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The lived personal and professional experience of Tammy Oberg De La Garza and Alyson Lavigne did much to spur them to the thinking, writing and teaching that has produced their first book together, Salsa Dancing in Gym Shoes.
Buoyed by personal narratives from Latinx students-turned-educators and scholars, as well as the authors' own journeys as the spouses of Mexican-Americans, Drs. Oberg De La Garza and Lavigne currently serve as Professors of Education at Roosevelt University in Chicago and Utah State University, respectively.
Plenty of pedagogically sound material and information is injected into this very readable tome, which takes the work of these university professors, who met while working at Roosevelt University, in cross-cultural communication and intercultural competence and mixes it with reflections from Latinos who began on the student side of the classroom and have become practitioners in their own right. The resulting admixture is distilled into a case for more equity and accessibility in K-12 and university education across languages and cultures, not only in the U.S., but applied worldwide.
And this is exactly what our current times and the future of pedagogy require. When asked about this—specifically whether their book is even more relevant now than when they started writing it, Dr. Lavigne responded: "Yes, absolutely. I think one of the shifts that I'm seeing in working with principals and teachers is that equity is now the first question that they're accessing and that's in regards to Black Lives Matter. In combination with Covid-19 happening, there's no way that this issue [equity] can be the second or third or fourth question that we ask as a district or schools. Teachers are asking: "Is there equitable access to resources?"
"I'm currently in Utah and [there's the question of] Native communities and to what extent they have access to even the basic health needs during all of this, in addition to the things that we're requiring for remote learning like computers. And, maybe having folks at home who can support that learning and problem solve issues with them. It is long overdue for this to be the lens through which we approach learning."
Dr. Oberg De La Garza added, "Leading up to this book, the work that Alyson and I did before, was really exploring how students perceive care from teachers. Until they know you care, they don't care what you know.
"You could be a phenomenal teacher, but if there's a break in the relationship between the teacher and the student, the student is not going to benefit as much as the student who is in sync with the teacher, who feels like the teacher and they are one and the same."
The title Salsa Dancing in Gym Shoes is itself a metaphor for bringing one's own approach into a teaching situation with Latino children, particularly as a white educator, and having those implicit biases and methods hinder the learning attempted by those students.
To illustrate both this title and theme of their book as well as the importance of learning compassionate teaching, Drs. Oberg De La Garza and Lavigne cited their favorite examples of pivotal educational moments shared by the Latinx authors whose stories add vibrance to the book.
Dr. Oberg De La Garza was struck by Sarah Rafael García's account of being put on the spot to pronounce the English word "chair" and producing "ch-ch-chair". The experience was made worse by Ms. Garcia's teacher forcing her to stand up in front of the class to do this as an English Language Learner. Ms. García had a panic attack as a result. She has since become an educator who uses this personal memory in her own work and personal life to better approach socio-emotional learning and bilingual learners' specific challenges and vulnerabilities.
For her part, Dr. Lavigne mentioned the writing of Laura Guzmán-DuVernois and her class discussion prompt in a heritage language classroom of the different ways to say "kite" across the Latino world. This meta-linguistic awareness, the chance to acknowledge that even within one language there are a variety of norms, was the gem for Dr. Lavigne. Even in her own home, her children ask about different alphabets and pronunciations among and within languages, which she loves to talk about with them.
To watch kids realize that there are differences between languages and discover that different languages align in different ways to mathematical thinking and reading— is a gift, according to Dr. Lavigne.
Both authors have, in addition to their university work, experience in K-12 education, Dr. Oberg De La Garza in teaching diverse classrooms in Chicago and Dr. Lavigne in observing classroom teachers in Arizona. They agreed that there's a disconnect between what teachers are studying and what's being taught in higher education and what K-12 teachers are doing in the classroom. The two worlds, the authors feel, could be more connected and embedded.
And this is not just a U.S. problem. With another colleague, Dr. Lavigne collected data in the Netherlands on teaching practices and found that K-12 teachers desire more support from universities and other players in teaching diverse youth. She states "There's a gap between K-12 and university teaching. K-12 teachers are doing really important work that no one's studying [at the university level]."
Article written by Andrew Palmacci for NewYorkinFrench on August 4, 2020
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In the 20th and 21st centuries, it is often the United States that is cited as the country most effective at engaging in cultural diplomacy. Or, the U.S. is touted as a major exporter of "soft power" to the rest of the world. But, in Jane Flatau Ross' Two Centuries of French Education in New York, it is France's efforts to spread influence abroad with culture—in this case education—that is given the spotlight. Dr. Ross, through a look at her own internationally flavored life and long career at the Lycée Français in New York, examines the global network of French schools abroad. She focuses on the subject through the lens of K-12 schools in New York from the early 18th century on, particularly focusing on the 20th-century Lycée Français and an earlier precursor.
Professor of History at Ohio State University, Alice L. Conklin offered the following in praise of Dr. Ross: “In this wonderfully engaging book Jane Ross restores to view a little-known dimension of French educational rayonnement in the US. A must read for anyone seeking to understand the cultural ambitions of global France today.”
“Jane Ross has written a marvelous history of the Lycée Français de New York, bringing to that analysis deep insight gleaned from three decades teaching in the school,” added Herrick Chapman, Professor of History and French Studies at New York University.
It is true that this work of combined history and memoir is unique, in that few scholars have looked at specific “global school” models. The author’s case study of the Lycée Français de New York (1935-present) and other French schools in New York explores how the French national education systems functions not only beyond the hexagon of France itself, but also beyond the strictly colonial “civilizing mission” that was advanced by French schools in both French colonies and former colonies.
The recently published Two Centuries of French Education in New York was born out of Dr. Ross' work in the International Education doctoral program at NYU’s Steinhardt School. While engaged in her studies there, she initially thought her dissertation thesis would revolve around heritage language learning. She had founded the French Heritage Language Program, an educational resource for Francophone immigrants to the U.S. shortly after her retirement from a career of 30 years at the Lycée.
It was only when the teacher and scholar began to pull material together for her doctoral thesis that she realized that the story of French schools and the history of the Lycée in New York would be fertile ground for research and eventually for publication. That suited Dr. Ross well, as she was "more comfortable with an historical perspective as opposed to an anthropological and statistics-based approach." She was, in fact, educated as an historian, holding undergraduate degrees in History and French from Swarthmore College.
Upon completion of her thesis, one of her committee members suggested she add some personal elements to the writing. This advice was based on that professor's own scholarly work on peace and conflict studies in Afghanistan, in which she interspersed theory with anecdotes from her time on the ground in Kabul.
It took some adjustment of tack, but Dr. Ross states, "I think the most enjoyable parts [of writing the book] were the snippets of personal family history that I added after the thesis was completed. I felt I had more freedom to make the book more personal and hopefully more interesting for readers who might find the more technical or academic aspects less vibrant."
On the contrary, the distilling of French educational history in New York is compelling, particularly including the profile of the 19th-century Economical School that gives insight into the operation of an international, bilingual school in the early days of the American Republic. In fact, Dr. Ross "greatly enjoyed the research into [this] school."
One of the first sections of the book lays out the origins of a global French education system and, to be sure, French education itself. This posed the most challenging research for the author and educator: "The most difficult parts were those concerning the technicalities of the French government's relationship to the schools abroad. While the schools themselves," she adds, "and specifically the Lycée Français de New York, each have a history of their own, they fit into an administrative structure that almost seemed to exist in a parallel universe."
While at the Lycée, the writer of Two Centuries of French Education New York reflected that she "never thought [she] was a part of this "cultural machine", a machine of cultural diplomacy to be exact, which was a true global phenomenon."
"But, I was," she observes. "That was why the Cambodians were there; why the Iranians came after the Shah fell; why Africans were there and why they were sometimes not there."
“The Lycée creates a cultural outpost with people singing La Marseillaise. It is important to France. I just thought it was a school."
Dr. Ross found working with the international student body the most enjoyable and rewarding part of her 30+ years at the school. "I loved being part of the school, the variety of families and interests they had."
She taught Turkish students who escaped over borders and walked through deserts to eventually reach the shores of the U.S. Other students were Africans who were the children of diplomats or the children of the diplomats' chauffeurs. Even the French families from the Hexagon were diverse in many ways. She tells me she remains close friends with some of the families.
The ultimate reward for teaching at the Lycée Français for Dr. Ross was, in her words, the "feeling that I had an impact on students who would be [living] all over the globe."”
Lastly, I ask her to sum up the French philosophy of education. She responds, "Education is the creation of citizens."
Then, her own philosophy. She responds unequivocally: "Education makes us human."
Article written by Andrew Palmacci for NewYorkinFrench on July 9, 2020
Découvrez l'édition printemps/été 2020 du French Education Guide : un annuaire détaillé Etat par Etat des écoles et programmes bilingues français aux Etats-Unis. Conçu à l’attention des parents cherchant à scolariser leurs enfants en français aux Etats-Unis, ce guide vous aidera à choisir l'école bilingue qui répond le mieux aux besoins de vos enfants.
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