Dual Language Assessment Insights and Innovation with Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi

Tune in to the ML Chat podcast with hosts Justin and Mandi as they discuss Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi’s insights around building and growing a dual-language program. Explore topics like assessment equity in both goal languages and growing a dual-language program to meet the changing needs of your district. Elizabeth shares valuable insight and perspective as a veteran dual-language teacher and administrator.

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Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: [00:00:00] So I’m just like we can do so much better. We can do so much better and like there has to be a way and I just felt that that voice just needed to be there and often sometimes when you’re in the work you’re left off that table your voice is left off right because that could be easier to just not have that voice that’s challenging or advocating at the table but and so that’s what kind of drove me it is.

This relentlessness and just not giving up and knowing that our multilingual learners deserve Just as much if not more because historically What multilingual learners have gone through in our education system and they deserve it. They deserve to have opportunity 

Justin Hewett: Hey everybody, ml chat podcast. My name is Justin Hewett.

I’ll be your host uh with my co host Mandi Morris, and we just had You The best conversation with Elizabeth Sanchez [00:01:00] Szepesi from the Woodland School District in Gurnee, Illinois. Wow. I love talking about assessment, obviously, with our background of flashlight, but what a wonderful conversation with Elizabeth.

Mandi Morris: She had such a great perspective on how assessment is informed. And how they were informing their dual language program and how they are mirroring assessment in both languages and what that work has looked like as a district and also for the teachers who are building it. 

Justin Hewett: Yeah, I love it. And assessment was, I guess that was just a small piece of the conversation, but it just resonated with me when she talked about how do we know if we’re assessing their content understanding or if we’re assessing their English.

And we need to be able to understand where our students are and what they need. next. And so I thought that was valuable. I also just loved hearing her story of working with the Texas Migrant Council, being out in the fields, working with those families. And just developing a love [00:02:00] for serving those families and their students and helping get kids in Head Start.

That was so fun to hear. 

Mandi Morris: It was and how she ended up as an educator for an emergency CERT program. She was just searching what state will let me become a teacher without a teacher license from my undergrad. And that was really interesting to see how she went about that process. Cause we know we have teacher shortages right now, and there are probably people out there doing the same thing that she did 25 years ago.

Justin Hewett: I think you’re right. And I think you’re going to love this podcast today. This conversation, one of the other key pieces that really jumped out to me. Elizabeth been the director of language acquisition here for 10 years now. She really has seen a lot. She’s lived through a lot. She’s made mistakes. She’s learned from them.

She’s and they’re, they’re building a dual language program in Arabic. Are you kidding me? Like they are doing some amazing things. You are going to love this episode in this conversation with Elizabeth Sanchez Cepesi. Let’s let’s get in there. Elizabeth Sanchez Cepesi is the [00:03:00] director of language acquisition.

At Woodland School District 50 in Gurnee, Illinois. She has 20 years of experience in bilingual and duolingual education. Elizabeth is a member of the Illinois Advisory Committee on Bilingual Education and is currently completing her doctorate in educational leadership with a superintendent license from Concordia University, Chicago.

She is passionate about advocating and preserving bilingual education and educating students to have cultural competency, to be successful, to be Productive members of a global society. Elizabeth, welcome to the ML chat podcast. What a pleasure to have you here with us today. Thank 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: you so much for having me.

It’s a real honor. We 

Justin Hewett: first learned about Elizabeth at the isomageddon version of Nabe that was in Portland. Last year and Elizabeth had standing room only in her sessions and just everybody loved what you were talking about and sharing [00:04:00] about assessing our English learners, right? And talking through that.

And I know you have a passion for that. We’re grateful to have you here. Mandi, thanks for being here with me today as well to talk with Elizabeth. I know you’ve been really looking forward to this conversation. 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi:

Mandi Morris: have, Elizabeth. It’s so wonderful to have you here today. I’d love to start out and just hear about your role right now.

Tell us about what you’re doing right now. How are you supporting bilingual education? And what does that look like for you in your school district? 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: Okay, so currently I am the Director of Language Acquisition at Woodland School District 50. We’re located in Gurnee, Illinois, but we have about eight different cities that feed into our schools and we have very large school buildings.

We’re looking at like anywhere from 800 to 1400 students in a building and their grade level centers. I’ve really enjoyed the diversity in our schools. Every year our [00:05:00] schools become more diverse. We have anywhere between 50 and 60 languages, depending on our student enrollment. And we have a bilingual or two way Spanish immersion program for our students, pre K 8.

We have a newly developing bilingual Arabic program that I’m working on staff with. And then we also have all of our other languages where we’re helping them to have equitable access and inclusion to our curriculum. I think I’d say I wear a lot of hats because multilingual learners and educators are in every facet of the education system.

So I evaluate staff. I work on professional development for teachers, parents, administrators. I work on recruitment, hiring, retaining. I work in areas of like advocacy and parent outreach, and then also making sure parents [00:06:00] have access to, to all of the resources that we have in school. And that language is not a barrier, but an asset.

Wow, Elizabeth, 

Mandi Morris: that is a lot of responsibility for huge buildings. I’m thinking 800 to 1400 kids in a building. You have, and multiple bilingual programs, you don’t just support one language, but multiple languages that, that is a lot to support your staff, your families, your students. What does it look like for staffing an Arabic bilingual program?

Could you talk a little bit about what are the steps that you’re taking to staff that type of program, to grow it from the ground up? 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: You really have to be innovative and you really have to be proactive. I believe everything is really built on relationships. And so it’s not just about trying to get somebody to fill a position.

It’s really [00:07:00] about trying to find somebody who is the right fit for our families and feeling that they’re also supported as well. And I am really lucky that I met someone who is working on their certification. And so I said, why don’t you join our team and we will work together on getting you the needed certification to be a full time educator with us.

And so she was able to start with us. She was able to give input on development of our curriculum. And yeah, we’re just really excited to have her on board. 

Justin Hewett: Oh my gosh. I love that. That is fantastic. As an entrepreneur, one of my favorite sayings is when I’m trying to figure something out is who not how, right?

Cause like we can get into the weeds so much on like how to do it, but the reality is we can go find somebody who can help us do this thing or who can actually just step in and do it. You know, who [00:08:00] has a lot more experience or exposure or has a certain skillset that we. Can really benefit from that. Our whole program can develop, can benefit from.

I love that you went and found somebody to help you start building out a dual language Arabic program. That is amazing. I actually have three, three kids. I have six kids, but three are in the Chinese immersion program in Utah. In Utah, we are like a Mecca for dual language because we send people all throughout the world to go learn different languages and serve people and they come back with this understanding of different cultures and societies and languages and they, we just love it.

Like it’s, it, it becomes this interesting little melting pot. And so it’s interesting that dual languages has become such a thing here in Utah. I understand where maybe a Spanish dual language program comes from, right? And like, maybe how that was started. Maybe that was there before you, maybe not. What was the conversation?

What was the moment that said, Hey, let’s go build a dual language program for our Arabic speakers. Like, how did that 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: come about? [00:09:00] For our Arabic speakers, we, in Illinois, they are the fastest growing population next to Spanish speakers. I lived in another country, and when you are in another country, you tend to gravitate towards familiar people.

And we have a population of Arabic speakers and their family members or friends that they know. Also start to move in. They hear good things about the community, good things about our schools. And so when they come in with another language, we assess to see what supports they need. And if they need support, then we can offer them English and Arabic, because we know that if we’re meeting their.

Language at home and we’re meeting those needs. We’re going to meet the needs of English. Like our students are going to do well in English. We live in an English speaking society. We have [00:10:00] so many resources in English, but Arabic doesn’t have as many resources, doesn’t have as many supports and. We don’t want them to lose that because part of your language is who you identify as a person.

It’s part of your culture, and we think it’s really important that our students feel and our families feel like they belong, that they’re welcomed, and part of that feeling is maintaining that language for that overall social emotional like human factor, but also academically. We know that the research is there that if one language is not It’ll help you learn your second.

Elizabeth, if we were 

Mandi Morris: to go back to your beginnings in education, you’ve been in education for quite a while now. What drew you to support multilingual learners? Where did that passion and drive start for you as an individual? 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: Okay, so here’s the [00:11:00] secret. I never wanted to be a teacher, and I actually did not like learning Spanish.

It was in college where I had to work during the summer times to help pay for school, and I happened to be one of the only ones working at a restaurant that knew just the tiniest bit of Spanish, right? And in that moment, I was able to help some of our staff understand opening this new restaurant. By using the very minimal Spanish that I had, and a lightbulb kicked off for me, like it, a switch just went on, Oh my God, there’s an, a use for knowing another language and I can help people and helping people is really important to me.

And so I said, okay, I’ve got to learn Spanish. And I remember calling up my mom and I said, mom, I want to go live in Mexico and I want to study Spanish. And she said, Elizabeth. But you [00:12:00] hate learning Spanish. And I said, I know, but you know what? I realized now why I did not like it or what the time, and it’s because I wasn’t good at it.

It didn’t come easy. It took a lot of work. I didn’t see the connection. In the end, I lived in Mexico. I fell in love with the country, the culture, the language. And I knew that whatever I did in my life, I would always have Spanish. And those around me that were racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse.

From me as part of what I’m doing. And so like my path just weaved itself in the direction of education. I think, I don’t know if any of you have heard about the Texas migrant council, but I came back from college. I graduated with a degree in zoology. Really couldn’t do much with it, had my minor in Spanish, and there was a job posting in the [00:13:00] paper, right?

This is like 25, 30 years ago, so it was the paper. And it was for a bilingual social worker to work in the migrant fields and migrant camps to register their children for HUDSTAR. So they weren’t in the fields picking. And so, I applied and I got it. 

Justin Hewett: That must have been the most like perfect position and situation for you because I love what you said helping people is really important to me.

I bet that’s all you did. All you did was walk around helping people and figuring it out and you got to use your Spanish and you got to enjoy the other culture and language and I bet that was the most fulfilling role for you. And I’m guessing you just fell in love. With that process and just learn more and more, but tell me more.

I want to hear more. 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: Yeah, it was great It was wonderful, right? Because not only could I see children and their families in Migrant housing in the fields and help them get resources that they needed but I could also Visit the kids and their Head Start [00:14:00] classes And so I could go into the baby room and interact with the babies.

I could go into the toddler room, and we could interact in the toddler room. And I, everyone is speaking in Spanish, and they’re playing, and I just thought I have to do something with this. And I couldn’t at the time travel. With migrant farmers back and forth based on seasons. And so that’s when I started to look for how can I get into education?

Cause I felt like maybe I can work with families and children and that Avenue. Ohio did not have an alternative certification program for teaching. So. Nor did Michigan. And already I had so much money that I was in debt to college at that time. I couldn’t afford to just go back to school and not work.

So I ended up Googling and up came Waukegan, Illinois. And they said, bilingual educators, highly in need. [00:15:00] And I’m like, okay, maybe that’s me. And I started to look and they had an alternative certification program. So, I passed their language proficiency exam and I started teaching in the classroom with no teacher training.

I was on the spot and I went back to school while I taught. And that’s how the story was wrote. 

Justin Hewett: Did you ever learn as much in your life as you did that first year teaching? 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: It was amazing. I still remember those children. I still talk with some of them. They’re grown adults now. And it was an amazing experience.

They were the most wonderful children, wonderful workplace ever. And yeah, I learned so much. Elizabeth, 

Mandi Morris: could you tell us about a mentor teacher you had that first year or two? 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: Yes, her name was Miss Sepulveda, and she was a bilingual educator in that school. And we [00:16:00] met regularly. She would talk about things that were coming up.

What did I need support with? And I just, I really enjoyed that. She was a person that was. She was very safe, warm, welcoming. I felt like you could make a mistake and she was okay with helping you learn from that. She welcomed me into her classroom and I could see her working with bilingual children that had higher needs and how she was able to do that and I was just in awe.

And she was just such a kind person. 

Justin Hewett: That’s so fun to hear. I love that. I love that. I think it’s just amazing how the little, in the moment you don’t realize the impact someone’s having on you or like that first year you didn’t, you probably didn’t realize what an inflection point in your life that was going to be when you’re in that moment, you’re just trying to keep up.

You’re just trying to get ready for tomorrow. So you walk in with a plan and you’re ready to [00:17:00] go. I want to pivot just like just a little bit. I hear a lot. And not as much, I guess, maybe over the last like year or two, but I feel like for 10 years straight, I heard so much. Uh, I didn’t get into education to test kids, right?

Assessing kids. That’s not why I got in, in, into education. So I’m a teacher and I have a different perspective on that, but. I want to hear your perspective and how you’re an advocate for assessment in dual language and assessing language development. What has made you such a proponent or a believer, if you will, in the advantages and the benefits of using assessment, formative assessment, especially regarding language development?


Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: I hear that as well. And I still hear that. And it’s important to listen. I understand. where they may be coming from. I also think maybe some details are left out such as [00:18:00] maybe It’s the mandated assessment that they have to give, or maybe the assessment isn’t telling them the information that they need.

Maybe they’re really feeling like they have no autonomy in their classroom. And I look at assessments as being really powerful because we have the opportunity as educators to do what we feel is best as experts in the classroom to see how our students are learning and where they need more support. We don’t need somebody to necessarily tell us that, although I, I certainly understand that place and I understand our responsibility to our communities and, and having students that are well prepared to make.

Any choice they’d like in the future. I also think. That it’s important that teachers have the choice and what we’re assessing and how we assess it to really get a better understanding of what students can [00:19:00] truly do, where they’re at. And then we can then build off of that. 

Justin Hewett: Beautiful. I love that. I love that.

And I want to unpack that. Let’s sit with us for just a minute. I think there’s a lot that you said there, but as I think about it, isn’t it really, if you’re assessing and then you’re not getting the data back to be able to use it. It seems like that’s where a lot of that disconnect comes from is really from this.

Oh, gosh, I got to spend all this time administering this test. I don’t even going to see the results for who knows how long. And so it’s not like I can use that to inform my instruction. And it feels like a lot of that, um, that language and posturing really that should be Maybe at summative assessments, it ends up bleeding into some other areas like formative assessment.

But yeah, if you’re not formatively assessing your students, how the heck do you know what to teach them next? You don’t know where they are. Come on. And, and so I’d love to hear maybe some of your thoughts on that. 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: Traditionally, assessments are done [00:20:00] in, in English. And so from the perspective of a dual language educator or a teacher working with a multilingual learner, if we’re only assessing students, whether it’s formative or summative or state mandated, if we’re only assessing in English, you’re only seeing part of it.

of what a student can do. You’re not seeing the full picture. And that’s where I think my concern comes up the most, because a student who’s a multilingual learner could look like they’re failing, when in actuality, they have a lot of skills. It just happens to be in another language. And that assessment isn’t showing us that.

And I think educators, I know at least in the schools that I’m in and in the area, that’s where they get frustrated is because the assessment always is given in English, comes back in English, but that doesn’t [00:21:00] tell us really the full picture of our student and what they can do. And so it just sometimes can contribute to a deficit mindset when in reality that student has so many assets and they’re, they have much more than what that one assessment is telling us in English.

Justin Hewett: I love hearing that. I know, Mandi, you want to jump in too. I’m just, I’ll say one thing real fast, which is I love the focus on the assets that the students bring, and I think when we were building Flashlight 360, that was really one of the big focuses for us is we were looking at and saying, hey, we want to create an environment where a student can bring all their language.

And they can show what they know, and if they know it in Spanish, but maybe they don’t know it in English, that’s okay! Show us that you know it in Spanish, and it’ll help us understand what you do know in Spanish, and maybe what you’re still learning in English, right? And I think that’s so wise of you to point out the fact that all [00:22:00] these assessments that are in English, well, are they testing the student’s understanding of the content?

Or is it testing the student’s understanding of the content? Or they’re understanding the language, their grasp of the language. And those are two very radical, different things. And it was Mandi. Mandi would love to hear your thoughts on what Elizabeth was saying. 

Mandi Morris: I’d love to hear you talk some about your presentation at NABE last year and how that has been fueled and informed by the work that you’ve done as a bilingual educator and what advice do you have for other bilingual ML educators when it comes to assessment in the classroom?

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: I’m going to start off with the advice first. And that it takes time and it takes multiple revisions. It takes teamwork and collaboration, and it’s almost a never ending process in a good way, right? There shouldn’t be a finality. We should always be a team. Somehow enhancing, revising, and [00:23:00] really tweaking our assessments to make sure they’re giving us what we need.

And so that flexibility is necessary. The presentation I did came out of creating paired, common, summative assessments in English and Spanish. Because we were always going around in circles in our conversations around data. Does the student not know this because they didn’t know the content, or did they not know the language?

And we really never have anything concrete to really be able to help us answer that. And that was important because if we don’t know the answer to is it content or is it language, then how do we know what our next steps are going to be? And so typically what we would do is you would make the best informed decision that you could try it out, come back together, see how that went, maybe try something different, try go this way, but it was like this process of elimination, [00:24:00] and we don’t have the time for process of elimination, we need to be a little bit more strategic.

And so I’ve attended, and I’m sure you’ve heard of her Dr. Kathy Escamilla. And if she’s listening, I love you. She like her work that we attended, like really helped me understand just the linguistic repertoire of our students and how we can value both of those languages and answer some of those questions.

And so that’s where we started to say, Hey, when it comes to literacy, let’s start to pair our assessments. Let’s look at our standards. Let’s look at what we want students to be able to know and do. Let’s develop questions around a text that we identify. And then let’s find a comparable text, not the same.

It doesn’t need to be trans adapted. It doesn’t need to be translated. But a similar text, in the other language, with [00:25:00] questions that are similar around those subjects. So now we can see, since the standards are the same, the questions are similar, not the same, they’re similar. We can start to see, okay, did the student get this question wrong in both languages?

Did they get it right in one and wrong in the other? Did they get it wrong in both? And that starts to really help us understand, is this more around language acquisition? We’re more around content and then we can make better strategic decisions in our classroom. 

Justin Hewett: That sounds like so much work. I don’t have time for that.

These are the things that I can imagine. I would hear that’s not my job. I don’t, how am I going to be able to figure that out? And Elizabeth, you have students who speak 50 to 60 different languages. In your district, how the heck do you do that 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: one step at a time? 

Justin Hewett: Oh, I love it. Okay, but no, but really though, like how do you do that one step at a time?

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: Teamwork is [00:26:00] really like essential. This is not a one person. This can’t be a one person Task this has to be a team of people working together Um to do this and so we’ve had we’ve had to struggle through that right? When are we going to get this done? Um There’s shortages of subs, there’s shortages of classroom teachers, so you can’t do the work during the day, there’s financial constraints, there’s a lot of obstacles and barriers, right, but so really, honestly, taking one at a time, okay, first, we can’t do it during the school day, we’re not going to be able to get enough subs.

Let’s look at Some of the summertime. Let’s see who would like to sign up, but then we would compensate them for working on it with us Then so at least we were starting to build a base Um, we also worked with the regional office of education in our area. They were a really great help in helping us launch these [00:27:00] assessment development because they’re seeing assessments all over the county.

They’re seeing what other teachers are doing when so many other schools. So they’re able to really give us a perspective. Okay. How did you do it here? How did you do it there? And since COVID, we’ve all become much better at working online and we don’t need to come into the school to sit at a table and do it.

We can open up a zoom and we have our multiple screens where we can see the assessment that we’re working together. We can be collaborative and comment on it or make a revision. So we can do it that way. And then it’s a process, right? We’re like, okay. Here’s one assessment. Let’s try it. Let’s try now adding another one.

Let’s try now adding another one. And let’s try these. I think what we started with was like a minimum of four. We’re going to try four this school year. We’re going to chunk it up based on our units. And then we’re going to gather feedback and we’re going to make some revisions on that. So we, we also have, we have reading specialists.[00:28:00] 

with coaches. They’re phenomenal. They’re integral in supporting this as well, because they don’t have a classroom of students. And so they are able to really help. Leverage this work. 

Justin Hewett: What platform are you using to build out your assessments in? Is that, is it something that you’re doing in, in Google sheets or slides or something along those lines?

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: And we just started with good old fashioned Google. And sometimes what we could do is we could take texts and link it in there. So we would have like, Our overall curriculum guide and we could let link like here’s the ending assessment. Here’s the text that you’re going to use. Here’s the student questions.

Here’s the answer key. Here’s a rubric and we would link it all in there for teachers. We needed. To be very organized because some of for us, like our first grade classrooms, I think we have 24 first grade teachers. Right? And [00:29:00] so for us, that’s pretty big when it’s me and a couple of reading specialists.

And so Google just seemed to be the best way to do it. We do use a couple other platforms like school city. That also helps us input some data. 

Justin Hewett: That’s great. That’s great. If, if we have a coordinator and an EL director somewhere else in the nation listening right now, and they’re going, okay, all right, Elizabeth, you convinced me, I am going to figure this out.

I’m going to do it. I’m going to start one step at a time. What should their first step be? 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: The first step is really knowing your standards. When we were doing this work, you have to be very clear on your grade level outcomes. Because you’re planning backwards. You’re looking at your outcomes and you’re, then you’re going to start planning your steps out on how you’re going to get there.

And so for us, it was really essential to know what are those outcomes at every grade level. [00:30:00] And 

Mandi Morris: are you utilizing literacy specialists who are reading and literacy specialists in English only or English first? Or have you diversified that program, that support to match and mirror your dual 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: language programs?

So I’ve been here 10 years and I finally have two educators that are bilingual that can help us. with that work. And I would also say our monolingual English speaking specialists are really wonderful. And if they don’t know the language, they’re at least, they’re learning the best practices for multilingual learners.

And so they’re becoming allies for learning multiple languages and best practices around that. So, that’s a really great Even if the language isn’t in there, they, those are essential elements to have when you’re doing this work. [00:31:00] 

Justin Hewett: So you’ve really had to change the culture of like teachers, hearts turning to the kids in a different way, understanding the value and the importance of language and which it’s been so fun to see the shift in the perspective with our English learners.

Like I’ve heard so many stories of. Parents being told not to speak to their kids in their heritage language from 20 whatever years ago to now where we’re really celebrating. The assets that students bring into the classroom and all of their language, which is just super cool. I love seeing that shift.

But that shift has to happen in every district too, and in every classroom, every teacher. And so that’s, it’s fun to hear that, what that process has looked like for you. And I wanted to ask you a little bit about your dual language programs and just how you think about assessment in that regard, right? I think when we’re thinking about our multilingual students, our English learners, we’re thinking, Yeah, we need to understand how is the student doing with the [00:32:00] content?

How they’re, how are they doing with. Their language development and understand where they are, where, where they are on their journey there. How do you think about that in terms of dual language? Because there you have students that are learning Spanish as a second language as well, and would love to understand what approaches you’ve taken to implement, take assessment, ideologies, and approaches that you’re using with your multilingual students in your It 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: does help that companies are coming up with more resources and materials to help us.

In addition to us creating and developing our own assessments, you really have to look at a variety of pieces of information to make decisions. We don’t believe in putting, you know, Everything into one assessment at one point in time, looking at multiple pieces, and it doesn’t have to be a paper pencil test, right?

It’s like the best form of assessment [00:33:00] is students doing and teachers observing and looking for those skills and action. And I would say the outcomes that we’ve been striving for is. Whether your first language is English, or your first language is Spanish, or another language, we are still aiming for grade level expectations in both languages.

all the time. And then what we do is we ask ourselves, how do I help that student reach that point? And that has been, that’s been a shift. That’s been, that is work. That’s professional development, right? Instead of, I would say, putting less rigorous, less rich material and curriculum in front of us, let’s really expose them to some really rich, rigorous curriculum.

And we’re going to help scaffold and get them there in both languages. And that immersion piece, your brain figures out how to make those connections. [00:34:00] And our teachers are working on connecting those two languages to maximize That language acquisition piece. And so I would say overall, like we strive for high expectations and we really work on our toolbox to make sure we have a lot of tools to meet their needs.

When you’re reflecting 

Mandi Morris: on your own journey and remembering what it was like to learn Spanish in high school and maybe the classes that you took in college and you remembered, yeah, that was hard. I didn’t like the way it felt to feel unsuccessful at something or that struggle. And you had a moment.

Working in the restaurant where you could utilize that skill and it was like a light bulb went off for you. It gave you your, why are you with your teachers who you’re asking for grit from them, from, for tenacity, for creativity, to be able to [00:35:00] build scaffolds for students that are not watering down standards, but are raising expectations, bringing students up to rigor.

How are you creating that why for them so that they can have that grit and that tenacity to do this work that is complex and dynamic work? 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: Yeah, that’s hard. I think it’s not just one answer, right? Everyone is different. And so I think it’s been important for me to build relationships. With each of those individual teachers, I’ve worked with them in teams, I’ve done PD, I myself do work with them.

I don’t have them, I don’t assign and give it, but I’m a part of the process with them. I’m at the table, they are very much equals with me. And I think we just all have this common vision. And. Sometimes we waver and we help each other, right? Like sometimes one of us falls [00:36:00] and we question what we’re doing, or we question how things are, or we feel maybe like we’re just not doing it, or it could be an impossible task, but somebody else then comes along and says, we can do this.

What can we do? How can we help? And so there’s, I think that community feeling has been really important. Our teams are structured in a way where they work together They plan together and that has really helped them because they can count on each other. And maybe even when you don’t think about it, right?

Somebody’s there to help you. They share. They’re really great at sharing. Sometimes I don’t understand that, right? There’s no surprise in my presentation. I couldn’t ever imagine not. Sharing as much as I know. And that’s very much what our teachers do is that the workload is heavy, but many hands make it light.

Justin Hewett: I love that you’ve created a community and I’m sure it’s not [00:37:00] just you. I’m sure there’s other great leaders as well involved, but I love that you’re able to have a community where, where that is. The norm, right? Where people are sharing out like that and they’re experiencing the journey together. And I think that’s a pretty beautiful thing and you get amazing results and you build wonderful relationships.

And that’s really fun to hear. I’m sitting here wondering how long have you been an EL director now? You do more than just that, but the director of language acquisition, how long have you been in that role now? 10 years. And did you come into that role outside of the district or were you in the district and promoted 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: into that role?

Outside of the district. I was an associate principal at another school district. 

Justin Hewett: So how did you decide that this was the right role for you? That you wanted to To do this step into this, take on this mantle, this leadership opportunity, this advocacy role, right? What was it that led you to take [00:38:00] that step?

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: I always knew I wanted to, even when it was in those first couple years of teaching. Because unfortunately, not only personal experiences and professional, I just have seen some people have made the wrong decision just because they didn’t know, just a lack of understanding. Others have intentionally made a decision and they’re like, no, they need to learn English.

They need to do it fast. And. Those things didn’t sit right with me as a person. And so, as a person, I felt like there was more that we could do for our multilingual learners. Somehow, it always felt like they were an afterthought. Or the main target was all in English, and then, oh, you can figure out how to do it in your classroom.

Or, here’s these resources that you can use. And I’m like, great, they’re all in English, but I teach in Spanish. There’s [00:39:00] a presenter that comes in, and they present everything in English, but not in Spanish. And so I’m just like, we can do so much better. We can do so much better. And like, there has to be a way.

And I just felt that that voice just needed to be there. And often sometimes when you’re in the work, you’re left off that table. Your voice is left off, right? Because that could be easier to just not have that voice that’s challenging or advocating at the table. But, and so that’s what kind of drove me.

It is this relentlessness. And just not giving up and knowing that our multilingual learners deserve just as much, if not more. Because historically, What multilingual learners have gone through in our education system and they deserve it. They deserve to have opportunities. 

Justin Hewett: I love it. I love that you were building the playbook all along the way.

You’re like, I know why I want to be when I grow up. I know where I’m [00:40:00] going. It reminds me a little bit of what I hear about from some coaches in the NBA or the NFL is they have their notebook. They with all the plays that they’ve ever thought that they’ve wanted to implement and in some stops, they haven’t been able to do it.

The head coach didn’t want to put that play in or whatever it might be, but then they get their shot and they get to go roll out their playbook or the way that they feel like it ought to be done. And it feels like you’ve, are you really prepared for this opportunity? Prepare for that moment. Like you, you had the vision that, that you can make a big difference in that role.

You had a better way of doing it or a better approach, maybe. Or at least you felt like it was better. And I love that you’ve been able to go and do that and have the same power for you to be in that role for 10 years. It’s that longevity that actually allows you to compound that growth, right? For sure.

Because those first couple of years is such a, you’re drinking from the fire hose or whatever analogy you want to use. And and now compare. Where you are today with where you were when you were brand new, maybe [00:41:00] walk through a little bit, like what do you do today versus what you did 10 years ago when you first started in the same role?

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: Yeah. I think I’ve really needed over the years to learn how to work with a wide variety of people. And a wide variety of viewpoints because not everyone is in the same place. And I first started, I’m like, everyone is going to believe this, right? How can you not, or, and so I’ve had to, I’ve had to come to the realization that not everybody is in the same place.

And that’s okay. As long as we’re working together to, to move forward and to build a common understanding. That they know that I’m going to do it with them, not to them, and they’re not going to be alone. I think the other thing is Time, you know, I came in and I’m like, Oh my God, by [00:42:00] the end of the year, I’m going to have to, to, to, to, to, to done.

And 10 years later, and I’m like, wow, I’m still working. I’m getting in place because it, it, it does take time, right? Like we were able to, there are things that can be changed and they can come about quickly. But really this is a life. This is a lifelong career like process. And there are sometimes that there are things out of your control, right?

That you have got to be able to navigate through. And I think that just knowing who you can reach out to, who you can learn from, and those have just been like pieces that have really stuck with me that where I was before, I’m like, okay, I think. I have a better understanding of people around me. And how I can help them in this journey.[00:43:00] 

Justin Hewett: I love that. I feel like so much of it is learning how to advocate to some degree. It’s learning how to navigate the district office and how to get people on board. And you mentioned how people were at all different spots in their journey. And a lot of that is just leadership in general. And part of it is just understanding the dynamics of the organization you’re working in.

And there’s just so many different things at play there. But I will say, I think with longevity, you’re able to have a larger and larger impact. I think it compounds over time and it allows you to, to really help shape the culture. And when you have that staying power, but there was a large urban school district I used to work with and we were implementing a new product in their district.

And I remember being in a classroom with a teacher and she looked at me straight in the face. And she said, This too shall pass. It’s like, Oh, all right. Okay. Actually. Yeah. One year, I’ll give you one year. And I was like, Oh my goodness. And so I think that by having that staying [00:44:00] power in a leadership role, it really allows you to advocate for.

These students, right? For our multilingual students, for their families, for their siblings that are coming, right? Like, I think it really changes the dynamic when you’re able to do that. Kudos to you for having that staying power and like investing so much of yourself into this work. It’s pretty impressive.


Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: inspired. I’ve really had great people around me that have been wonderful supports, teachers, administrators, families, community members. I’ve been blessed. And 

Mandi Morris: I really want to hear about your upcoming presentation at NABE 2024 and hear about what is your focus. It’s inspiring to me to know that you’re pushing yourself to do presentations, to do research, to do research.

Pushing your own personal growth. I would love to hear you talk some about that. How have you created space to push yourself [00:45:00] professionally, to continuously learn and stay creative and grow? And how has that led you to start doing presentations at conferences 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: nationally? I think staff are really great and I hope I’ve created an environment where they can ask questions, where they can challenge, they can bring up difficult conversations.

And those are the things that have really stuck with me to be like, okay, I don’t know how to answer that right now, but I’ve, I feel like there needs to be an answer, right? That is a really great question. And so, They, I think, have really helped push me in pushing myself to, to find answers, to, to get, if we don’t have it, then we need to make it.

If we can’t find it, then how do we, then how do we do it? And so that’s where this has evolved from, my upcoming presentation. It’s all around. Bridging. So Cheryl Euro, teaching for [00:46:00] Biliteracy, she was the one that kind of coined the term bridging, and it’s the metalinguistic study of the two languages that you’re learning.

And you’re, you’re strategic about it. And over the years, our staff is, how do you bridge? How do you do that? We have a two way model. They weren’t seeing how the pieces fit together. There was a lot of questions. And then they’re like, what skills? And then they’re like, do I do that? Does the English teacher do that?

Does first grade do it? Does third grade do it? Like we don’t, there wasn’t a playbook. And so we just feel like we’re just throwing out arrows there. And we’re like, I hope it’s going to hit the target. I hope it’s going to help. And so it’s taken a long time, but we have gone through myself and one of the reading specialists with a team of teachers.

We’ve gone through the standards around language and foundational skills in Spanish and in English with a heavy focus on the Spanish because this is not out [00:47:00] there, but what we created a scope and sequence. around Spanish language and foundational skills. A progression, like what needs to be taught when, how teachers can see what’s taught in the previous grade level, what’s going to be taught in the next level, and then we’re using that to develop our metalinguistic study.

So we’re not repeating the same metalinguistic study every year. We’re not looking at Contractions and multiple grade levels or compound words and multiple grade levels. We don’t have the time to do repetitious lessons. We need to be very purposeful in what we’re doing and when we’re doing it. And it has to have a logical sequence.

And so we’ve been working on developing that sequence of what are we bridging? What’s the metalinguistic study? Who’s going to do that and how are we going to do that? And putting those together in some [00:48:00] curriculum guides. And so I’m going to share that. I 

Mandi Morris: can’t wait to go to your session. I’m really excited.

Justin Hewett: Coming soon to a Anabe near you. Yes. I love it. I love it. Elizabeth, thank you so much for being here today. Uh, thanks for all the amazing work that you’re doing, not only in your district, but out there spreading the word and attending conferences and presenting and sharing these ideas. I think this is going to be really helpful for a number of people and really appreciate you taking the time to join us and do this.

Before we go, just want to maybe ask you one or two last questions and one from me and then Mandi, if you’ve got one that you want to share as well, but. If you could go back and sit with yourself 10 years ago, nine years ago, you’re in your first year, second year as an, as the language acquisition director there in Woodland, you’re working on a big project or you’re trying to figure out your path forward or whatever that might be.

What advice would you share maybe to yourself when you’re first starting, right, with the [00:49:00] wisdom and the experience that you have now? To yourself when you were just starting, stepping into that director role, what advice would you share? 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: I think I would say to myself that it’s okay to make mistakes and it’s okay if something takes a little bit longer to get done as long as you’re moving forward.

Because I think sometimes It’s hard to take on a task when you’re like, I’m not sure how I’m going to do this. I’m not sure if I can even get this done. I have so many things to do. And I think what I needed to hear is that you can do it. It’s okay if it goes slower at some times, faster at others, and if things evolve over time.

Like, those are all good things. And be prepared for them. [00:50:00] They’re going to change. You might have an idea, but more likely than not, things are going to change. And embrace that. 

Mandi Morris: Yeah, following up on that change piece, what would you say has been the biggest paradigm shift for you as an educator reflecting over your years?

What’s been a big shift in your thinking or your practice? 

Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: I think one big thing that has really come about And this is like a thing that we talked about. We began the dual language program having a very strict separation of language, right? We have a two teacher model. So you’re an English teacher. You are only teaching in English.

If you’re a Spanish teacher, you are only teaching in Spanish. Like we’re never breaking language. And over the years, I’ve really learned the importance of trans languaging and how you can really value that and use that as a piece to Leverage learning in the [00:51:00] classroom. And I think that would probably be one of my biggest paradigm shifts is you can have target language.

You can use target language. You can also value trans language as well.

Justin Hewett: Elizabeth, thank you so much for sharing all of this. Thanks for being here with us on the ML chat podcast. It was great to have you here with 


Elizabeth Sanchez Szepesi: us. Thank you. It was really nice of you to have me on. I’m really honored. Thank you.


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