Spotlight: Susan Moreno (TX '19)May 8, 2020
Dual language educator Susan Moreno (TX ’19) wants her students to remember the value in being biliterate, bilingual and bicultural: “A bilingual mind is a powerful tool that can lead to many great possibilities.” She won Texas’ 2019-20 Milken Educator Award at J.L. Long Middle School in Dallas on November 14, 2019.
Milken Family Foundation: Your dual language program is thriving. How does dual language education benefit both native Spanish and native English speakers?
Susan Moreno (TX ’19): The state of Texas and many cities like Dallas have acknowledged the language asset our students bring to school. Many years of curriculum development and the increase of the dual language program across many elementary schools led to the expansion of our secondary dual language program, where English learners and native English speakers continue to learn together.
Over the last six years our program has begun reporting academic and social gains from participating students. With the students continuing in two Spanish classes per year (math and Spanish language), the Spanish instruction is one of the most effective ways for English learners to develop their native/heritage language and academic skills. At the same time, it helps native English speakers and English learners improve their communication skills, empathy and cultural awareness. Throughout the program we remind them that they are becoming biliterate, bilingual and bicultural.
MFF: You work hard to relate your dual language curriculum to students’ lives. Can you give us some examples?
Susan: Ah, yes, the curriculum. We are still developing it and will slowly make each level official over the next three years. If curriculum and content are not relevant to students’ lives, they don’t pay attention. I decided to focus on units driven by projects. Each part of the unit is broken down to incorporate language rules, grammar, cultural readings, writing and group discussion.
The units that have really connected with students are the ones where they see a connection to themselves, family or friends:
- Identity: Students talk to their relatives about family history, culture and traditions in seventh and eighth grades. I have had parents reach out to thank me for having a required assignment that makes their kids talk, even if it’s just about the family. Parents appreciate the connection with their middle schoolers.
- Travel: Students love this one. We get to explore other countries where Spanish is spoken and their different cultures. Student hear the different accents, ways of dress and traditions through recordings and videos.
- Global Challenges: Immigration is a hot topic, especially in a Spanish language class. Student either have a personal connection with this topic or know someone who does. The stories some of my students share with me are deeply personal and it warms my heart that they trust me enough to share them with me. We explore the reasons why people leave their countries to show them that it’s not just happening here in the U.S., but across the world.
- My Future: This is the last unit in eighth grade. We learn about education in other countries and they see how good they have it here and the benefits of a free education. We end the unit with what they want to be in the future. They take a job aptitude test which recommends a career based on their personalities, and they also look at the job they think they want. They research the education needed, how long it takes to get a degree and average salaries. At the end, students create a PowerPoint presentation comparing the two jobs and reflect on which one they really want to pursue and what they need to do in high school to achieve it. They do something similar in a college and career class but tell me that when they do it in my class, they feel more connected to it. I tell them it’s because they have already learned it in English, and now they truly understand it in both languages!
MFF: What do you like about middle school students?
Susan: I see so much change in each student. Their personality, body, voice and learning all change significantly during these three years. It’s like the metamorphosis of a butterfly. In sixth they are cute caterpillars, with the clinginess and cuteness of elementary school. In seventh grade they begin developing their sense of self and who they are, while also being extremely sarcastic. They spend the entire summer in their “cocoon,” changing. They arrive in eighth grade as a butterfly, fully changed. They know who they are and for the most part have themselves together.
I have heard that middle school is tough, and well, yes, I can see that it can be. But if you can truly see the potential of this age group it becomes an honor to be part of their change and have some influence on the people they become.
MFF: How did you end up in education?
Susan: I became a teacher because I felt the need to share my experience of being a biracial, bicultural and bilingual person. When I was growing up in Bentonville, Arkansas, education was a very important topic in my household. I was taught the value of education and all the doors it could open. This pushed me to explore my need to teach others, which is funny. I never knew I wanted to be a teacher, but all the signs were there.
In elementary school, I learned about my passion to teach others when my mami came to my class to teach my classmates how to sing “Arroz con leche me quiero casar,” a popular children’s song. My friends thought I was so cool for knowing another language. I studied in Peru for fifth and sixth grades; I learned to travel and use my Spanish language.
In high school, my counselor and AP Spanish teacher recommended me to a mother who hired me to teach her four-year-old daughter Spanish. In college, my job in the Latino Office at the University of Arkansas gave me the experience to lead and unify multiple Latino student organizations to work together for our common goal: promoting connections between our different cultures through our shared language of Spanish.
Before I became a teacher, I was planning to work in the medical field. A personal experience lit a spark that ignited a flame, my ever-burning and hidden desire to teach. I realized that I wanted to help kids learn how to learn, and to build relationships of trust and foster their sense of curiosity.
MFF: How was your first year of teaching?
Susan: My Master of Arts in Teaching degree really helped me out. With one year of internship and classroom management classes under my belt, I fooled many teachers and even my administrator into thinking that I had been teaching for years.
My first year was tough, though, because I was teaching a brand new class that had absolutely no curriculum, materials or resources. I was always scouring the internet. I reached out to my cohort and other Spanish teachers for help. I was working all the time, sometimes staying at school until 9 p.m., often not getting to bed until 2 a.m. My husband was my only support, because we had just moved to Dallas and had no family around. If it hadn’t been for his constant morale boosters, I don’t think I would have made it another year.
Things I learned not to do during that year: Don’t yell at the students, because they will turn a deaf ear. Don’t engage in the rage when a student comes at you—just keep your cool and walk away. And don’t try to be perfect at everything. Work on one thing, complete it, and move on to the next task. Make it perfect next year.
Things I learned to keep doing: Show them respect, because they deserve it. Show them compassion and love, because they may not always get it. Show them how to do everything step by step, because rushing through will only make everything go more slowly.
Getting through my first year of teaching was hard and it seemed like it would never end. I do believe I cried the last day of school with relief and happiness that I had made it.
MFF: Who are your role models?
Susan: Some my favorite teachers were Mr. Hollingsworth (life science and biology), Ms. Cotton (physics) and Coach Woods (anatomy and physiology), all science teachers. I wanted to be a medical professional, and each of these teachers mesmerized me in the way they connected with the material they taught. Their passion for their content was displayed with every lesson and lab. To be honest, I’m surprised that I didn’t become a science teacher.
My educator role model will forever be Dr. Jeanette Arnhart from Rogers, Arkansas. She lives and breathes for her students. I have never known another teacher who drives so much passion in everything she teaches. I learned so many hands-on activities and useful lessons from the years I worked with her at the University of Arkansas. She is happy and full of life every moment of the day. Even when she is having a bad day, she always makes the conversation about you. Her past and present students have so much respect and adoration for her that many of them went on to become educators themselves. Even though I was never her student, she will always be my favorite teacher.
MFF: How did you feel at your Milken Educator Award notification?
Susan: Let me just say, it was a surprise that never in a million years I would have thought I would get. To be honest, I had never heard of the Milken Educator Award until that day. I was shocked, to say the least.
At first, I was just glad that my class was selected to come to the big meeting in the auditorium. My school is a historic building and the auditorium can only fit 500 people. We have 1,400 students and that doesn’t include the teachers and staff.
The assembly began with my principal Ms. Chandra Barnett, then our superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa, then Dr. Jane Foley. I thought, “Wow, they brought someone else to talk to us about how well Dallas is doing!” I had no idea what was about to happen. When Dr. Foley started talking about the prize that was going to be given to a teacher, all the teachers were listening. As I shushed my students so I could hear the name being called, I totally missed that they had called my name! It was my students who said, “Ms. Moreno, it’s YOU!”
I was in disbelief and had absolutely no idea what to do next. As I was ushered to the stage by my principal, everything started to sink in, and I began to realize I was not dreaming. Walking into the lights, trying not to bust out crying, I was greeted by Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, who was on his knees bowing to me. And then I turned around to see that my son, a sixth grader at my school, was walking up to hand me flowers and hug me.
It was all surreal and at times it still feels like a dream! I feel extremely blessed and fortunate to have my hard work and dedication to this profession recognized.
MFF: How did students respond to your Milken Award?
Susan: They were as surprised as I was! I had the check mounted on the back wall of my classroom. Every now and then a student asks, “Ms. Moreno, when are you going to cash your check?”
MFF: How do you think you’ll use your $25,000 Award?
Susan: My husband and I have decided that we will most likely use it to pay down some of our loans.
MFF: How do you define “success” for yourself, and for your students?
Susan: I love teaching because of the uncertainties and because it is a challenge. Success for all of us is the “Aha!”—that moment of clarity, “I get it,” “I understand!” Those are the moments I teach for. Being a world language and dual language teacher has given me all these moments and more. It’s a great feeling when my students say they are “proud/orgullosos” of becoming biliterate, bilingual and bicultural.
MFF: What do you hope your students remember from their time with you?
Susan: To be proud of who they are, the culture they represent and language they speak. That a bilingual mind is a powerful tool that can lead to many great possibilities. And especially that I will love and cherish the memories that we made in our time together, and that even though I may forget a name, I will never forget their faces.
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