In a first-grade classroom in Burlington, Vermont, Janelle Gendimenico guides her students through a lesson focusing on the importance of getting every word in a sentence, especially when you’re talking about animal teeth.
“Show me with your fingers. What does the naked mole-rat’s teeth do?” Gendimenico asked the class. “They go back left and right, left and right.”
Gendimenico is an English language learning specialist. She co-teaches the class at Champlain Elementary with Taylor Warner, a mainstream first-grade teacher. The students are an even mix of English learners — meaning they speak a language other than English at home — and native English speakers.
Some urban school districts in New England teach children from dozens of countries across the globe. The variety of languages they speak is something teachers are increasingly treating as an asset, rather than something the kids need to overcome.
There are over 40 languages represented among Burlington students and their families; nearly one in five kids is an English learner. At home they speak Nepali, Somali, Maay Maay, Bosnian, Swahili and other languages.
One goal of this combined, co-taught class is to make sure the English learners are fully integrated into every part of school. That’s an improvement on the much more common practice of pulling English learners out for special instruction, Gendimenico says.
“That distinguishes them from the rest of the class,” she said. “They’re the students that have to leave; they’re the students that have to go to get what they need for 30 minutes. And then the rest of the time the classroom teacher has to do it on their own.”
Co-teaching is one aspect of the Burlington School District’s recent efforts to support English learners by embracing their multilingualism.