Teaching at the college and graduate level may seem inherently different from teaching children, however the need for differentiation of approach, content, medium and outcomes are the same. As such I design and present my undergraduate and graduate courses similarly to how I approached classroom teaching. As an educator I focus heavily on integrating constructivist and research-based teaching methodologies such as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), descriptive inquiry and Translanguaging into my practice. The reason for this is two fold: ensure that all students have an opportunity to learn and model diverse teaching practices that teaching candidates can use in their own classrooms.
In keeping with the core tenets of UDL, I make sure that each of my courses offers multiple means of engagement and representation as well as multiple means of action and expression. When teaching Methods and Research in Teaching English Language Arts to Emergent Bilingual Students at Brooklyn College I diversified my teaching in various ways. For example, I provided readings at different levels of complexity – making it accessible for students who were emergent bilinguals. I also used multimodal platforms such as videos, audio recordings and images and would also provide students with multiple opportunities to ask questions and to discuss complex ideas with partners or in small groups. Additionally, I would include a question and answer segment at the beginning and end of each session. To ensure that students were able to use all of their resources, students were given opportunities to share what they have learned through varying mediums such as writing a paper, composing a film, giving a presentation and modeling a lesson. Students should also be given an opportunity to use all of their linguistic resources as such they were able to use their home language to access information, discuss content and to exhibit their learning. This is particularly important in courses that address the needs of multilingual students and bilingual education concepts. Lastly, I have appropriate accommodations and modifications available for adult students with disabilities whether that means additional time to complete an assignment or modified criteria, dependent on each individual student’s needs.
In addition to the aforementioned considerations, I structure instructional sessions similarly to mini-lessons: a brief lecture, an interactive whole group activity or partner work and a closing discussion section. There may also be independent work time during which I would check in with individual students to offer support. These methods are incredibly effective at maintaining student interest particularly during long academic sessions like the intensive courses I taught at Hunter College. The Issues in Teaching English Second Language Learners with Special Education Needs course was a one-credit course that took place across two eight-hour sessions during weekend days two weeks apart. Teaching courses during the weekends can make it particularly difficult to maintain student engagement. However, I made sure that the sessions were as interactive as possible. In addition to my typical teaching structures I included games, multiple group configurations, frequent breaks, and close readings. This ensured that students had many opportunities to learn from me, from the materials and from each other.
While at Montclair State University, I have taught various courses and have had the opportunity to develop two. In the first course I designed, Curriculum and Pedagogy in Inclusive Early Childhood Classroom, was able to integrate sessions during which students would be exposed to the descriptive processes, others were they would practice the processes as well as assignments that allowed students to use their new skills in the real world context. In this course, I drew connections between the theories that undergird descriptive inquiry and early childhood education, and the practical applications of classroom assessment within these settings. I also was able to present pre-service teachers to a practice that will support them regardless of the population they work with. As such, I was preparing future public school teachers in a progressive practice that builds on student strength while developing teacher inquiry. I am hopeful that this introduction will become a first step in a lifelong appreciation of the processes as they were for me when I was a teacher education student. In the second course, Perspectives and Theories at the Intersection of Language Learning and Disability, I had the opportunity to collaborate with a colleague and develop a course in which we not only were able to present the needs of emergent bilingual students with disabilities as a whole but were also able to model the practice of co-teaching. While inclusive education is growing, many pre-service teachers enter the field having limited experiences with co-teaching. By modeling this type of classroom we aim to present the students with the benefits of coteaching in a low stakes situation where they feel able to ask questions about how we plan, how we distribute labor, how we decide our instructional models and very importantly, how we resolve disagreements. I have also made changes to the courses I adopted. One of the major contributions I have made to those courses has been to introduce more and more local scholarship as well as work from scholars of color and scholars with disabilities.
By using a constructivist approach, I ensure that my teaching is inherently inclusive, experiential and participatory. This is particularly critical within teacher preparation programs because beyond increasing learning for the students themselves it also encourages teacher-candidates to be inclusive in their own classrooms while providing them with the examples needed to build their own practice. Moreover, these practices have resulted in positive feedback from both students and supervisory faculty.
Since 1975 Public Law 94-142, currently known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, has mandated that the decision regarding the placement of a student who is classified as both an English language learner and in need of special education be made collaboratively between parents and individual education plan team members. In reality, however, the voices and judgments of educators and school professionals are valued above those of the parents. The largest emergent bilingual special education population is comprised of Latinx students. Due to cultural factors within the Latinx community, mothers are often tasked as the primary point of contact between the school and the family. However, Spanish-speaking Latinx mothers are often silent at these meetings, never revealing their experiences or feelings as mothers of these children; never expressing how they feel about the role that language and disability plays in their children’s lives, and never voicing how they feel about their children’s program placements. In an attempt to bridge this gap, my dissertation focused on the mothering experiences and ideologies of Latinx Spanish-speaking mothers whose emergent bilingual children are also labeled as disabled.
Given the level of involvement needed during a child’s elementary education, in my dissertation, I conducted an ethnographic study of several Latinx mothers of emergent bilinguals labeled as disabled (EBLADs) in grades two through six within one community. The purpose of this study was to explore the experiences these mothers have endured as well as uncover the values they hold regarding their children’s disability labels, linguistic development and overall education. As such, this project utilized a multipronged theoretical framework rooted in intersectionality, disability studies, linguistic human rights and a sociological approach to storytelling known as Testimonios. This was a qualitative study consisting of Spanish-language interviews with mothers and EBLAD children, home observations and the collection of artifacts related to the child’s educational history. Lastly, the study concluded with a gathering of the participants where they met each other for the first time, shared a recollection, ate dinner together and engaged in open discussions. The resulting data were analyzed using thematic and narrative analysis, and social semiotic multimodal analysis. This study resulted in a greater understanding for the ways in which these mothers contribute to the education of their children in ways that often go unnoticed and unappreciated by educational systems and their proxies.
The findings from this study have implications in early childhood, teacher education and educational policy. This study presents the ways in which this subgroup of mothers supports their children’s academic growth in order to maximize student learning. It also showcases the ways in which linguistic decisions made during the early evaluation stage impact a child’s at-home linguistic development and a parent’s ability to support that child academically. Schools and administrators should also use the findings of this study to reflect on the services they provide to mothers so as to ensure that they meet an actual need (i.e. mental health support, ESL) rather than a projected need (i.e. math training). With regards to teacher education, this study highlighted the importance of home language learning for children labeled as disabled in an effort to encourage more bilingual placements, or at least more home language support, for these children. It also presented the ways in which children use linguistic fluidity regardless of the schools’ evaluation on their capacity to be bilingual. Lastly, this study offered ways in which a research method like descriptive inquiry, which is most often used to understand children and teacher practices, can also be used to understand the impact of educational policies and practices on families within the home and in the community at large. Aside from the final dissertation, I also used the data from this study to prepare multiple papers for presentation at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) annual conference, among others. I have also adapted the dissertation into a book which I hope will take this work out of the academy and into teachers’ hands. It is my belief that research that is kept away from teachers is research that is limited in its impact. My hope is to also be able to disseminate more of my work in more mainstream and more accessible platforms like Rethinking Schools.
My second major research project, which is currently in the latter stages of data collection, extended on this prior work by attempting to uncover teacher attitudes regarding the capacities of students who are at risk of being labeled as an English Language Learner, a student with a disability, or both. In particular, I am interested in how teachers describe students that they consider disengaged, absent, and even difficult, as well as the evidence that they cite. The study is taking place in a suburban school district that is currently preparing for a racial integration initiative. The school itself consist of a student body that is predominantly students of color while the faculty are overwhelmingly White women. As part of this study 5 teachers took part in the summer institutes on the descriptive processes where they learned to engage with student work using the processes developed by Pat Carini and the teachers at the Prospect School in Vermont. After returning we have been meeting monthly to discuss the work of students. This descriptive inquiry group is part of the teachers professional learning communities, as such the teachers get professional credit for participating. The group also includes four additional teachers who did not attend the summer institutes but whom expressed interest in the work. They read Carini’s From Another Angle as an introduction to the processes. To date, five teachers have presented and three more will present students during the remaining school year. This project contains both qualitative and quantitative components. The quantitative component consists of surveys that are completed by the participating teachers after each session. The qualitative component consists of narrative interviews, audio recordings of the sessions and pertinent artifacts as they relate to the work that was presented. While the work is still emergent, preliminary analysis indicates that there are ways that the processes can be used across racial and ability lines to develop structures that allow us to see students as whole beings even while they are racialized and pathologized in other parts of their educational experience. The findings from this project will be shared at both regional and national conferences, while a wider audience would be reached through publications in national and international peer-reviewed journals. Given the emerging ideas, this pilot project could be developed into a full-scale project with the potential to receive external funding from sources such as the Russel Sage Foundation or the Spencer Foundation. A larger scale project school support a school training their entire staff in the descriptive processes, the impacts of which would be followed.
Still, while this most recent line of inquiry has been fruitful, I find myself constantly pulled back to work with mothers of EBLADs and their families. For many years the needs of EBLADs have been parsed across the special education and bilingual education community with neither group wanting to lose students to the other. Special education professionals wrongfully warn about the dangers of bilingual education and EBLADs in a bilingual setting while bilingual education advocates actively seek to keep bilingual children out of special education. While these sentiments originate from real concerns regarding overrepresentation and disproportionality, it is equally as important that the educational community consider the ways in which to improve student outcomes regardless of the placement, regardless of whether the label is appropriate or not. As the demographic make-up of the United States continues to shift into a more multicultural, multiracial and multilingual community educators must ensure that their practices meet the needs of children who are placed into multiple minoritized communities. In order to do this successfully, it is not enough to look at academic growth through assessment or even student or teacher feedback. Teaching candidates and pre-service teachers must be taught not only the benefits of progressive practices like descriptive inquiry, about the impact of open and child-centered communication but also ways in which to effectively connect with the families of EBLADs. Mothers also need to be invited into the discourse; they must not only be given seats at the table but also microphones to amplify their often-silenced voices. The ultimate goal for my career is to uphold a research agenda and a teaching practice that works in service of these needs.
As the only high school graduate in my family, I recognize the value of education and the significant impact it can have on the life of an individual and their family. As an immigrant, I recognize the importance of a bilingual education not only for economic gains but for educational and socio-cultural gains as well. Having been raised in a poor working class household I am acutely aware of the many challenges that students, particularly minoritized female students, can face in their quest for an education. As a woman of color and as a mother I know the expectations of failure and defeat that hang in the air as one moves within institutional spaces that are permeated by older white men of means. While I do not feign to know what it is like to walk in the shoes of all my students, I am all too familiar with wanting to belong yet failing to find acceptance because of my race, gender, socioeconomic status, cultural markers, linguistic variance and/or immigration status. As such, I make use of my experiences to inform my teaching and my research. In order to illustrate the ways in which I create diverse and equitable spaces I will discuss the many settings that I have had a chance to influence and the ways in which I tried to open them up to individuals who are often othered.
As a bilingual special education teacher I was very intentional in creating collaborative relationships with my students and their families. I led a classroom that was student-directed where units were reflective of their interests and lessons were presented in multiple mediums. I made sure to incorporate literature that was reflective of their ethnic and racial identities, their dis/abilities and their linguistic backgrounds. I also had frequent community meetings during which students could discuss issues they had with each other, with me, or with the school at large.
Although I was the teacher, I was always careful to avoid positioning myself as “the expert.” I would tell students that while I was there to guide their learning they knew themselves best and they needed to tell me what was working for them and what was not. I would also tell families that while I may be more knowledgeable about the educational needs of children with dis/abilities, they as the guardians were invaluable because they were experts on their children. This form of open communication was the best way to ensure that each student had an opportunity to reach their highest potential and as a result I was very successful at helping students meet their individual educational plan goals as well as academic goals laid out for their typically developing peers. This stance of valuing each and every voice while creating a practice that was culturally and linguistically responsive are in part why I always had a strong record of evaluation from my administrators and a very high satisfaction level from the families I worked with.
When I began to work as a research assistant within CUNY-NYSIEB I carried this frame of mind with me and I always made sure to create a space in which the participants we worked with had an opportunity to present the challenges that they faced and the areas in which they sought support rather than focusing solely on my goals for the project. This not only helped me better meet the needs of the teachers I was working with, but also the students they were working with. Individuals who belong to minoritized communities often encounter spaces that can feel hostile – both directly and indirectly – so it is not enough to assume that they will ask questions if and when they have them. I believe in having structured discussion times during which community members all have an opportunity to share their perspective and their funds of knowledge. I also strongly believe in having reflective conversations at regular intervals. As a result of my work with descriptive inquiry, I have developed the habit of asking at the end of each session that discusses children and/or their families, “were we respectful: Of this child? Of this family? Of this teacher? Of this process?” I find that while some students may have a hard time presenting ways in which they were offended or bothered, they feel much more comfortable doing so when they are speaking up for others. These conversations were a critical part of the mentor-training plan that I developed for the Pipeline Program at the Graduate Center.
The pipeline program is a program that provides mentorship to undergraduate students who are underrepresented in the academy as they apply for graduate school. Not only did I serve as a pedagogical consultant for the program, I was also a mentor for three years – advising and guiding LGBT students and students of color through the graduate application process. In my role as pedagogical consultant I developed and implemented a curriculum that trained other doctoral students from varying fields in the proper ways to be mentors, the support that they needed to offer and in which ways. As part of my tenure, I also introduced the members of the Pipeline community to “Gender Pronoun Guides” in order to ensure that each participant is addressed in the way that they best identified rather than the ways in which they appear on a roster. I also enacted a monthly anonymous evaluation sheet in which both students and mentors could report back on how they felt the mentorship relationship was going as well as areas in which they felt they needed more support. This allowed mentees to anonymously present issues they were encountering that their mentor was not addressing. At times this meant that I needed to lead sessions on how to help your mentee balance their personal and professional responsibilities and another on how to manage their finances. I also led trainings on relaxation techniques and provided mental health resources for students.
When teaching under/graduate courses, I continue to incorporate open discussions and reflective conversations in order to give students an opportunity to share their areas of interest and expertise. I then use this information to craft lessons and/or modify the syllabus. I also make sure to make use of texts and ideas that extend beyond the Eurocentric frameworks that are most oft discussed in education courses. So while I may present the work of John Dewey’s on child-centered learning and pragmatism, I will do so alongside Ann Arnett Ferguson’s work on race and education, and Marjorie Orellana’s work on the role of language in the lives of children. Likewise in a course regarding dis/abilities and dis/ability studies in education, I not only share the work of Lennard Davis but also the work of Subini Annamma and Sami Schalk. It is important to present students with multiple perspectives in order to create dialogue that is both open and critical. Lastly, I create courses that make use of the pedagogical practices that I teach about. This means that my courses are in keeping with the tenets of Universal Design for Learning, Descriptive inquiry and Translanguaging. I also make use of an accessible syllabus as designed by the Duke Accessible Syllabus Project. I use flexible deadlines and make accommodations for students who are also caretakers. This all allows students not only to discuss issues around diverse learners and inclusion but also to have their own needs met through inclusive teaching practices.
I strongly believe that if we want to create spaces in which people of diverse backgrounds can not only participate but also thrive then we must first ask: how can I support you? This is a central part of my philosophy as an educator and social justice advocate. As such I placed this mantra at the center of my courses. As educators it is critical that we acknowledge our positionality and the privileges that come with being at the head of the class. We must then offer students an opportunity to share their areas of expertise as well as the areas that they identify as needing support in. While I enter each academic year, each course and each classroom with an agenda – the purpose of my teaching must first and foremost be about meeting the needs of my students and this can only be accomplished by creating space for them. Asking questions about how I can serve our students also creates an opportunity for students to share readings and authors that they would like to interact with thus expanding my own practice.