Daily Herald, by Eric Peterson
CHICAGO-Even while helping third- and fourth-graders at MacArthur International Spanish Academy in Hoffman Estates master both English and Spanish, Sonia Esquivel is awakening in them a lifelong appreciation for science, math and technology.
Her innovative approach and embrace of new methods is as influential with other teachers in Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 as it is to her young students. She serves not only as a day-to-day resource on the use of technology for her fellow MacArthur teachers, but also gives seminars for her peers across the 27-school district.
Esquivel’s combination of unflagging positive energy and a profound understanding of what students need led her colleagues to nominate her for recognition by the Daily Herald as one of The Suburbs’ Top Teachers.
MacArthur principal Danette Meyer believes the grade levels Esquivel teaches are perfect for her particular skills. These are students who, having absorbed the basic mechanics of reading, are just beginning to apply that ability to learning about the world around them, she said.
“In so many ways, she’s exceptional,” Meyer said of Esquivel, who’s in her third year with District 54. “She’s so incredibly positive about everything she does. She makes everyone feel they can excel. And she’s really become a leader for our staff.”
Esquivel obtained a grant for all her students to receive iPad Pilots, which since have become an integral part of their learning process. As much as Esquivel saw the potential for the iPads in the first place, she’s honed their use even better during this second year with them.
Their use keeps the students so rapt by their lessons that when Esquivel needs their attention she counts down from three before students must put their hands on their heads and away from the keyboards and screens.
“Hands on top and stop,” the students recite after her.
“The biggest factor that made me a fan of the iPads is that (students) take ownership of their learning and that makes them more creative,” she said.
The iPads also have become a great resource in teaching fluency in both English and Spanish — especially among students learning a different language than the one they speak at home. They’re more likely to take chances in their writing when they know the iPad can “speak” their words rather than having to recite them aloud, Esquivel said.
Technology has really flipped the model for learning, she adds. Rather than teaching the lesson first and then having students do an exercise, students arrive already knowing something about the subject and armed with questions.
A recent example was when she was going to teach about onomatopoeia — words that sound like what they are, such as “buzz” or “moo.” A student came in with the question of whether the word “bustle” was an example. The class went about looking it up, and learned that it wasn’t.
“I can address misconceptions more quickly,” Esquivel said. “Anything they want to know is at their fingertips.”
Technology also makes students better problem-solvers, she said. When the devices won’t work or lose their Internet connection, the students don’t just consider themselves helpless. They look for ways to troubleshoot or solve the problem — even “innovating” the idea of writing on paper for the day, she laughs.
Science and technology are so important to Esquivel that she also sponsors an after school rocketry club for students. Her positive attitude and patience are on display in the late afternoon program, even though she leaves her house in South suburban Burbank at 6 a.m. every day.
What’s probably most crucial about science for every student is the lessons it provides about problem-solving, she said.
“I feel science is so important — not just the content, but everything behind how it’s done,” Esquivel said.
As one might guess, teaching isn’t something Esquivel gradually found her way to, but was a passion from an early age.
“I’m one of those kids who just always wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a teacher. You just envision yourself as the person you will become and you just become it.”
One of the first teachers whose methodology she absorbed was her sixth-grade reading teacher. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago and attending Chicago Public Schools, this was the first time a teacher had given her independent reading time.
“I felt like I had more ownership. I had more choice,” Esquivel said.
While in college Esquivel enrolled in the Golden Apple Scholarship Program, where she was mentored by a group of particularly skillful, experienced teachers. During her first year of teaching, she felt like she was clinging to every word those teachers had told her.
“They gave me that real-life experience,” Esquivel said. “I don’t think there’s any teacher that could say, ‘College gave me everything I needed to know.’”
And what has she learned for herself while on the job?
“Connecting with kids is the most important thing you can do in your classroom,” Esquivel said. “Bringing in things that they’re interested in — such as having ‘Star Wars’ reading strategies instead of just reading strategies. And providing positive affirmation that they’re in control. You can’t have the ‘big me, little you’ approach.”
An afternoon in Esquivel’s classroom is a reminder that most people’s understanding of some basic aspect of the world stems from one particular day in school, whether they remember that or not.
Esquivel sits down with small groups of six students at a time to teach them the fundamentals of geometric area and fractions by figuring out how many small plastic triangles, trapezoids and rhombuses will fit into a larger hexagon. A few students learn the definitions of the metric prefixes centi- and milli- that same day.
In the after school rocketry club, students make small paper rockets they’ll send flying from a drinking straw. It’s an exercise preparing them for the sturdier, more practical rockets they’ll build at the end of the school year.
Students make two versions of the paper rockets — one with a flat end and the other with a pointed nose cone. With only a couple exceptions, most students’ pointed rockets fly significantly farther than the flat-ended ones. They’ll discuss why at their next meeting as they prepare for the final projects.
Esquivel hopes all her students will be well prepared to apply the learning know-how they received in her classroom in their future grade levels and throughout their lives.
“They’ve become very good at problem-solving,” she said. “Whenever they encounter a problem, they want to fix it.”
Occupation: Third- and fourth-grade English-Spanish dual language teacher at MacArthur International Spanish Academy in Hoffman Estates.
Education: Thomas Kelly High School, Chicago; Bachelor’s degree from Northeastern Illinois University; Master’s degree from DePaul University.
Activities: Sponsor of rocketry club; MacArthur’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports committee; District 54’s math task force for the Common Core; dual-language task force; active with Golden Apple; presentations for district symposiums.
Past jobs: In third year at Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54; four years at Chicago Public Schools.
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