Interview by Ashley Morrow (BU SPH ’22)
Jennifer Altavilla is a lecturer and director of the TESOL & Bilingual Education (Licensure) Program at BU Wheelock. Her research focuses on professional development, pre-service training, and instructional coaching for teachers who work with students classified as English learners. She is passionate about collaborating with districts, schools, and teachers to improve multilingual learners’ school experiences and access to grade-level curriculum.
Altavilla has taught undergraduate and graduate students at Stanford University, Lesley University, and the Alder Graduate School of Education. She also served as a literature instructional coach and dean of faculty for Breakthrough Silicon Valley and consulted with the National Network of Education Research Practice Partnerships and the Council of Great City Schools. Prior to that, she was an elementary and middle-school teacher in Boston, and served as an English as a Second Language (ESL) program coordinator and a course instructor for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
What is your teaching focus at BU Wheelock?
Most of the courses I teach are focused on preparing teachers to work in K–12 schools with multilingual students. For example, I teach an ESL methods course for students pursuing single or dual ESL licensures with other content areas. In addition, every semester, I teach Sheltered English Immersion endorsement (SEI), which all teachers in Massachusetts take. I also teach Biliteracy Development, which focuses on strategies that help students develop their English skills while affirming and honoring their cultures and other languages. It is my favorite course to teach.
Can you tell us more about your role as program director for TESOL & Bilingual Education (Licensure)?
In my role as a program director, I work with teachers at Boston Public Schools and other schools in the area to place students who are pursuing ESL licensure for their practicum and pre-practicum. Throughout the year, I troubleshoot any issues regarding this process and work with program supervisors to evaluate teacher candidates.
In addition, I coordinate with Dr. Yasuko Kanno, the department chair, regarding the direction of the department, such as revising the SEI course to make it align more with the anti-racist teaching philosophy of the department and revising the online version of the ESL methods class to make it align more with the in-person version of the program. Finally, as we will not have any more undergraduate candidates, we are currently thinking of ways to make it easier and more inviting for students in other subject areas at the master’s level to pursue a licensure in ESL.
What motivates you to do the work you do?
I was an elementary and middle school teacher at Boston Public and Charter Schools, and I loved working with and learning from families and community members. As an ESL teacher, you work as an advocate for the students, families, and communities you are partnering with. As a result, a favorite part of my role now is helping teacher candidates or prospective teachers figure out what that advocacy role means to them.
We do a lot around positionality with teachers, such as “who are you as an individual” or “how do you fit into the ecosystem in the district you’re in.” All these discussions surrounding identity and positionality are important and help teachers grow throughout the year. It is really fulfilling to see teacher candidates apply theories, concepts, or ideas that they are learning in the classroom in their actual placements with students and display the skills and knowledge they have gained.
What are some challenges that you have encountered in your work?
Right now, teachers working with our candidates have a million things to do and some of them are overloaded. For some teachers, their role has changed in the middle of the school year and some schools suffer from coverage problems. As a result, we have had to help a couple of our BU students navigate those challenges.
The biggest challenge for me so far is gathering enough information regarding various school districts so that I can provide accurate advice and support to teacher candidates. In addition, an overarching challenge is helping teachers navigate what it looks like to be an anti-racist teacher and how to navigate these conversations. These are challenges—but they are also all opportunities for growth.
What is an important implication of the work you do?
We live in a city with a growing multilingual learner population, so we need people that are prepared to work with them. It has been really rewarding for me to think about ways we can improve our teacher preparation to better meet the needs of teachers and administrators of schools that are changing rapidly. It’s been exciting work to figure out what teacher preparation should look like in this time period and in this particular subject area. So I’m really excited to get back into the Boston community and think about how we can have a larger impact on teacher preparation.
What’s next for you?
I co-developed a course with Dr. Mary Hughes, a lecturer in the Literacy & Language Education Department. I’m looking forward to co-teaching a fully undergraduate course in the spring with her. It is important to get undergrads interested in issues related to language and education.
This summer, we are revising the online version of the TESOL online methods class. I was also elected to the board of Margarita Muñiz Academy, the only dual language high school in Boston Public Schools. I’m excited to work with them as a part of their board and learn more about dual language schools. I’m really looking forward to refining my courses in future years, such as bringing in more recent articles and diversifying syllabi to make sure that diverse perspectives are heard in classes.