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 graduate courses, I continue to incorporate open discussions and reflective conversations in order to give students and 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. 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. This 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 graduate 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.