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Personal Experiences of Two Educators Inform Their Look at Intercultural & Social Justice Approaches to Teaching Latino Students:   Salsa Dancing in Gym Shoes  By Tammy Oberg De La Garza and Alyson L

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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