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Image: Pavel Verbovski 

How does social justice apply to your program?

It’s a very holistic approach that encourages students to understand different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and also to be critical of their own assumptions and dispositions about various ethnic communities. Instructors connect early on with their students—and the student’s family and community—by going directly into the field. Then they come back and digest how learning happens in these different communities. Seattle has very rich linguistic and cultural diversity.

What led you to this field?

I was an exchange student from Chile at the University of Wisconsin in the 90s. I fell in love with the city, but also about understanding the role language plays in developing our identities; how whether you’re a native English speaker or not affects how people relate to you. For instance, initially I was really celebrated as an international student. But then, going into a neighborhood to teach ELL, not speaking perfect English was seen as a deficiency. I was teaching mostly Mexican and Cambodian students, and I could communicate easily with the Mexican students in Spanish, but not the Cambodians. So, one day I told my principal that I wanted to take the school bus with them and do home visits, so I could see what I could bring into the classroom to facilitate learning. I brought an embroidery from the wall of a student’s family’s home, and we started talking about the story of the embroidery, it’s colors, and other details—using vocabulary that they understood. That was an example of using a different modality of literacy to grasp the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of my students. 

What brought you to Seattle University?

Its diversity, and its mission and intellectual idea of being reflective—that all people are human beings and that, while some grow up in environments with more resources, that doesn’t mean those with less resources aren’t also capable of intellectual pursuits.

What are some of the areas your teacher education students focus on?

One of the very first things I ask them to do is to really interrogate their own linguistic background.

I have them make language maps. For instance, if you love soccer or football, there’s a lot of specific jargon with which you’d be familiar. When ELL teachers are aware of their own linguistic references, they are really able to understand the instructional decisions they make in classroom, such as the books and materials they use. Not every student will have the same references. Also, some students prefer group-oriented work, while others like to work individually—and that depends on their cultural background in part. So, once they’re aware of their own linguistic background, I have them focus on exploring the identities of their students—and asking themselves what kind of system they have in place in the classroom to make sure everyone has the opportunity to answer. It’s not just about who raises their hand because they speak English better and understood the question. Language should not be a detriment to your intellectual capacity.


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