Teacher is a success in any language

Published: May 4, 2007 | 6138th good news item since 2003

If you can read this, the saying goes, thank a teacher.

Si también puede leer esto, agradézcale a la profesora Caridad Alonso. (If you can also read this, thank a teacher like Caridad Alonso.)

Alonso, AS ’91, CHEP ’96M, is the 2007 Delaware Teacher of the Year and the first teacher in a dual-language program to be named the state’s top educator in the 43-year history of the award program. Alonso is a reading specialist at William C. Lewis Elementary School in Wilmington, which is the state’s only dual-language public school.

“I feel so honored to receive this award, but it really isn’t about me,” Alonso says from her cozy, colorful classroom. “I feel I was given this opportunity so that I can tell people about dual-language programs and what a benefit they are for the students and the community.”

Lewis Elementary educates students from kindergarten through fifth grade, with those in the dual language program being taught in English half of each school day and in Spanish the other half. Although the program is designed to teach children from either language background, most of the students currently enrolled are native Spanish speakers.

Alonso began working at Lewis in 1998, teaching Spanish as a second language to English-speaking children, but she now works as a reading specialist, offering intensive literacy instruction to children in their native Spanish. She is quick to point out that English literacy is the goal but that teaching phonics and other word-decoding skills in Spanish is an important first step.

“Research shows that you need to have a strong literacy base in your first language so you can transfer those skills to a second language,” she says. “We have children in our school with widely different levels of English proficiency and Spanish proficiency. My focus is to teach in Spanish to those students whose literacy skills are low.

“It’s a real challenge, but there are strategies you can use that are effective. I teach letter sounds and syllables in a very specific and sequential way-I use Spanish to front-load the skills they need, so they can transfer those skills to English.”

Alonso’s students come to her classroom, where bookshelves and posters cover the walls, in groups of a half-dozen throughout the school day and sit at a horseshoe-shaped table facing their teacher.

While Alonso is preparing her students to become literate in English, she also is passionate about the value of being bilingual and bicultural. When she was born in the United States, her parents were recent immigrants who had fled Cuba, and she says she knew almost no English until she started school. Her mother was advised to help the children assimilate by speaking only English at home.

“My mother was an educator, and thank goodness she had a different
vision for us,” Alonso says. “She knew we’d learn English by living here, and she wanted us to also maintain our Spanish. I feel enormously fortunate to have come from
a bicultural home.”

In planning her career, Alonso says she initially resisted her mother’s suggestions to try teaching and instead studied anthropology and Spanish literature at UD. “I’m fascinated by different cultures and languages,” she says. “I can’t get enough of it.”

After graduation, she tried working as a substitute teacher while considering graduate school and found-much to her surprise, she recalls-that she loved it. She says she also noticed a high proportion of Spanish-speaking children in special education classes and suspected that some of them had difficulty with the English language rather than actual learning disabilities. She returned to UD to study elementary and special education and earned a master’s degree in instruction.

When Alonso learned that she had won Teacher of the Year honors, first for the Red Clay Consolidated School District and then for the state, she says the rush of pride she felt was for her colleagues in the dual-language program and for her students. Children with little knowledge of English often come to her classroom feeling embarrassed or unintelligent, she says.

“I tell them: Do you know how smart you are to become bilingual and how important that will be in your future?” she says. “These children are making connections between cultures. How can that not be an asset for them and for all of us?”

Published in Teachers
See also: www.udel.edu
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