Tag Archives: Sonia Nieto

Language Is Never Neutral


In Celebrating Diversity Through Language Study, author Jen McCreight introduces us to a new approach to grammar study, a subject area all too often taught without students and their unique backgrounds in mind. In this post adapted from Sonia Nieto's foreword to the book, we see the true importance of this kind of work in the everyday classroom.

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Sonia Nieto on iNation, A New Multimedia Project About Contemporary Immigration


Everyone has a story to tell, but unfortunately, not all stories see the light of day. This is true of current stories of immigration. Although in the United States we often wax poetic about our immigrant past, we routinely neglect our immigrant present. There are, of course, scores of contentious stories that make their way to the evening news. Most of these stories emphasize an “us vs. them” mentality, pitting citizens against undocumented residents. But the day-to-day lives of current immigrants, who share the same aspirations, struggles, hopes, and dreams as previous immigrants, are often missing. There is now a valuable educational resource to fill this void. It is called iNation.

A multimedia project that uses personal narratives to explore immigration in the making of the United States, iNation is the brainchild of Theo Rigby, Kate McLean, Rosell Ilano, and Christine Peng. Together, this creative team has designed an interactive storytelling project to find, capture, and share some of the many contemporary stories that explore current immigration and its relationship to our past. The project includes short documentary films about some of the fascinating characters who are the present-day history makers, from a caregiver from Fiji who lovingly takes care of a 95-year-old Japanese woman until her death, to a small-town Republican Georgia mayor who becomes an unlikely but fierce advocate of undocumented residents, including one of his neighbors, a teenage girl who is a top student in her school but unable to attend college because of the harsh anti-immigration laws in the state.

Rather than history writ large, this is history written from the standpoint of regular people.

iNation also includes an interactive online story hub where users can create their own immigration narratives, which then become available to other users. Rather than history writ large, this is history written from the standpoint of the regular people who make up our nation and have lessons about resilience, strength, and hope for all of us. In addition to the interactive story hub and short documentaries, there is an innovative educators’ guide, Immigrant Nation, for grades 9 through 12 that includes lessons, creative activities for students, pedagogical strategies for teachers, and resources to bring the story of immigration alive. Together, the iNation components provide unique perspectives and valuable resources for telling a more complete and up-to-date story of the richness that immigration brings to our society.

Visit the iNation web site.

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Sonia Nieto is Professor Emerita of Language, Literacy, and Culture, School of Education, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In her career, she has taught students from elementary school through doctoral studies and her research has focused on multicultural education, teacher education, and the education of Latinos, immigrants, and other students of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. She is the author of Finding Joy in Teaching Students of Diverse Backgrounds: Culturally Responsive and Socially Just Practices in U.S. Classrooms.

Heinemann Author Q & A Series: Sonia Nieto, Part 2

In part 1, Sonia shared some advice on how to inspire and motivate teachers to find joy in teaching students of diverse backgrounds. In today’s post, Sonia suggests some wider-ranging changes in education.

You write, “It is time we recognize that some of the most consequential aspects of teaching cannot be measured in the same old ways we’re used to and look for more genuine ways of evaluating what teachers do every day.” Can you recommend some more genuine approaches to evaluation?

Teachers can and should be evaluated, of course, because we need excellent teachers who teach rich content using interesting and innovative pedagogy. But focusing on students’ test scores is not the way to go about it. Creative ways of evaluating teachers include perusing student exhibitions, performances, and projects. Student portfolios, although time-consuming, are well worth the effort, and examining them can tell us a lot about teachers’ effectiveness. Observing teachers learn together as peers is another more positive assessment.

You eloquently wrote, “There are many caring and committed teachers in our nation’s schools but they are often invisible. It is to our detriment as a society for them to remain so. Having highlighted these teachers’ stories, their hopes, and their experiences, I hope that others—teachers, administrators, families, policymakers, the general public—will see the tremendous difference teachers can make in the education and future of our children, particularly if they are given the chance to do so unencumbered by rigid accountability schemes that rob teachers of their creativity and joy.” How can administrators, schools, districts, and communities make these teachers visible? 

The rampant de-professionalization of teachers over the past couple of decades has had a detrimental effect on teachers’ ability to use their training, creativity, and intelligence. Too many teachers are leaving the profession; others are tired and burned out. Administrators, schools, districts, and communities can make teachers visible by giving them some of the autonomy they’ve lost over the years of the so-called reform movement: provide meaningful professional development; make it possible for teachers to attend conferences; turn over some of the power to make curricular and pedagogical decisions; and do everything they can to reduce the pressures associated with high-stakes testing.

If you were the U.S. Secretary of Education, how would you steer the course of education in America?

I would stop privatizing public education. I would no longer grant charters and greatly reduce the number of current charter schools, retaining only those that have been successful with our most vulnerable students. I would make sure that no public monies or vouchers were used to support church-related charter schools. I would also stop supporting organizations such as Teach for America, which shortchange teacher education, and instead fund excellent teacher educations programs in colleges and universities. Most important, I would discontinue high-stakes tests; they are destroying the fabric of public education by creating a climate of teaching to the test. I would focus on supporting community schools that provide the kinds of services that help offset the detrimental effects of poverty: counseling services for children and families, health and medical services, housing information and support, and so on. I would also join with teachers, administrators, academics, students, advocacy organizations, and the general public to create schools that students love attending. Given the constant pressure on both students and teachers to “perform” rather than teach and learn, schools like these are becoming increasingly harder to find.

Read a sample chapter of Finding Joy in Teaching Students of Diverse Backgrounds: Culturally Responsive and Socially Just Practices in U.S. Classrooms here.

Heinemann Author Q & A Series: Sonia Nieto, Part 1

In today’s post, you’ll get some insight into how Sonia Nieto’s Finding Joy in Teaching Students of Diverse Backgrounds can help teachers become inspired and motivated in these culturally diverse times. In part 2, Sonia will share her suggestions on how we as a society can make positive changes in education, including what she would do if she were the U.S. Secretary of Education.

How do the teachers you interviewed balance teaching the Common Core State Standards and preparing their students for the corresponding standardized assessments with teaching the social, emotional, and academic skills they know are essential? 

The teachers I interviewed, who are committed and passionate about their students, their craft, and public education, have a range of responses to the CCSS and other standardized assessments. Some feel they are already teaching in ways that ensure their students will do well. For Angeles Pérez, standardized tests “are on the back burner.” María Guerrero feels “suffocated,” “policed,” and “being checked on” constantly and refuses to be put in that position: “No! It’s my spirit, I have to be who I am, and I have to say what I have to say when I have to say it. Because I do have a voice and I do have power.” Despite their talent and their resolve, excellent teachers like Angeles and María are being placed in an untenable position and too many are becoming demoralized.

In your book you say, “It is time to take collaboration seriously by making it an explicit part of professional development and providing resources that collaboration requires.” Using Web 2.0 tools such as Twitter and Google+, teachers are able to collaborate with colleagues around the world. Do you think it’s enough that teachers take advantage of Web tools to collaborate? If not, what other kinds of collaboration do you think help teachers and students most?

Web tools are an important way to collaborate and more teachers should use them, but I don’t think they’re enough. There’s nothing like face-to-face collaboration in reading or inquiry groups, seminars, workshops, and conferences. These activities allow teachers to network, to think and rethink together, to come up with solutions to problems they’re facing in their classrooms and schools, and to become recharged and reenergized in a way that Web tools cannot.

In chapter 2, you write, “The best way to be prepared to teach students who embody all of these differences is to develop a social justice approach to teaching.” Do you have suggestions on how teachers can achieve this? 

Throughout the book, I present numerous examples, both from research and in the words and experiences of the teachers I interviewed, and suggest some general principles:

• Engage in critical self-reflection: This means figuring out who we are, what we value, and how we align our values with our pedagogy and curriculum. It also means confronting hard questions about biases we have that might get in the way of  effective interactions with children of various backgrounds.

• Value language and culture: Having a social justice approach to teaching means valuing students’ language, culture, and experiences and using these elements as resources in the curriculum. But we cannot value our students’ language and culture unless we know something about them. This is one of our most important responsibilities: to find out who our students are, who their families are, what they value, what they hope for, and how they live their lives. Learning these things will go a long way toward helping us develop an appreciation for our students’ identities and lives.

• Insist on high-quality work from all students: Loving students is not enough unless it’s accompanied by holding them to high standards and believing in their capabilities. Having high standards is an indisputable message that we care about our students.

In your chapter “I Hope I Can Become That Teacher,” you write, “Imagine if all teachers and all schools recognized what these teachers already know: that no language is inferior, that no culture is ‘a culture of poverty,’ and that students’ identities and experiences are rich resources on which to build.” What can teachers and administrators do to make this happen?

We have to stop listening to deficit messages about children and their families: that because they don’t have fathers, they can’t learn; that because they don’t speak English, they’re not smart; that because they don’t have books at home, they don’t want to learn. Instead, we can approach our students as having assets: the ability to speak one or more languages other than English; resilience in the face of often tremendous obstacles; creativity and intelligence that often go untapped; and so on. I always suggest that teachers who speak only English try learning a second language, preferably one that some of their students speak. Not only will this help them communicate with their students’ families, but also they will experience firsthand how difficult it is to learn another language. The kind of empathy, respect, and admiration they develop for their students as a result is priceless.

Read a sample chapter of Finding Joy in Teaching Students of Diverse Backgrounds: Culturally Responsive and Socially Just Practices in U.S. Classrooms here.