Wabash Building from street

In March, as schools suddenly closed and switched to online learning, Rogelia Peña’s dual language students began a new unit on the environment. 

Rogelia teaches at Rachel Carson Elementary School on Chicago’s Southwest Side. The lesson plan was one of her favorites. Through an online survey, her fifth graders calculated how many Earths' worth of resources they consumed. Rogelia talks with a “scaffold” of hand movements to help the students break down complex questions. In Spanish and English, she asked: How do the wants and needs of society affect the use of resources? How do people come together to bring about change?

Rogelia graduated from Roosevelt in 2018 with her master’s in dual language teacher leadership. This spring, she was selected as a finalist for the prestigious Golden Apple Award in one of the most competitive years in recent history.

“I’m excited not just about me as an individual educator, but what I represent,” she said. “Dual language is something that still needs to be advocated for aggressively to have the impact that I wish it had in the city and the country.”

Learn more about Roosevelt's dual language teacher leadership program.

Roosevelt alumna Rogelia Peña

Dual Language and Social Justice

In Venezuela, where she grew up, Rogelia began her teaching career at an English institute for adults. There, she worked with students from some of the city’s lowest socioeconomic status neighborhoods.

“It was eye-opening to see the discrepancies in my own city,” she said. “That experience helped me make a connection between teaching and social justice. If I care so much about injustice, teaching has big leverage.”

After earning her bachelor’s in the United States, Rogelia craved a deeper dive into the field. During her graduation application process, she found only a couple of programs that were either far away in California or just endorsements or certificates, not master’s degrees. Rogelia took a leap and joined the new dual language teacher leadership program in its first cohort.

At Roosevelt, Rogelia formed close relationships with the faculty. When she faced visa issues as an international student, associate professor Tammy Oberg de la Garza stepped in to overcome the administrative hurdles and ensure Rogelia could graduate.

“Tammy went above and beyond to fight for me to keep doing the program,” Rogelia said. “She could tell I was passionate about it.”

Rogelia still works on research projects with assistant professor Erin Mackinney, presenting at conferences in Illinois and California. Their research explores common teaching practices among dual language teachers and assesses existing programming.

Dual language education is gaining momentum across the United States. In the Chicago Public Schools system alone, 15 schools offer programs from preschool to eighth grade.

“A lot of teachers are getting thrown into dual-language positions just because they are bilingual,” Rogelia said. “If teachers are looking for a program to clarify expectations, strategies or theories, I think Roosevelt is a really good program.”

The Impact of Dual Language Programs

Fifth-graders, on the cusp of adolescence, face a whole new set of challenges that a first-grade vocabulary can’t address. When bilingual programs focus only on transitioning kids to English, Rogelia said, students can become isolated from their biggest source of support — their parents.

“Dual language is not just a maintenance program, but enrichment,” Rogelia said. “You keep learning in your mother tongue and in English to achieve high levels of academic proficiency.”

Dual language is a two-way program. Rogelia’s students learn not only to speak, but read and write academically in their native language and English.

“I feel like that really makes their connection stronger — not just with their home, but with their culture, and that transfers into their identity,” she said. “My students are more confident in general.”

Down the road, Rogelia’s students might gain an edge in the job market for their biliteracy, along with strong cognitive benefits. Studies have shown that students who take dual-language classes for at least seven years outperform students in all other bilingual programs — and native English speakers — academically.

Teaching in the Time of Coronavirus

When CPS announced that schools would move entirely online, Rogelia was nervous about how her environmental unit would go. She was used to helping students finish the survey in person. New technology meant a radical shift in how they could interact.

Rogelia allows her students to leave their cameras off, if they choose, to respect their privacy. “Since they can see me with their camera, I still do a lot of the same techniques that I would do in the classroom,” she said. “The lesson was very impactful, even online.”

After receiving a record 732 nominations, Golden Apple chose Rogelia and 29 other educators as finalists for their accomplishments in the classroom. The Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching honors outstanding teachers for their roles in having lasting, positive effects on students’ lives and school communities.

“Burnout is so real in an education career,” she said. “Knowing that there’s somebody out there who acknowledged and nominated me is validating and exciting, too. It makes it worth it.”

I’m excited not just about me as an individual educator, but what I represent. Dual language is something that still needs to be advocated for aggressively. Rogelia Peña MA Dual Language Teacher Leadership, 2018

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