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Cover story: Connecting the dots - Community building for English Learners
Andrea Bitner has always been a natural bridge-builder. As a 23-year veteran K-12 English language learner (EL) educator and Title 1 reading specialist, she’s found the perfect outlet for that personality trait. She spends her days communicating across language and learning divides and across multiple departments, supporting teachers on accommodations, and always looking for ways to make sure her students’ needs are met.
“As an EL teacher, you wear a lot of hats,” Bitner said. “You’re navigating not only students’ academic needs but their social needs, too. You’re navigating their cultural needs. You’re advocating for them when you work with all the teachers in the building so they can best support these students in class.”
That kind of intensive focus on relationship building has made Bitner keenly aware of missed opportunities. Having taught a highly diverse student population at Interboro School District for the last 16 years, where more than 300 EL students speak at least 25 different languages, Bitner noticed her students weren’t making the kinds of connections they could be.
She tells the story of two Cambodian students, a fourth grader and a sixth grader, who were just one hallway away from each other but were unaware of each others’ existence. When Bitner introduced them based on their shared love of art, their connection was immediate, and their relief at finding an ally who shared their native language was palpable. Now they draw anime together. Bitner wanted to see more of those kinds of connections.
“I was like, ‘There have to be ways to start to connect our kids – building-wide, districtwide, countywide, statewide – and we’ve got to do a better job at that,’” she said.
She started at the building level, bringing students together for events like holiday gatherings where younger kids pair up with middle school mentors who share their native language or at least are on a similar EL journey.
“My little guys look up to them immediately and it’s like, ‘Oh, not only am I amazing because I’m bilingual, I’m not the only one,’” Bitner said.
The success of these smaller gatherings inspired bigger thinking. Interboro has five EL teachers spread across six schools. Bitner not only wanted to connect the students across those four buildings with each other, but with the surrounding community. Community integration is a vital part of the EL experience. And it’s where many of Bitner’s young students already play critical roles, often acting as translators and navigating daily life as the sole English speaker in their families.
“It’s not uncommon for us to see first and second graders translating at restaurants for their parents to order,” Bitner said.
With the help of a PSEA Innovative Teaching Grant, Bitner and her EL district colleagues organized a pilot field trip with just over 100 K-5 students this past fall to a local orchard where they went on a hayride, played in a park, and had lunch with their peers and high school student chaperones. Afterward, they had the chance to write about their experience.
“It was neat to have the whole district involved in one field trip and not just one school,” said Christine Spellacy, an EL teacher at Kindergarten Academy and Prospect Park. “We have so many siblings who are spread out in buildings across the district. So, it was fun for them to go on a trip with their siblings, and especially the high schoolers.”
Bitner’s plan moving forward is to take mixed groups of K-12 students to local restaurants, bowling alleys, theaters, and other fun destinations where they can practice their language skills in a safe space surrounded by their peers.
“Something our middle and high school newcomers are terrified about is something as simple as going out and ordering a meal in a restaurant setting,” Bitner said. “So, it’s great to have them navigate a menu and communicate in a way to get them what they need, pay the check, and go through that experience together.”
Forging connections is at the heart of Bitner’s teaching philosophy. Recently, she has had the chance to share her approach with fellow educators around the country. What she has found, whether it’s in Texas, Florida, Delaware, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania, is a receptive audience of educators eager for more opportunities to connect.
“In this building we are all 100 percent supporting each other, but Andrea goes that extra mile,” said Rosemary Haley, a fifth grade English and language arts teacher and the district drama coach. “She will make lots of suggestions on how I can approach and respect my students and help them to achieve success. And they do love her so much.”
Haley tells the story of one EL student they taught last year who came in as a new student identified for learning support and was performing way below the benchmarks.
“Working in conjunction with Andrea as the EL and the special ed department, that student soared from the very bottom to working pretty much close to grade level by the end of the year,” Haley said. “And now that he is in sixth grade and she still supports him, he’s a totally different person attitude wise, and in his desire to learn. She instills that in them.”
Perhaps the best illustration of Bitner’s deep connection with her students can be found in a book she had published in the summer of 2021 called “Take Me Home,” which chronicles the EL experience through the eyes of 11 of her former students.
“A lot of people make this assumption that all English language learners’ experiences are the same,” Bitner said. “If you’re from this country, it means this. If you’re from that country, it means that. So, I went back and interviewed 11 of my former EL students from Interboro who are now in their late 20s, early 30s, and I said to them, ‘Now that you’re a young, bilingual, professional person working out in the world, and you can reflect on that experience of going through school, what was it really like for you?’”
The result is a testament to Bitner’s whole-child approach – a celebration of the entire experience of being an EL student, not just what happens in the classroom. In fact, the idea for the book came out of a tragedy involving a former student that further illustrates the active role Bitner plays in the lives of her students and their families.
In 2015, Nancy Lopez, the youngest of seven children and the only girl in a family of El Salvadoran immigrants, was struck and killed by a train near the school where Bitner was teaching. Bitner had taught all seven of the Lopez children and had become close enough with the family over the years that she played an integral role in helping them navigate the traumatic aftermath of Nancy’s death.
“One of the most troubling parts of that day was that mom and dad had received a call that something had happened to one of their children, but no one in the local force spoke Spanish,” Bitner said. “They could only kind of figure out that something had happened, but they didn’t really know what it was. So, they got up to the train tracks and they stood there for hours waiting to figure out which one of their children had died.”
At Nancy’s funeral, Bitner recited a short poem they wrote that was an homage to Nancy’s life and her crossing into the U.S. The poem was called “Take Me Home.” Bitner thought others could benefit from Nancy’s story as well, so she sent it out to a few publishers, and one of them suggested she write a book.
Since the book’s release, Bitner’s connections have grown exponentially. She developed a presentation called “Take Me Home, Unmasking the Fear of Communicating with EL Students and Families,” that she has shared with educators nationwide. It’s a raw, honest look at all the different types of experiences and challenges EL students in America face, with Nancy Lopez’s story at the center.
“It’s been really well received, and we’re really proud of it,” Bitner said. “And I’m just proud of them. I’m really proud of them.”