Ofelia Garcia with Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Ofelia Garcia. Photo: Teachers College, Columbia University

Dr. Ofelia García is Professor in the Ph.D. programs of Urban Education and of Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Among her recent books are Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global PerspectiveEducating Emergent Bilinguals (with J. Kleifgen), Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity (with J. Fishman), Negotiating Language Policies in Schools: Educators as Policymakers (with K. Menken), Imagining Multilingual Schools (with T. Skutnabb-Kangas and M. Torres-Guzmán), and A Reader in Bilingual Education (with C. Baker). Here, she discusses her path from educator to scholar, with Estrella Olivares-Orellana, a doctoral candidate in the Curriculum and Teaching Department, at Teachers College, Columbia University. Olivares-Orellana is also an adjunct lecturer at Hunter College, and a bilingual science educator.

 

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

I want to thank you for the opportunity to have a conversation with you and acquire some of your wisdom. We envision this publication as a way of creating a dialogue between those of us passionate about education and the scholars who inspired us to get into the field. My first question is regarding your interest in pursuing your doctoral degree. What did you originally think you would get out of it and why did you think it was the right avenue for you?

OFELIA GARCIA

Well, that’s a very interesting question, because I’m much, much older than you and when I thought about a doctorate, or when I became involved in graduate study, there weren’t many Latinas in this. I want you to know that I don’t think I would have ever pursued a doctorate if it wasn’t because I had a Latino professor at Hunter College, I will never forget him, who actually said to me one day “you have to get a doctorate.” I was pursuing a masters degree because I was teaching, and he said I needed to get a doctorate. I said, “How do you do that?” and he actually brought me by the hand to the graduate center and I applied. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I was curious, I was interested in intellectual ideas, I had a big commitment to education, and I also had a deep interest in learning about who I was, as a Latina woman, and about the Latino community. This was something that was not talked about too much. So it was that curiosity and the fact that someone brought me here that led me to a doctorate. Those were different days!

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Was bilingual education something you were thinking about already or were your interests more general?

OFELIA GARCIA

That’s also interesting because I was a bilingual teacher. I always say that I started being a bilingual teacher before there was formal bilingual instruction. I was teaching in a progressive school and suddenly all of my students were Puerto Rican, all of them, and I thought, “Well, this doesn’t make too much sense, they don’t speak English, I speak Spanish, why I’m I teaching them in English only?” I started experimenting with bilingualism in education before bilingual education was even something that one could study. In those days there were no programs in bilingual education. I actually did a doctorate in what came closer to bilingual education, which was Spanish literature and Spanish semiotics. I was pursuing Spanish language education, and the only doctorate available to me was a doctorate in Spanish language and literature, so that’s what I did. I had always been a bilingual teacher. At the end of studying, I didn’t know how to put those two things together: my intellectual interest and my commitment in what I was doing practically.

I had a mentor, Lillian Weber, a progressive educator. Actually, PS 84 in Manhattan is named after Lillian Weber. Lillian was the person who worked with us in this experimental progressive school led by a group of educators committed to doing education differently. We got a grant and opened up this school, which was born of the 60s. We ran ourselves; there was no principal, and Lillian was the person that was guiding us through this process of putting the structure of the school together. When I graduated I continue to teach…

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

What did you teach?

OFELIA GARCIA

… it was an intermediate school. I taught ESL, Spanish, and whatever else needed to be taught through Spanish. It was a small school. Then there was a position available in bilingual education at City College. Those were the years when they were hiring because the field was not done yet. Lillian said to me, “Why don’t you apply?” and I said, “But that’s not the field of my doctorate,” and she said “Yeah, but you know how to do it, we need someone who can do it.” I applied and I was hired under a project with what was then called “soft money.” Then I thought, “Okay, this is where I’m getting my rice and beans from, so I have to pay attention to this,” and I went to Yeshiva University to study with Joshua Fishman, and did a post doctorate with him. That’s how I came to bilingual education. I have always said I came to it because for me, one of the principles of education has been that you have to build from the strength of the children, that is something that Lillian had always hammered into us and it is a principle that I hold dear. If you are working with a language minority community, or the Latino community, then how do you educate without building on their strengths, which is their language and cultural heritage? To me it was the natural thing to do. I came to bilingual education through my progressive education background, putting together my studies on language and semiotics and what I studied with Joshua Fishman – sociology of language and how bilingualism works in the world. In some ways it’s easier today and also more difficult, because since there was no path when I started, it was easier to construct a path, there were so many holes. Now things have been settled and you have to go through the path. I had to put it together, there was no other of way of doing it. It was also common sense to me; you cannot educate children in a language they don’t understand.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

This is interesting because we are told to look for gaps in the literature, so that we can contribute and not just repeat what has already been said. You found this void and that’s how you constructed your path.

OFELIA GARCIA

Right, but it was a void only in the world of others. It wasn’t a void in my world. It was a void in the academic world, which I was able to fill because it was my life.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

This brings me to my next question. When we started, as doctoral students, one of our professors told us, “You are entering a conversation that has already started.” As a result, we are faced with finding out how and where to enter this conversation and how to contribute to it without doing what other people have already been doing. This is a very difficult task. What kind of advice would you give doctoral students in terms of finding the best way to make a contribution?

OFELIA GARCIA

I’ve thought about this a lot, because I think that one of the major problems with academic work is that we start with a conversation that has already occurred instead of starting with what it is that we have in front of us. What is our data? If you start from the theories that have already been constructed for you all you do is repeat the same thing without moving the conversation further. I think that the mark of a scholar, and the mark of young people who are entering the profession, is precisely to push the conversation, and not to let it be where it is. After all, every life is different, every era is different. The circumstances today are not the circumstance of 20 years ago, so you have to see through your own lens. My recommendation to my students is: start with the data. You look closely at what is in front of you, you construct your own meaning, and you look for the literature that’s going to enable you to enter the conversation in a way that’s going to be credible. It is true that being part of the academy is precisely to be in contact with the people who have had similar ideas or who are working in the same field. But I would say that, yes, you have to have some sort of conceptual understanding, and that you get from the literature, but you have to enter the data with your own lens.

I’ll tell you for example how I see that very clearly in studies of bilingualism. I always say that many of the theories of bilingualism have been constructed from a monolingual perspective. People who know about monolingualism, who are monolingual, view bilingualism as just double monolingualism. But those of us who have grown up bilingual, like I have (I arrived in New York City when I was 10 and I have lived here my whole life), my whole life has been lived in bilingual Latino communities, until very recently. For me, bilingualism cannot be two double monolingualisms. It is something a lot more complex, a lot more interrelated, and interdependent. It is not a first language and a second language, as people describe it, and as the literature tells you it is. That’s because the people who are generating the literature have a different vision of what it should be. I think we have to enter into the conversation with our own lenses and our own experiences, which means only really looking closely at what you have in front of you and having a standpoint. I think that we always theorize from our own experiences, and everybody who theorizes, theorizes differently because our experiences are different. We see, therefore, different things, but I think that a good scholar has to be someone who sees through their own lenses not through anybody else’s lenses.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

I agree. I read a commentary you wrote to John Edwards a long time ago, in which you used the line “la vida es un sueño, los sueños, sueños son” from a play by Pedro Calderón. That play deals with the conflict between fate and free will. Using that metaphor, would you say that your path has been more of fate or more of free will?

OFELIA GARCIA 

(laughter)…Oh boy, gee I don’t know. But I always say that I got here I don’t know how. It is really interesting because when I work with younger scholars, junior faculty who often ask me for advice, they come and they show me this and say, “Look, I have one publication in this journal, one publication in this other journal, what should I do?’ and I say, gee I don’t know because honestly, when I look back to where I came from and what I have done, I don’t know how it happened. I really don’t know how it happened. I’ll tell you one thing, my mentor was Joshua Fishman and I remember when Fishman turned 55, I said to him, ‘Oh, you have done so much,’ and he said to me, ‘If you work 20 years as hard as I have, you’ll get there too.’ And I think that’s true, if you work hard at something that you are committed to for a lifetime, you get somewhere. I never set out to have a goal. I just started walking and life led me one way or the other. I think if you are passionate and you work hard you sort of find the way. It’s really interesting.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

In that commentary, you actually didn’t use that metaphor in that way. You used it to talk about identity and language. Can you explain the connection? I know this is old…

OFELIA GARCIA

Yes, it’s from a long time ago, I’ll see if I can remember. Certainly, language has a lot do with how you are constituted. I think that language constitutes us in some way. You can’t separate language, the way in which you language from who you are. This is important. For me, it’s not Spanish language that is my identity; it’s really bilingualism that is my identity. I always emphasize that. As I said before, the idea of a first language and a second language doesn’t make sense, because to me English is also my language. So it’s bilingualism. It’s the ability to really move back and forth in those worlds, in those linguistic and cultural worlds, that constitute me in some way, and that is very much my identity. You walked in and I spoke Spanish to you because it’s my way of connecting. I can’t avoid that.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Yes, I agree. It’s who we are. I came here when I was 18, and I’m now 37. I’ve been speaking English since then, but I didn’t speak English when I got here, and I’m always going back and forth. To stick to just one language wouldn’t be me anymore.

OFELIA GARCIA

Right, right. 

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Now, after Proposition 227 and these English-only policies that have been passed, not just in California but in other states as well, what do you think will be the consequence in terms of how bilingual education has at times been blamed for the achievement gap? What do you think the fallout of these English-only policies will be years from now when we look back at this time?

OFELIA GARCIA

I think we are beginning to see the results and the fact that they really haven’t helped. I know one thing: I know that in order for students to be truly educated they have to really believe that you believe in them. They really have to feel good about themselves. If what you do in a school is to say that part of you, which is your language, the language of the home, the language in which you speak to your parents, the language of your songs and your poetry, if that part of you cannot enter the school building in any way, I know there is no way that that child is going to feel whole. And I think in order to become educated, you have to feel some sense of wholeness, you have to feel some sense that you are respected in some way. And I know that cannot happen if you exclude any aspect of the child’s life, not just language. I think that limiting education to English-only all the time is not going to help with English acquisition after all, because we know first of all that new language practices are only acquired in interrelationships with old language practices. Anybody who has ever learned a language knows that. You cannot do it in isolation. You always do it in interrelationship with the language practices that your already know, that’s how you compare and look at words and their meaning. This is not going to help with language acquisition or with English language literacy. It will indeed have tremendous consequences for academic failure. 

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

In one of your articles, I remember reading about the time when you came to the US and the fact that you had a Spanish voice, and that was your only voice. You then started school and English became your academic voice, and Spanish became your social voice, but you were looking for a way to bring them together to create your world. What do you say to, for example, Richard Rodriguez, who wrote a great and sincere autobiography (I am actually now teaching a course on Foundations of Bilingual Education and I want people to think of those issues). When I read it, and I don’t know if you agree, I could feel his pain….

OFELIA GARCIA

Yes, me too, me too…

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

He states that one of the goals of bilingual education is to bring that private language that you have with your family, which is part of your private culture, out to the public, and he maintains you cannot do that. This is the opposite of what you say…

OFELIA GARCIA

Well, I think it is silly for us, as a country, to say that these languages, other than English, have to remain in private. I just came back from Valencia and the big move on all of Europe is for everybody, for all the children, to have what they call their ‘mother tongue plus two.’ They are really working hard at that, and the idea is that having other languages, gives you access to other worlds, other cultures, other ways of traveling, other ways of participating, other ways of contributing, in ways that English-only is never going to do. So, the idea that Spanish has to remain in the home, or in the kitchen, when Spanish is such an important global language; it’s a language of importance. I think we could have said something different in the beginning of the 20th century, but in the beginning of the 21st century Spanish is huge and it has gone global. Spanish is a language that is more studied in Europe, after English of course, than any other language. For us to have this incredible resource in our society and to say that it can only be used in the kitchen, it’s very short sided. We do have this incredible resource that we don’t use. In New York City, half of the student population go back to homes in which English is not the language that is spoken, and we never make any recognition of it, unless there’s a problem, unless they don’t speak English, or they haven’t passed the NYSESLAT or something like that. Then we recognize these other languages. I think this has enormous consequences for the security and the self-image of our children. I know my own daughters especially, when they read a novel, even if the novel was in English, the acknowledgement of a Spanish speaking character made them come home so excited. They were really excited because that made them feel secure in their identities. It made them feel it was ok to speak Spanish and to be Latina, that this was an American thing to do, that this is not something that immigrants do, or foreigners do, or others do, but that Americans also can be bilingual, and this is a good thing.  It’s a part of our heritage as Americans. Bilingualism is not the characteristic of others. I think this is what we should be striving for as a nation, not keeping these languages in the kitchen, you know.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

And I think you would agree that one of the problems with bilingual education here is that bilingualism is not always the goal. Even well-intentioned programs turn out to be transitional programs, where Spanish is used as a resource until students master proficiency in English. How do we fix that?

OFELIA GARCIA

I think we have to shift our ideology. As I told you, I just came back from Europe, where I keynoted at a symposium on multilingualism, so I am very conscious of this position. In Europe, multilingualism is seen as a good thing. Researchers get money to research multilingualism, it’s something that they want everybody to have. We only get money to research problems here. I have been told directly, if you say that bilingualism is a resource we cannot get funding. You have to say that these kids have a problem, and once you have a problem, then you can get money to solve the problem. That’s a big issue here. Until we can change that formula to Latinos having something that everybody wants, rather than Latinos having a deficit, or a need…because if you tell principals, and teachers, and the kids, over and over again that they have a need, they are going to believe it and act as though they have a need. The way in which you act toward people who need, and the way you act toward people who have is very different. It may be psychological, but it manifests and I think that makes a difference.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

And this is very discouraging for people who are becoming bilingual teachers. NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and other regulations and testing surrounding ELLs (English Language Learners), such as the fact that they are given not only the NYSESLAT (New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test), but also the ELA (English Language Arts) Regents, which even native English speakers struggle with, puts these children at a disadvantage. In our near future, do you see that there could be a way of addressing these issues at the policy level?

OFELIA GARCIA

I think it is starting to change. For example, in New York State the department of education has changed the ways of acknowledging bilingualism differently. The seal of biliteracy is an important example. It is a very important measure that will encourage people to think of bilingualism differently. We have a big project here called the CUNY NYSIEB (the New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals), and the fact that they have been able to pick up the term “emergent bilinguals” says a lot. New York State has been thinking about developing Common Core standards for emergent bilinguals, and they are calling them Bilingual Common Core Standards for New York State. I think that NYS could actually lead the nation in this. NYS is a different place, where there have never been any restrictions, so I’ve started to see a shift and for the first time I’m beginning to see something different.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

You are hopeful.

OFELIA GARCIA

Yeah, and I think that maybe I will see it. Maybe I’ll see it in my life time (laughter).

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

I have been teaching bilingual science for 11 years. When I first became passionate about bilingual education, I asked my principal to allow me, along with a few colleagues, to visit successful bilingual schools. One of the schools we visited was Gregorio Luperón High School in Washington Heights. The other schools we visited were part of the International Network of Public Schools. I remember being so impressed by Luperón High School, more so than by any other school. There was a different culture there. I know you recently published Additive Schooling in Subtractive Times, with Lesley Bartlett, who I think is amazing. This book documents the successful efforts of Luperón High School. What do you think they are doing right? What do you think it’s so different compared to what takes place in other schools?

OFELIA GARCIA

I think that the only thing they got right is their commitment to educating those kids and the fact that they are not afraid of the community or suspicious of the kids, but rather understand that this is their community, and their kids, and like any parent would do, they are taking care of their kids. I think that’s it. They do many things that are not completely by the book. Someone may go in there and think, “Hey, this methodology is not right,” but I think if you really believe that the kids can learn and if you really are committed to teaching them, kids stand up to the challenge. That’s what Luperón has going for them. Teachers want to teach these students. They want to teach students who are new to the language and new to the country. They have a commitment to making this work and I think that if you have that commitment and you work in teams that are focused on what the kids need, it works. When we believe we can, we manage to do it. When we think we can’t we don’t come up to the task.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Would you say they have pedagogy of care framing their work?

OFELIA GARCIA

Absolutely. There is a caring atmosphere that then has repercussions on pedagogy, instruction, and commitment. Luperón is a very interesting example, because here is a model that works and it has not been replicated. The international high schools get replicated but not Luperón. I think it’s because it’s scary to think that a school by Latinos for Latinos could work. And it does.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

I agree. I am going to end by asking you what advice would you give people like me or people who are just starting to become bilingual teachers in this era of standardized tests, Common Core, APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review), lack of tenure, new evaluations, etc. All these things put a lot of pressure on teachers who teach out of the mainstream, such as special education students or ELLs (English Language Learners), or students labeled as SIFE (Students with Interrupted Formal Education), which is my area of interest. We work in fear of how their progress will show on paper, in terms of statistics of how many students pass these standardized tests. What kind of advice would you give these teachers?

OFELIA GARCIA

Well, someone has to teach these kids. I think it’s unfair to be evaluated on the same measures with people who work with White, middle class kids. The achievement and the ways in which you have to work are very different, so I think that that part is unfair. I hope that they work it out before they roll it all out. In other words, I hope that someone is really thinking about all of this, and understands that you have to be fair to the kids and also fair to the teachers. I have worked with teachers my whole life and because I have also been a teacher, I think that most people go into teaching because they care. People don’t go into teaching because of the benefits. They go into teaching because they care and they want to make a difference in some way. People will continue to go into teaching so I hope that as our standards rise, and I think they have to…for many years, these kids did not count, they counted for people like me but they didn’t count for the mainstream. It is a double-edge sword because when I was in my little corner taking care of these kids, we were okay. It is when these children became part of the mainstream that many of them got lost. Having said that, I think kids have to be pushed. Kids sometimes could do better than what we expect them to do. I don’t think they need to be evaluated every time you turn around, but I do think that they could be pushed to work harder than they do, they can be motivated to do better. I haven’t met many teachers who don’t work for those goals. I think the majority of teachers do and I think that somehow teachers have gotten a very bad reputation.

I think that we can come up with a compromise that allows us to involve every child, especially emergent bilinguals and Latino kids, in achieving more and meeting standards not by assessing and testing but by teaching. These are difficult times and I think that kids need to feel good about themselves in order to do well, I think that teachers need to feel good about themselves in order to do well. The fear of being evaluated all the time could have serious consequences on the quality of the instruction. I would not want to be a teacher right now, and neither would a whole bunch of people. I don’t think the Common Core standards that have been adopted are bad. I’ve looked closely at the language parts, and I think that there are shifts in the language expectations that are very good. The Common Core standards ask you to engage with language in more dynamic ways. They are not bad, but the issue is whether we are going to really devise ways that assess kids in meeting those standards in fair ways, allowing for the understanding that not every child is going to meet the standards in the same way or at the same time. It is the same for the ways in which teachers deliver instruction. If you have kids who are middle class from Long Island, you cannot teach them the same way you would teach kids who arrived from Mexico yesterday. That is what we have to think about, the scaffolds that both students and teacher will need. There is tremendous work to be done. We don’t have enough people working on this. There is tremendous need for young people to look at this question. The question of bilingualism is not going to go away. The world has changed, there is more migration than ever, there is more movement than ever, it’s much more complex than ever. It used to be just Spanish and English, and that’s not the case anymore. In New York State one of the main languages is Karen, which is a language spoken in Myanmar, and this is a language that is not even in our Western consciousness. Therefore, bilingualism, or multilingualism, is here to stay. It is not going to go away. It is only going to get more complex and there is a huge need for young people to study this.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

 Thank you so much for your time.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Currently, she is also an adjunct lecturer at Hunter College,and a bilingual science educator. She has a B.S. in Biochemistry from SUNY, Stony Brook, and an Ed.M. inInternational Education Development from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research interests are in the areas of bilingual education, Latino education, education for SIFE students and the experiences of immigrant students.

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