Bartlett bilingual kindergarten teacher's love for languages inspires her work

When Crissa Almughrabi started learning Spanish at age 12, it was just a hobby.

She never thought it would become her calling years later.

"I absolutely love the language," says Almughrabi, 57, of St. Charles, now a dual language kindergarten teacher at Nature Ridge Elementary School in Bartlett.

  Crissa Almughrabi, dual language kindergarten teacher at Nature Ridge Elementary School in Bartlett, has been teaching at Elgin Area School District U-46 for 17 years. Here, Almughrabi teaches kindergarten last week in Bartlett. Brian Hill/

Almughrabi has been a teacher for 29 years, 17 of those spent in Elgin Area School District U-46 schools. For much of her career, Almughrabi taught transitional bilingual education, English as a Second Language (ESL) for elementary school students, before joining U-46's award-winning dual language program, which starts in kindergarten and goes through 12th grade.

"When I started teaching, dual language programs weren't around," Almughrabi says. "It was predominantly transitional bilingual programs."

Dual language is a form of bilingual education in which students are taught literacy and grade-level academic content in two languages.

U-46 offers "one-way instruction" for students with a home language background of Spanish who qualify for the English Language Learners services program.

Kindergarten and first-grade students without a home background of Spanish or who are English dominant may enroll in "two-way instruction" to learn Spanish and develop bilingual skills along with English learners.

U-46 uses an "80:20" instructional model. The youngest students start out with 80% of their instruction in Spanish and 20% in English, reducing the Spanish-language portion by 10% each subsequent year from kindergarten through third grade, until the split is 50-50, where it remains through sixth grade.

In middle school, dual language students continue to focus on developing academic and language skills of high rigor in both languages. The courses were expanded through 12th grade at all five U-46 high schools this school year.

  Crissa Almughrabi, dual language kindergarten teacher at Nature Ridge Elementary School in Bartlett, works with students. Brian Hill/

Almughrabi returned to U-46 six years ago, after a brief stint teaching ESL at a St. Charles school district, to be part of the dual language program and because she believes in the district's full-day, play-based kindergarten model.

"I love it. It is a huge difference from teaching in a transitional bilingual education program," she says. "Transitional bilingual programs were (there) to push children into mainstream English classes as soon as possible. Whereas, dual language is about developing bi-literacy, bilingualism. This is what I would wish for every child, to be able to have access to a dual language program."

U-46's two-way dual language program is open to native Spanish and native English speakers.

Almughrabi teaches in both languages. "It's never boring," she says of teaching.

It's not just languages, Almughrabi also is passionate about the history and evolution of education, civil rights, immigrant rights and multiculturalism in the United States.

"I think that is something so important to recognize and value, regardless of the culture or the language," Almughrabi says. "It doesn't need to be Spanish ... we should be celebrating bilingualism and biculturalism."

  "Every single child is coming from a different background. Every single child is unique, so it's important for teachers to get to know their students," says Crissa Almughrabi, dual language kindergarten teacher at Nature Ridge Elementary School in Bartlett. Brian Hill/

Almughrabi says working with 5-year-olds has kept her feeling young.

The strategies she uses in her bilingual kindergarten classroom are applicable to all teachers, she says.

"It is imperative that teachers use visuals," she says. "It's difficult this year because my face is covered by a mask, but I need to use my whole body, my arms, express gestures ... and then photos or concrete items that I can pick up and show the children what we're talking about."

She also uses total physical response to engage students.

"The more involved you can get the children, get them standing up and moving ... the more you can involve a child in the lesson, the better so that the information sticks with them," she says.

"It's less stress for the children to also have visuals to help them. It's not all about listening, it's also about watching."

Teaching remotely for an entire school year during the pandemic was challenging, but the Zoom experience went better than expected, Almughrabi says.

"It was incredible the way families worked together to help their children learn remotely," she says. "I really got to know the families well last year. We had a true sense of community in my classroom."

  "We're not starting from scratch," says Crissa Almughrabi, dual language kindergarten teacher at Nature Ridge Elementary School in Bartlett, who has dedicated much of her 29-year career to bilingual education because of her love for languages. Brian Hill/

Nature Ridge Principal Cyndi Aleman says Almughrabi is passionate about her teaching and the families she works with.

"Crissa always goes the extra mile," Aleman says. "Not only does she do a great job teaching, she also helps the English Language Learners department with parent reach-outs."

One kindergarten parent, who wished to remain anonymous, gave Almughrabi kudos for the "amazing job" she did last school year.

"Every video she posted for the students was upbeat and motivating," the parent wrote to school leaders. "I watched as my English-speaking daughter understood Spanish instructions as if still in the classroom. The mannerisms that Crissa showed in the classroom translated well to the living room and made my daughter super comfortable with the whole situation."

With students now back in the classroom, Almughrabi says, it has been "wonderful" because they needed the social interaction they couldn't get through Zoom.

This year, Almughrabi is applying different methods of engaging students with limitations on classroom activities due to required social distancing. But one challenge she doesn't have with her class of 16 kindergartners is asking them to keep their masks on, which they already have mastered.

Almughrabi says while some people may think "kindergartners are blank slates," her students bring with them a wealth of cultural experiences, language and knowledge.

"That is something key for kindergarten teachers to always keep in mind, we're not starting from scratch," she says. "Every single child is coming from a different background. Every single child is unique, so it's important for teachers to get to know their students.

"Getting to know our students as people, relationship building ... that is more important than anything else. Learning takes place when the children feel valued, when they feel that they are seen."

Curriculum vitae: Crissa Almughrabi

Age: 57

Residence: St. Charles

Hometown: Des Moines, Iowa

Universities and degrees: University of Iowa, bachelor of arts; double-majored in Spanish and elementary education with a specialization in Bilingual Education. Finishing a master's in Dual Language Teacher Leadership at Roosevelt University.

Work history in education: 29 years of teaching, 17 in District U-46. Eight years at Ontarioville Elementary, four years at South Elgin High School, six at Nature Ridge Elementary.

Range of experience: "In my career I have worked with every grade level, K-12 except for sixth and eighth grades, in one position or another (bilingual education classroom teacher, building ESL teacher, high school Spanish teacher, high school interventionist, and dual language teacher)."

Tips from a top teacher

• Get to know your students! Children are so much more than their academics. What "funds of knowledge" do they bring with them to school? What is their home culture? Home language or languages? What have been their life experiences? What background knowledge do they already have? What are their interests? This is all important information for a teacher to have so that we can connect their home culture with the school culture. Build those relationships. It may take time, but is SO worth the investment.

• When possible, create opportunities for students to have choice within their assignments and choices for demonstrating their understanding. It is amazing what results we get when students are encouraged to be creative!

• Parents and guardians are our best allies. We all want to see all children experience success.

• We teachers are always learning. What works well one year may not work well the next. Every group of students is different, so every year is different. Always be on the lookout for new teaching strategies to implement.

• If you have a student from a culture unfamiliar to you, ask questions, become informed. Celebrate the diversity of our community. It enriches all of us.

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