ESL teacher scores Wallace Excellence award

  • Blanca Osorio-Castillo STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Blanca Osorio-Castillo is a teacher of English as a Second Language at Crocker Farm Elementary School in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Blanca Osorio-Castillo, who works at Crocker Farm Elementary School in Amherst, teaches a group of third and fourth grade students, such as third grader Francklin Escobar, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019 at the school. She is this year's Roger L. Wallace Excellence in Teaching award winner. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 18, 2019

AMHERST — When Blanca Osorio-Castillo arrived in Amherst in 1996 from her native Colombia to seek better opportunities, the only language she spoke was Spanish.

More than two decades later, Osorio-Castillo, who took English classes at the Center for New Americans, is beginning her 10th year as a teacher in the Amherst public school district, where she helps children from countries across the globe to become proficient in English.

“I wanted to become an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher because of my own experiences learning English,” Osorio-Castillo says. “For me, having a student in first or second grade and seeing the process of how they start reading and talking, it’s awesome.”

For her work not only teaching, but also engaging immigrant and non-English speaking families and incorporating social justice, Osorio-Castillo is being awarded the Roger L. Wallace Excellence in Teaching Award, presented annually to one elementary schoolteacher in Amherst and Pelham. A recognition dinner will be held at Valentine Hall on the Amherst College campus on the evening of Oct. 6.

“Blanca is a dedicated teacher, active in advancing equity in the Amherst Pelham school district, drawing families, including immigrant families to Crocker Farm, and making them feel welcome,” said Pat Romney, president of the award committee.

Wallace was a longtime Fort River teacher before his retirement in 2012

Romney observes that Osorio-Castillo, who was selected by a vote of her peers, also maintains a website for English language learners and teachers and she also is a member of the Grupo Folklórico Tradiciones, a Latin-American folk dance group.

Osorio-Castillo aims to have children see themselves in the books and stories they read, and has actively increased engagement with parents who might feel disconnected due to language barriers, through English Language Learners teacher conferences, speaking to families in Spanish and encouraging their participation in activities, such as during oral presentations by children.

“We want every family to be involved and every family to be celebrated,” Osorio-Castillo said. “Our team goal for the last two years has been to increase family engagement.”

Though Osorio-Castillo said she was always curious about education, it wasn’t until her son was in daycare that she better understood how she could connect her own experience as an immigrant helping others to learn English, something she also saw during five years of working with children of domestic violence survivors at a shelter in Holyoke.

“ESL is about service for the students who do not have English as their first language, so they can access academics,” Osorio-Castillo said.

Osorio-Castillo had already earned a degree in marketing when she came to the United States. She then went to Holyoke Community College to study ESL and later transferred to the University Without Walls program at the University of Massachusetts. Following that, she earned a master’s degree from the Collaborative for Educational Services and Fitchburg State University.

Before coming to Crocker Farm, Osorio-Castillo was a part-time Spanish and English Language Learners instructor at Wildwood School for four years and a full-time ESL teacher at Fort River School for two years.

Her day includes both pullouts, where a handful of students come to her classroom for direct instruction, and push-ins, where she helps students with their language skills in their regular classrooms.

During a recent pullout for a reading group of beginner language learners in third and fourth grades, she started the 45-minute lesson by saying hello to the children and gave each of the children, two from El Salvador, one from Brazil and one from China, a fist bump before reading the story and giving the children prompts that would help them understand the story.

She said keys to her instruction are visuals and making children comfortable with their own voices.

“Usually if a kid speaks and reads and talks a lot in their first language, they will most likely do that in their second language,” Osorio-Castillo said.

Osorio-Castillo has created a family engagement team that helps parents access information from the school, including deploying the Remind app that sends them texts. “It’s been shown that parents get the news using technology,” she said.

There has also been the development of the English Language Learners Parent Advisory Committee to give those parents more of a voice in the school.

“As a parent, it was hard for me with not very good English to come to the school,” she said.

Osorio-Castillo has been instrumental in a multicultural celebration at the school which was held for the second time in May, with a potluck featuring foods from around the world.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.