Spotlight: Chris Bessonette (WY '18)February 8, 2019
Dual immersion teacher Chris Bessonette (WY ’18) tackles the achievement gap for language learners and low-income students by making vocabulary a cornerstone of his instruction: “Our knowledge of words determines our level of understanding.” He won Wyoming’s 2018-19 Milken Educator Award at Munger Mountain Elementary School in Jackson on January 4, 2019.
Milken Family Foundation: What are the challenges and advantages specific to teaching in a dual immersion program?
Chris Bessonette: In my program we use a partner teaching system where students spend half their day with me in the English room and the other half of the day with my Spanish teaching partner. I am lucky to have a brilliant partner teacher with whom I work closely—not all partnerships function as well as ours.
Although our school has small classes (16-18 kids), we teach two sections of students each day. It is hard to keep super close tabs on 34 different readers, writers, scientists and mathematicians. An advantage of this system is both teachers get to work together to problem-solve tricky students and plan engaging lessons.
A challenge we’re facing in our school is around assessment and how best to measure language and content knowledge without double-assessing students. For example, if a native English speaker has been learning math in Spanish for two weeks and they are assessed in Spanish, does this reflect the content knowledge if they do not understand the nuances of the questions asked in Spanish?
MFF: You focus on vocabulary development in your classes and have made that a priority at the district level. Why is this particular skill so important for your student population?
Chris: Words are powerful. They frame our internal monologue; our knowledge of words determines our level of understanding. We are all word learners!
Educators understand this but often overlook vocabulary instruction because of the demands for students to learn other content areas. The importance of word learning is amplified when working with language learners and low-income students. Both of these groups of students typically have a smaller English language vocabulary then middle- or upper-class peers who are native English speakers.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Chris: My parents were both educators. I saw how much heart they gave their students and how much satisfaction they received beyond their paychecks. In fact, my mom and dad often spoke of “teachers’ paychecks” not as the money they earned at the end of the month, but as the little kindnesses they were given or observed. The moments of reward they spoke of brought me to education as much as anything else.
In my crooked journey through education, I’ve always followed my heart—to Austria, Yosemite, Alaska, Germany and finally here in Jackson. I’ve sought out jobs that are personally fulfilling and in which I feel I am giving back to my community.
MFF: How was your first year of teaching?
Chris: My introduction to classroom teaching at Dresden International School in Germany was a learning experience, to say the least. I was overwhelmed and my first-grade students from all over the world schooled me as much as I taught them. I remember learning how to say “hurry up” to my slow-walking students in Japanese and “please walk” in German to my kids who were in a hurry.
The ability for students to learn a new language—English in this case—was amazing considering the lack of support I gave them. In my two years teaching in Dresden I only taught one native English speaker. Yet, somehow, students learned!
I had completed my education degree 10 years prior to this first classroom teaching job. I relied on the other first-grade teachers for help every day. My principal was both patient and encouraging. Without these supportive educators I’m not sure if I could have persevered through those first two years.
MFF: Why did you choose elementary school?
Chris: There is so much to like about teaching elementary aged students. I taught kindergarten for several years and the amount of growth socially, academically and emotionally was astounding. I also really enjoyed being part of the transition to school for these young learners.
In second grade kids experiment with social reinforcement in a new way. They still like their teacher, but they realize that making their peers laugh feels really good. Guiding students toward a healthy awareness of friendship and group learning keeps me on my toes.
The constant change and challenge of helping individuals learn has kept me engaged as a teacher. I rarely do the same things from year to year without tweaking this and changing that, all in an effort to better serve my students.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Chris: I was shocked. As a staff we were told that someone important was coming to an assembly so we were all curious. Many well-known people pass through Jackson Hole, so someone famous or a high-level government representative is not beyond the realm of possibility. So when the State Superintendent of schools said they were presenting an award to a teacher I was surprised. A list of several amazing colleagues popped into my head as likely candidates. Then my name was called and my students dog-piled me! I’m still trying to wrap my head around the how and why, but nonetheless, I am honored to be a Milken Educator.
MFF: How did your students respond to your Milken Award?
Chris: I think my class was more excited than I was. They immediately jumped on top of me, and several got up and did the “floss” dance, a sign of celebration around here. I see an extra sparkle of pride in some of their eyes now. Beyond my class, the Milken Award seems to have given my building, our district and even the community of Jackson an elevated pride in our schools and the teachers who work so hard to help students learn.
MFF: We heard about an interesting business unit in your class where students had to develop a service.
Chris: One of our second grade Wyoming Social Studies standards focuses on identifying needs, wants, goods and services. With this in mind my teaching partner decided to plan a “Maker Mall” where students could choose to market a good or service. Students had to make 20 goods or tickets for 20 services. We integrated this study by writing product descriptions, creating slogans to add to posters and learning to make change with coins. At the end of the unit we invited parents and administrators in for a “maker mall.” Students joined their parents in purchasing each other’s good and services. Students love the entire process and they learn a ton.
MFF: Who are your role models as an educator?
Chris: My parents and my brother have been inspiring role models in my life. My parents believed in my ability to teach in those first years when I floundered. My dad has always given sage advice—always put kids first, for example, and you don’t have to be perfect to be excellent. My mom has spent hours writing students’ names on wooden sticks and clothespins at the beginning of each school year. My brother is a project-based learning instructional facilitator in California, and he inspires me to make learning more hands on. Needless to say it is easy to talk education at family reunions.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Chris: I associate success with effort. Students in dual immersion classes spend half of their day learning a second language. This requires grit and determination. Students spend hours not fully understanding and yet they cannot give up. And when students persevere and give learning their best effort then I consider that success.
The same applies for me. When I give my best effort to a task, be it teaching or attempting a long bike ride, it is the effort and grit that lead to success.
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