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Two girls participate in a writing exercise

Young Latinas infuse culture, tradition, and family into their writing

“My students and their families have important stories to share,” says Assistant Professor of Language and Literacy Tracey Flores, “and writing has the power to build community and solidarity.”

That’s why Flores began an afterschool bilingual family writing workshop while she was a second-grade teacher in Arizona. In the workshops, students met in her classroom for 12 weeks to draw, write, and tell stories from their lives.

Tracey Flores works on writing with the students

“At the workshops, I modeled my own writing, we read mentor texts for inspiration, and used writing, drawing, and oral storytelling as tools to share ourselves and connect with one another,” says Flores. “Each week parents sat alongside their children at Con Mi Madre—each penning their own personal stories and working together throughout the entire writing process. In the classroom, students wrote more, began to integrate some of the strategies we practiced at workshops and, for the first time, many infused Spanish into their personal writing.”

Flores continues this work at the University of Texas at Austin. In fact, this summer, young Latinas and their families from across the Austin area participated in a Somos Escritoras writing camp on campus.

The work of infusing the students’ and their families’ culture, traditions, and language into their writing is important, says Flores, because many of the Mexican and Mexican American students in her Arizona classrooms were viewed as deficient and placed in English Language Development classrooms in which they received a different curriculum, a restrictive language and literacy curriculum, than that of their English-speaking peers.

Photo of Fabiola

Fabiola

“As I worked within and against these oppressive and racist structures, I saw how these mandates were silencing and controlling the voices of my students,” says Flores.

Flores says that she’s learned from the girls in this summer’s Somos Escritoras performative space “more about the concerns that are most important in the girls’ lives and the ways that they are defining themselves and naming themselves, through writing, theater, art and other performative acts. This work will inform future workshops for girls and will inform the ways that I plan and facilitate my Language Arts and Community Literacies courses for pre-service teachers.”

Photo of Genevieve

Genevieve

Says Fabiola, a 12-year-old girl who participated in the camp, “I wanted to find a place to fit in. I write a lot of poems in my free time, but I was afraid to share them. I feel more confident in myself as a Chicana and was able to share my stories with everyone. I have been sharing what I do in camp with my family, and they are really proud of me and that makes me proud of myself.”

Genevieve, a 7th grader, appreciated the sense of community the camp provided. “It’s been really nice to have a group that’s so open. I didn’t really get to have that in other places. This place makes me feel comfortable. We are each unique, but we have a lot in common. We were able to talk about both the discrimination we face and our triumph as Latinas. I really like hearing about others’ experiences and relating them to mine.”

Nathaly S. Batista-Morales is a doctoral student who works with Flores. She says that participating in Somos Escritoras fit into her education in the field of Bilingual and Bicultural Education because it offered her a model to see research in a new light. She says, “It showed me how to build relationships in the community, how to conduct research with the girls, and how to design opportunities that benefit my community now rather than later. Additionally, it fit well with my research focus on critical literacy, since the core of the program was reading and writing to speak back to issues of injustice, language, ethnic identity, and sexual orientation as we decentered notions of what young Latina women should look and be like.”

Says Flores, “The end goal is to engage my pre-service teachers in considering the practices of Latina girls and the work of spaces like Somos Escritoras, to privilege marginalized voices specifically, and Latina girls particularly, in their own future classrooms.”

Tracey Flores is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction within the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.

Tracey Flores with workshop participants and graduate students

College of Education alumna and advisory council member Jeanne Klein, B.S. ’67, is passionate about public education and is one of Austin’s staunchest supporters of social and emotional learning (SEL). It started in 2005 at an advisory council meeting, when she heard then-Ph.D. student and UT Elementary Principal Ramona Trevino, M.Ed. ’86, Ph.D. ’06, speak about her research topic: SEL in K-12 education.

Through SEL, children and adults learn and apply the skills to understand and manage their emotions, set and achieve goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.  “Teachers spend more time with kids each day than their parents do. Kids could be experiencing childhood trauma, including issues such as not getting enough to eat, not having clothes, dealing with parents’ divorce, or not having transportation. Meanwhile, teachers are understandably focused on academics,” Klein says. “But teaching kids that they have emotions and how to manage those emotions, teaching them options like using their words and tools to calm themselves are skills that may be just as important as academics,” Klein says.

Partnership-Driven Effort

Klein became involved in helping Trevino implement SEL into the curriculum and programming at UT Elementary. Trevino introduced the Kleins to Betsy Abell, who had introduced SEL to Austin’s St. Andrews Episcopal School in Austin, and to Carmel Borders.

The women are active volunteers in Austin and philanthropists who support education. “From then on,” says Klein, “it was the three of us supporting SEL at UT Elementary: Ramona guiding us with what was needed, and the three of us contributing to help get it there. We hired someone to write curriculum, hired a new counselor specifically for SEL, and hired a coach.”

In 2012, SEL began to spread when Trevino was offered a position at Austin Independent School District (AISD), specifically to infuse SEL programming into AISD. Says Klein, “Betsy thought it sounded fabulous because we could grow from impacting 300 kids [at UT Elementary] to 84,000 kids across the district. At AISD, we started with three vertical teams, each of which had to apply in order to demonstrate their commitment. Now all kids throughout the district have at least been exposed. We have learned along the way, and what we were able to do at a small school, we are now working to perfect in a large urban district.”

Infusing the Curriculum

The work led AISD to create a position of director of social and emotional learning, which has now expanded to an entire department. It also led to further evaluation of the teacher preparation program in the College of Education.

Says College of Education Interim Dean Sherry Field, “We inventoried our classes in our teacher preparation program to see what activities, readings, and experiences already incorporated SEL ideas and principles. We received a phenomenal response from faculty. We had been very intentional about talking about it in our courses, and elements of SEL had always been part of the curriculum. This expansion in AISD allowed us to refocus our efforts and led to the development of a daylong workshop for students in their final semester, to ensure they are well-versed in the theory and ideas,” she says.

Angela Bailey, ‘B.S. ’04, is an SEL specialist at AISD. “SEL is a huge priority for our district and being able to articulate the importance of SEL skills and how to implement them in a classroom is necessary when applying for teaching positions,” she says. For Klein, this holistic approach is key to SEL’s success. “We want infusion of SEL throughout. We teach the kids, the teachers, the staff, and the principals. Social and emotional learning is about culture change. To change the culture, we need to teach everybody.”

Adds Field, “The University of Texas challenges alumni to change the world. This is a great example. This is transforming education in AISD. It wouldn’t have been possible without the advocacy, leadership and support of Jeanne Klein, Betsy Abell and Carmel Borders.”

Students and student teachers seated on the floor for a reading exercise.

Including Race in Literacy Instruction Opens Up the World

On a Thursday afternoon last fall, approximately 20 pre-service teachers arrived for class at Guerrero-Thompson Elementary in Austin. They were students in the College of Education enrolled in Literacy Methods, a course on reading methods in elementary school.

Their initial assignment: critically analyze non-fiction texts.

The goal was for the pre-service teachers to experience the same kinds of assignments they might give their future students. As they balanced in chairs meant for learners half their size, they read articles in small groups and discussed and debated their peers.

They were guided by doctoral student Natalie Svrcek, while Curriculum and Instruction Associate Professor Melissa Wetzel provided assistance.

After they finished, they fetched their fourth-grade reading buddies and positioned themselves on a large colorful rug at the front of the classroom. That’s where the read-alouds—and the fun—began.

One youngster shared with her pre-service teacher a new pun she’d learned. She’d been learning and sharing a new pun each week. Svrcek reminded the younger students about the books she’d read and they’d discussed in the last weeks. Each book was related to UT’s tagline, What Starts Here Changes the World.

The students talked about what that meant to them: “What starts in your heart as something small can become a passion that creates positive change for others,” says one.

“Which stories do you like to hear the most?” Svrcek asked the group. “Ones with characters similar to you or ones where the character is different from you?”

One young girl says, “I like to read stories about people who are similar to me because I like to relate to what they did to fix their problem. I can do what the person did and follow in their footsteps.”

Another says, “I like to read about people different from me because I get to learn about different cultures.”

“Reading a book with characters similar to you is like looking in a mirror,” Svrcek says, “while reading one with characters who are different is like looking out a window.”

Previously, she’d read to the group, Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers, which recounts a story of children whose parents are migrant farm workers and are not paid fairly. In the book, Dolores works to gain fair treatment for the families.

This day they were going to hear, The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth and Harlem’s Greatest Book Store.

Students listening to a reading exercise.

Curriculum for Our Times

Although the format is similar to courses that have been taught in the College of Education for years, the intentional addition of themes of racial equity and social justice is new, says Wetzel. “After Charlottesville, the election, and anti-immigration reforms, I really thought a lot about what it means to be a teacher in these times and how to prepare our students to respond.

“Elementary teachers are often motivated by their love for students. They often want to help. But what does it mean to help?” Wetzel says.

“Many of our students will teach children who come from diverse backgrounds, who face challenges, who are refugees impacted by war or other trauma. We are challenged to take those passionate feelings of people who want to be teachers and help them understand what it means to care for these children. We want to help them shore up their abilities to be a teacher in the complex classrooms they will find in Texas,” Wetzel says.

An Opportunity for Collaboration

As Wetzel and other colleagues across the department were modifying the methods course to address these time-sensitive issues, their colleague, Associate Professor Keffrelyn Brown, had been named a UT Austin Provost’s Teaching Fellow.

The prestigious teaching fellows program empowers faculty to advance education through individual initiatives that improve teaching and learning at UT, and through participation in campus-wide events that promote the quality of education and its status in the campus culture.

Brown’s research for the two-year fellowship focuses in part on the sociocultural knowledge of race in teaching and curriculum. She wants to use her fellowship as an opportunity to facilitate working groups for faculty who are interested in infusing anti-racist teaching and practices in their coursework.

The timing was ripe for college faculty collaboration on the topic. Says Brown, the faculty working groups “meet monthly in an intentional learning community. Faculty share their work sample or challenge. We listen closely to each other. We use inquiry within the learning community. Then we add the theoretical work and revise the curriculum around race,” she says.

“We also discuss strategies to better facilitate conversations around race as well as ideas such as what it looks like to take an asset-based stance with our students,” a view that each student comes from a community with assets rather than deficits, she says.

This spring, Brown is extending her reach beyond the College of Education across the university campus.

“I personally want to develop a stronger theoretical understanding of race, better understanding and use of important theoretical constructs, and means of having better conversations about race,” Brown says.

Passion Leads to Change

Brown sought an opportunity to work with Wetzel on the methods course and Wetzel participated in these faculty learning communities last fall.

She and Svrcek added concepts to the literacy methods curriculum—racial and social equity, and intersectionality.

“Students’ experiences are complex,” Wetzel says. “We all live complex lives, experience complex factors, and have complex classrooms. Our pre-service teachers need to be able to address that.

“The Literacy Methods course’s read-alouds create a space, or tutorial, to model these ideas. Each text has an intersectionality topic—race and gender, for example—along with the theme that “’I can be anything.’ We want to disrupt racial stereotypes,” Wetzel says.

She adds, “The theme highlights that small change makes big change. We can feel disempowered and all feel oppressed by systems we are involved in, but the things we are passionate about can make big change.”

Pre-service teachers and their co-operating teachers have found the methods and conversations with students to be surprising and meaningful to their work. “I didn’t know the kids could go that deep,” one cooperating teacher says.

Change-based Teaching

Pre-service teacher Collette Nguyen, a senior who plans to teach 3rd grade, says, “I didn’t really know what to expect from the students, but they have been very insightful. I read The Memory Coat; Paper Son: Lee’s Journey to America; The Lotus Seed, and My Name is Sangoel. We explored the big questions—‘Why did people have to leave their home country to go to America? What struggles did they face and how did they feel?’ This allowed the students to develop empathy for others who had to flee because they were in danger. It opened a window for them to look into other cultures, and the severity of the situations they were put in that was out of their control.”

Nguyen adds, “By having them learn about these situations, my hope is that they will be tolerant people from the get-go and continue being people who embrace and respect differences in others. With that, they can learn to use their voice.”

Says Wetzel about her work with Brown and the incorporation of racial equity into the Literacy Methods curriculum, “As a department, anti-racist work is part of what we do. Teaching about diversity and sociocultural knowledge will be different in different times, shaped by a particular historical moment, in a particular context and place. It will never be just one syllabus.

“As knowledge in the field is changing and the social context is ever–changing, the teaching will always be change-based,” Wetzel says.

Our faculty in the College of Education is devoted to improving educational opportunities for marginalized groups, through research of inclusive learning practices.

Black students often face educational disadvantages that prevent them from achieving academic success. This is due in part to limited research that allows teachers to better connect with their students.

As we close out Black History Month, it’s an important opportunity to take a look at examples of the work our faculty have done to expand research and support the success of African American students at all grade levels.

Repository for Research into Education of Black Males

Photo of Dr. Louis Harrison and Dr. Anthony Brown

Professors Louis Harrison and Anthony Brown

African American males face many obstacles in education: disproportionate dropout, expulsion and suspension rates, overrepresentation in special education, and underrepresentation in gifted education.

So how can existing research be easily accessed?

Professor Louis Harrison and Associate Professor Anthony Brown have established The Black Male Education Research Collection to assist researchers, journalists, and policymakers with researching the issues of black males in education. BMERC is a collection of scholarly articles from peer-reviewed journals, interviews, reports, and monthly videos that cover a wide variety of topics from the nation’s top scholars on black male education.

Book Highlights Early 20th-Century African-American Education Intellectuals

Keffrelyn and Anthony Brown

Keffrelyn Brown and Anthony Brown

Associate professors Keffrelyn Brown and Anthony Brown answer questions regarding their book about three black education leaders’ ideas. “Black Intellectual Thought in Education: The Missing Traditions of Anna Julia Cooper, Carter G. Woodson, and Alain LeRoy Locke,” analyzes the contributions of these education leaders and a counternarrative for black students.

For Men of Color, High Academic Motivation Does Not Bring Academic Success

Composed of 453,000 student responses nationwide, the Aspirations to Achievement: Men of Color and Community Colleges was produced by the College of Education’s Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) to analyze the academic outcome for men of color in comparison to white male students. This study questions the negative effects of stereotyping and academic testing readiness among different races of men.

“Despite Black and Hispanic males reporting higher aspirations to earn a community college certificate or degree than their White peers, only 5 percent of those who attend community colleges earn certificates or degrees in three years, as opposed to 32 percent of White males,” says Kay McClenney, CCCSE director.

Caring for Black Male Students Requires More Than Good Intentions, According to Education Study

A student holds up a book in a classroom

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Studies show that black male students are struggling in school because they lack a connection with their teachers. Assessing how to better engage with students is a beneficial way of encouraging learning.

Assistant Professor Sepehr Vakil describes the use of politicized caring, “when teachers acknowledge the ways schools reproduce racialized and gendered stereotypes. These teachers then cultivate relationships with marginalized students in ways that acknowledge their oppression and their developmental needs as children and as learners.”