Top Suburban Teacher: Arlington Heights teacher's family experience shaped passion for language learners
Beth Hornberg speaks Spanish fluently, which puts her right at home in her classroom at Greenbrier Elementary School in Arlington Heights, where she teaches as many as 40 students who collectively speak 19 different languages.
They include Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Turkish and Ukranian, along with different dialects from China and India.
Hornberg loves the diversity that brings -- her own father arrived in this country as a teenager from Buenos Aires -- and embraces her role as a multilingual learners teacher in Arlington Heights Elementary District 25.
"The most important piece is not just teaching them English, but the social-emotional aspect as well," she says. "Unlike most teachers, I have my students for multiple years. I often have siblings. We are a family, and I work to make them feel safe, feel confident -- and not just for the students, but for their whole family."
Hornberg works to develop what she describes as the four biggest ways of learning English: listening, speaking, reading and writing, and often in that order.
She meets with students in 30-minute pullout sessions, either individually or in small groups, where they work on language acquisition as well academic content for their grade level.
For newcomer students, Hornberg may meet with them three times a day at first, but that typically lessens as their English proficiency becomes stronger in the upper grades.
For the students who enter with knowing little or no English, Hornberg communicates using lots of pictures, modeling and building on the basic vocabulary words, such as parts of their body or common items in the classroom or at home.
"We read books and we do also do a lot of singing," Hornberg said. "We love singing in my classroom."
She sees students typically gaining proficiency in listening first and slowly they begin to speak, commonly with one-word answers before building to phrases and sentences.
"It is our hope to have them speaking in conversation," Hornberg adds, "but that's always the hardest part."
Hornberg brings a lot of experience to her students. She has worked with multilingual learners all 18 years she has taught, but also has experience as an administrator, serving as an assistant principal in Round Lake before coming to Greenbrier.
Prior teaching positions have included schools in Round Lake and Itasca, where Hornberg always worked with new English speakers.
"I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I have a passion for language learners, which comes from my own family experience," she said.
Her father came to this country from Argentina at the age of 17. At the time, there were no programs to transition students into speaking English. So, he learned on his own by listening to people around him -- and to songs on the radio.
"He loved the Mamas and the Papas, and the Beatles," Hornberg says with a laugh.
Still, while she strongly identifies with students struggling to assimilate in their new country, Hornberg encourages them to continue speaking their native languages at home.
"Being bilingual or trilingual is a beautiful, positive thing to have in your life," she said.
Hornberg's classroom is located across from the Library Media Center at Greenbrier, near the hub of the school. Students walk by every day and see the vibrant, cultural celebrations displayed around the room.
But there's more going on in the room than meets the eye.
"My biggest goal is to make my classroom a safe place, where students can make mistakes while they learn and grow," she said.