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Twice as Nice: Dual Immersion Teacher Chris Bessonette Earns $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Jackson, WY teacher lifts both English and Spanish learners at Munger Mountain Elementary

January 04, 2019

SANTA MONICA, Calif., —  Dual language immersion might seem like it would be double the work for students and teachers, but second grade is actually twice as nice for students in Chris Bessonette's class at Munger Mountain Elementary in Jackson, WY. By teaming with a Spanish-language teaching partner, Bessonette is helping lift all of his students. Dual immersion turns out to be the bonus of both, boosting English-native and Spanish-native students. The numbers bear it out: Bessonette's students' state assessments skyrocketed 20%—in a single quarter! A data-driven educator and grass-roots leader in the field, Bessonette has engaged in dual immersion research studies and shares developments with colleagues and school district leadership to expand and enhance education for all.

But it was Bessonette who was seeing his horizons expand this morning at a surprise school assembly where he was presented with a Milken Educator Award by Milken Family Foundation Senior Program Director Greg Gallagher and Wyoming Department of Education Superintendent Jillian Balow. A fired-up Bessonette was named a 2018-19 recipient of the national recognition, which comes with an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize. He is the only Milken Educator Award winner from Wyoming this year, and is among the up to 40 honorees for 2018-19.

The Milken Educator Awards, hailed by Teacher magazine as the "Oscars of Teaching," has been opening minds and shaping futures for over 30 years. Research shows teacher quality is the driving in-school factor behind student growth and achievement. The initiative not only aims to reward great teachers, but to celebrate, elevate and activate those innovators in the classroom who are guiding America's next generation of leaders. Milken Educators believe, "The future belongs to the educated."

Bessonette knows that vocabulary development is a key language building block for all of his students' future education, so he makes sure they add new words and understanding through project-oriented tasks that help them learn while doing. A hands-on teacher who mentors colleagues, develops curriculum and collaborates with researchers to develop new approaches, Bessonette also shares his experience and exchanges ideas through district conference gatherings, local panel discussions and school committees.

"Passionate and innovative educators like Chris Bessonette demonstrate that dual immersion education is a rising tide that lifts all boats," said Gallagher. "By empowering all students, Bessonette improves all of our futures."

"What struck me during a September visit to Munger Elementary was how easy the students flowed between English and Spanish in all their interactions," said Balow. "That ease of learning among students takes dedication - and you won't find a better ESL champion than Chris Bessonette. His enthusiasm is contagious. His students are thriving. His passion to pass on what he has learned is firmly rooted in a belief that being fluent in two languages opens doors. Chris is a Wyoming treasure."

"Chris Bessonette is a fine example of the expertise of Wyoming educators and the relationships that Wyoming educators have with their students," said District Superintendent Dr. Gillian Chapman. "Chris activates the learning in each student through his hands-on and personal approach. Chris is a leader in dual immersion education and actively pursues best practices to help his young learners thrive and launch them into a lifelong love of learning. Thank you to the Milken Family Foundation for recognizing and honoring exemplary educators for the impact they have on the lives of children."  

About Milken Educator Chris Bessonette
The dual immersion program at Munger Mountain Elementary School in Jackson, Wyoming, is growing—in large part due to second-grade teacher Chris Bessonette. When the district board of education was deliberating the expansion of the program, they turned to Bessonette as an expert to help guide their decisions. Bessonette, an English-language teacher paired with a Spanish-language partner, serves on the school's ELA committee, dual immersion leadership committee and building leadership team, and he has participated in research studies to enhance the district’s dual immersion programming. Bessonette provided the board with data and input to show that the dual immersion program has been a positive option for all learners. In the fall of 2018, the district opened the first dual immersion elementary school in the state. 

Bessonette's passion for supporting English Language Learners (ELLs) shines at Munger Mountain Elementary, in both second grade and his former role teaching kindergarten. He focuses on vocabulary development, a skill critical to his dual immersion students' academic success. During a "maker's market," Bessonette's second-graders created a service, then explain why they chose it and who would be interested in it. The business unit introduced students to concepts like marketing, advertising and supply and demand while helping them develop the language needed to describe their work. Bessonette led a collaborative effort with the University of Wyoming to pilot a new vocabulary initiative across the district's second-grade dual-immersion classes, bringing together a cohort of educators across two buildings. His students are thriving: On state assessments, they showed 20% growth from winter to spring. When he taught kindergarten, 85% of his students were reading on grade level by the end of the year.

Known for his contagious positive attitude, Bessonette mentors teaching partners, leads professional development, participates in a professional learning community with other second-grade dual immersion educators, and helps build units for language and math at the district level. He and another teacher participated in a panel discussion on improving students' vocabulary with a professor from a local university. He has presented at a state ELL conference in Jackson Hole and led sessions for 400 teachers at a district conference. Bessonette understands the challenges of his immigrant students' families and advocates for them relentlessly, tutoring, attending soccer games and concerts, learning Spanish to improve his ability to communicate, and connecting families with community resources. In dual immersion, students learn leadership skills, grit, perseverance and the importance of supporting each other alongside academics. Bessonette works hard to embed sociocultural competence in every lesson.

Bessonette earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Graceland University in 1998 and a master's in curriculum and instruction from the University of Wyoming in 2011.

More information about Bessonette, plus links to photos and a video from today's assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at http://www.milkeneducatorawards.org/educators/view/Chris-Bessonette.

Milken Educators are selected in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. In addition to the $25,000 prize and public recognition, the honor includes membership in the National Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,700 top teachers, principals and specialists dedicated to strengthening education.

In addition to participation in the Milken Educator Network, 2018-19 recipients will attend a Milken Educator Forum in New Orleans from March 21-24, 2019. Educators will have the opportunity to network with their new colleagues and hear from state and federal officials about maximizing their leadership roles to advance educator effectiveness.

More than $138 million in funding, including $68 million in individual $25,000 awards, has been devoted to the overall Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional learning opportunities throughout recipients' careers. Many have gone on to earn advanced degrees and be placed in prominent posts and on state and national education committees.

The Awards alternate yearly between elementary and secondary educators. Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Award is completely unique: Educators cannot apply for this recognition and do not even know they are under consideration. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then are reviewed by blue ribbon panels appointed by state departments of education. Those most exceptional are recommended for the Award, with final approval by the Milken Family Foundation.

Past recipients have used their Awards to fund their children's education or their own continuing education. Others have financed dream field trips, established scholarships and even funded the adoption of children.

To get regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The Milken Educator Awards tour is on social media at www.facebook.com/milkeneducatorawards, www.twitter.com/milken, www.youtube.com/milkenaward, and http://instagram.com/milkenfamilyfdn.

For more information, visit www.MilkenEducatorAwards.org or call MFF at (310) 570-4772.

About the Milken Educator Awards
The very first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation 31 years ago in 1987. The Awards provide public recognition and individual financial rewards of $25,000 to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and specialists from around the country who are furthering excellence in education. Recipients are heralded in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish.

Lynne Russo 
(818) 903-6079 cell; 
lynneerusso@gmail.com


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