Aug 9 2020

“The system and society we’re currently in is predominantly in English, and it can sometimes be challenging to help students see the value of another language as equal to English,” Espinoza said. “I just want students to see how amazing they are because of their bilingual ability.”

As a first-generation Mexican-American, Yasmeen Pelayo didn’t speak Spanish fluently until high school. Lacking the ability to speak the language was damaging to her identity as a Mexican-American. 

Pelayo’s first-hand experience with how language impacts her identity led her to the University of Washington College of Education’s BECA (Bilingual Educator Capacity) fellowship program, launched in 2018 with the goal of helping young people to connect with their heritage through language.

The BECA program prepares future teachers for dual language classrooms by supporting them in earning their bilingual teaching endorsement as part of the UW's Elementary Teacher Education Program. Upon graduation, graduates are placed in dual language immersion programs in nine local school districts who are partnering with the College of Education.

Teaching for equity

As an alumnus of the UW’s Early Childhood and Family Studies major, Pelayo has long held a passion for teaching and working with children.

“Teach for equity is my teaching philosophy,” said Pelayo, now a K-1 teacher at Seattle’s Beacon Hill International Elementary School, where she teaches literacy, math and science in Spanish. “It’s such a vital part of the human learning experience.”

Her classroom is composed of half native Spanish speakers and half non-native Spanish speakers, so Pelayo is intentional and creative in pushing students to speak Spanish in class. Literacy takes high priority in her teaching classroom.

“Due to distance learning, technology is the big challenge,” she said. “I’ve been hosting technology nights and spending time with families to show them the ropes. It’s also important for students, especially the non-native Spanish speakers, to keep practicing Spanish. This is where I have to tap into my creativity and make online meetings more interactive.” 

In her time at Beacon Hill, Pelayo says she’s found a great community and a group of colleagues who don’t shy away from speaking about difficult topics. Upon completion of the program, she’s very excited to have her own classroom and continue giving back to the community. 

“I want to make sure that students have the chance to speak Spanish and connect with their own identity.”

Pride in bilingual ability

After Alondra Espinoza moved to the United States as an English Language Learner (ELL) student as a young child, she quickly noticed how one language takes priority over the other. 

That experience led her to pursue teaching as an avenue to work with first-generation students to make their transition easier when coming to the States. 

When Espinoza found out about the BECA program in her senior year at UW, she decided to enroll because of its mission to give more children a chance to learn two languages. 

“In this program, the teacher looks like [the] students,” said Espinoza. “This is important because students now can see themselves in their teacher, which is really cool.”

“What I also like about the BECA program is that it allows us to give critical and constructive feedback to improve what’s still missing in the program. Peers are able to share their thoughts, ideas and experiences to the class. My mentor also helped me a lot by sharing their experiences as well.”

Currently a teacher at Sherwood Forest Elementary School in Bellevue, her instruction is 90 percent in Spanish and 10 percent in English. As a teacher, she makes an effort to build a community in her classroom where students feel safe and can comfortably engage with classroom materials.

With distance learning, engagement has been a challenge that Espinoza is navigating because there are no live meetings. However, the school and teachers’ priority is always safety first and students’ well-being. 

“The system and society we’re currently in is predominantly in English, and it can sometimes be challenging to help students see the value of another language as equal to English,” Espinoza said. “I just want students to see how amazing they are because of their bilingual ability.”