 I returned to the bilingual classroom with new energy and a new perspective.
How did the opportunity to present at CABE arise and what did you present?
At CABE my colleague, Jovita Castillo and I presented on the different ways Meadow Homes is integrating the arts and reclassifying more ELL’s.
Would you recommend other teachers to present or attend conferences like CABE? Why?
I think every teacher should have an opportunity to present or attend CABE. I feel it’s a unique experience to connect with other teachers and professionals in the field. I always see my colleagues come back with ideas to implement in the classroom. I especially recommend non-bilingual teachers attend CABE because they can catch up on language learning. At my school, the teachers who are not teaching in the immersion program work with students and have at least five or more different languages spoken by their students.
Of the many strategies you implement to provide differentiated learning, which are your favorite and why?
My favorite strategy for differentiation is arts integration. I firmly believe it’s the most inclusive strategy. I have seen students grasp concepts faster and develop a love for art at the same time.
What do you think makes your classroom stand out?
My classroom stands out because of its’ atmosphere. I am a mosaic artist and I also attended a music high school in Puerto Rico. I love to sing and I love music. Late in life, I have also discovered an interest in the performing arts. But it is this interest and devotion for the arts that permeates every aspect of my teaching. If you come in into my classroom, you will feel my students are relaxed and happy. You will see their artwork around and you will hear the songs we have learned. Students need movement, need to feel recognized and accepted, and I know the arts present a vehicle where students can express who they are or at least start to explore who they are. I feel it’s my duty to create an environment where they feel valued and they are interested and motivated to come to school.
I think Hispanic students can’t get away with doing just the basics. We always have to do more and do it better. When my students go out into the world they will face many obstacles and one of them will be low expectations and stereotypes.
How do you challenge student performance/creativity?
I challenge my students by being knowledgeable of their capabilities. It’s essential to make them aware of what they are capable of achieving. I do not make a big deal about how much they need to grow but I try to instill a sense of self-awareness. I think Hispanic students can’t get away with doing just the basics. We always have to do more and do it better. When my students go out into the world they will face many obstacles and one of them will be low expectations and stereotypes. When we paint with watercolors, I provide lots of paper and I let the students paint as many pictures as they want. I teach them that the second or third watercolor will always be better than the first one. As an immigrant myself, I know how important is to show your very best watercolor to the world.
Which three words would you use to describe your students?
My students are rich (culturally rich, family rich, funds of knowledge rich), my students are dynamos (the energy that a motivated mind and body exudes is limitless), and my students are creative.
What does biliteracy mean to you?
Biliteracy is a gift, biliteracy is an opportunity, biliteracy is a privilege. When I came to live in California straight from Puerto Rico, I had been taught English there for many years. I realized after a few months that, even through my silent period, I had a unique advantage from most immigrants. I could understand and communicate in both English and Spanish. It didn’t take me long to get a job to support myself and put myself through college. I felt I had been given a precious gift.
How have you helped your students understand the value of biliteracy?
Every time someone comes to our room and speaks one language or the other I point it out. I tell my students you are able to converse to that person because you are bilingual/biliterate. I ask all my visitors guiding questions to get them to say that learning both languages is very valuable. I make it a point to be a constant reminder, the same way we teach reading strategies, we must teach our students that billiteracy is important. One of my students argued that he would not have learn to speak English since he was planning to go back to Mexico, “unless you are going right this minute it would serve you to learn it so you can have more friends in the playground”. Small children need to make concrete connections (with my help) on how useful knowing more than one language can be. I also tell my students that out of all the things they have the only one that can’t be stolen or lost is your knowledge. My mother used to say that to us. She made sure we understood the value of an education. When we were little, and couldn’t make concrete connections yet, she “brain washed” my siblings and I. She talked so much about college that we knew it was not an option but an expectation. Her message was so clear that I didn’t feel like a whole person until I got a college degree. But not only did my mother talk about having an education, she also volunteered at school, took us to the library on the bus when we didn’t have a car, gave us a free pass from chores if we had a lot of homework, let us read for hours on end and doing the impossible so we could bring a completed homework the next day.
It’s essential to make them aware of what they are capable of achieving.
What advice would you give to educators on creating parent partnerships?
Parent partnerships are vital. There is only so much you can do in your classroom during the six hours your students are with you. But when you empower a parent, you have the possibility of extending your classroom and thus taking your student so much farther. I tell my parents during back to school night that supporting their kid’s education at home is like putting money in the bank; little by little it accumulates and grows. I make it a point to find out what makes a parent reluctant to help their child with school work. I think it’s important to find out what they know, how they feel about literacy and bilingualism and challenge them on those notions. I haven’t met a parent that doesn’t want their child to do better at school. Nevertheless I’ve met a lot of parents who are not aware of the power they have in their child’s education.