María Paula Ghiso with Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Dr. María Paula Ghiso

Dr. María Paula Ghiso

María Paula Ghiso’s research focuses on the literacy learning of urban and immigrant students, with a particular focus on young children’s writing, responses to literature, and bilingual practices. María Paula was a pre-school and dual language elementary teacher in New York City and has worked extensively with teachers in national and international professional development contexts. In conversation here with Estrella Olivares-Orellana, we learn about her path to becoming an educational researcher and professor at Teachers College.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Thank you for agreeing to do this interview for Esteem. It is important for us to create this dialogue between scholars in the field and emerging scholars, as well as people who look up to you and your work and would like to understand your path. How did you originally get involved with the field of education?

MARÍA PAULA GHISO

I took a long time to decide. In fact, I took a test in career counseling about what I would become, and it came out as a teacher or a nun (laughter). My grandmother was a teacher and a principal, and I really connected with my teachers early on, so it was a career that as an elementary school student I thought I would have. I then decided to do something else. My parents are both in science. I always struggled with the idea of teaching being positioned in a very gendered way, so I wanted to do something that wasn’t “traditional.” The only option open to women when my grandmother was working was teaching, so now that there were other options for women, I wanted to do something different. Then I ended up working with young children and really loved it. During my undergraduate studies I had a Latin American studies major and a minor in education, because from working with young children I had realized I really wanted to do that. It was really the experience of being in classrooms with kids that solidified that education was something I wanted to study.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

I know your parents are from Argentina. Were you born in Argentina or in the United States?

MARÍA PAULA GHISO

I was born in Argentina. I first came to New York City when I was eight years old. My dad got a job for two years. We came and lived here temporarily. We then went back to Argentina and came back a few years after that. We have been here ever since. In fact, we came back to the exact same house where we had lived the first time. Although it was a lot of movement, it was actually very centered in one community here: Elmhurst, Queens.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Do you think that your background as an immigrant influenced your career choice?

MARÍA PAULA GHISO

Absolutely, I would say that it has influenced my decision to become a teacher and the focus I have as a teacher and a researcher. When I first came to the U.S. I experienced a lot of disjuncture between my schooling and my home life. I didn’t know any English. My parents had studied English in Argentina because they needed it for science, but I didn’t know anything. Consequently, I had a pretty negative experience in my school. I was pulled out for ESL for about 30 minutes a day and I wasn’t engaged in the classroom otherwise. I was just given busy work. I was really remediated and positioned as struggling. I then went to an Argentinian school on Saturdays, where I was a very successful student. On the one hand, there were problems there too; it was very traditional teaching and rote learning. On the other hand, it valued my language and culture. So it was kind of those two contexts together that made me see how my identity was being read very differently and I was ascribed almost opposite academic identities. I would think to myself, “But I’m the same student!” When I came back from Argentina the second time, in 6th grade, I was placed in a really low-track classroom and that’s when I began to become aware of the fact that my classmates and I were given a substandard curriculum that wasn’t preparing us for higher education and beyond. It was very behaviorist and about classroom management more than anything else. The following year I was moved to a much more advanced class, but my friends were still there in those same classrooms I had been in. I started to see the structural inequities in the system and I think that my experience gave me insight into the ways in which students are denied access or are read differently depending on their identities as immigrant students or as language learners, or as someone who is lacking English. I became a bilingual teacher and my research work has been with multilingual communities or with students who have been labeled as struggling or at risk. I think that because I know that those labels often really limit who students are and can negatively influence their identity.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

What is your take on the fact that bilingual education is so politicized in the United States, as opposed to Europe, for example, where policy makers are pushing for everyone to have their mother tongue plus two languages?

MARÍA PAULA GHISO

The dominant ideology of mono-lingualism is so prevalent here. You see how dual language programs, in which we want students to learn more languages in order to be prepared for global citizenship, are very limited as a result of English-only policies. Even when there aren’t any English-only policies, there is an English-only sentiment that deficitizes and at times criminalizes Spanish speakers. I think this is very unfortunate and I wish it were different. However, at the same time, in more privileged settings, we have students who are studying abroad in Spain. There are language ideologies that must be examined through the intersectional lenses of race, class, and immigration status. But even the idea of mother tongue, I think it’s not really characteristic of so many of our learners now. They are growing up in worlds where multiple languages are spoken. I was reading a great book that talked about the relationship between language and nationalism and how the idea of mother tongue reinforces the need for a mother tongue that’s your first tongue. And some of our students are learning two or multiple languages at the same time. Some students may get classified as having Spanish as their first language but in reality they may have spoken an indigenous language as their first language. It’s very complicated but it becomes simplified in the popular discourse. The language of the home may be Spanish but children live in multilingual communities so they are navigating these spaces that are very rich and very hybrid. I don’t know about the idea of dominant language, or second language. I think it’s becoming unsettled in a way. In a good way, hopefully! We have to see the language dynamism and multiplicity that exists in some communities.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Clearly you are a balanced bilingual. Many opponents of bilingual education claim that students in such programs do not fare well and that teaching a child in their native language is not necessarily better. What would you say were the factors that contributed to your effective bilingualism?

MARÍA PAULA GHISO

I would say, structural support. I didn’t go to a bilingual education program per say but I went to an Argentinian school until I was in High School, so I graduated High School from there as well. I then studied Spanish language in college. I also used it for professional purposes as a bilingual teacher. If I wasn’t constantly using it, and didn’t have the support to continue to read in Spanish and to develop my writing skills, I wouldn’t have developed abilities in both languages. There is one disturbing trend I have seen with the erosion of bilingual education in some places: many educators are acknowledging the importance of native language development but they are putting it on the parents. I’ve heard a lot of discourse about the parents being the ones who should be teaching the native language. Some parents have the luxury to do that, but this discourse doesn’t take into account social class, or parents who work, etc. Language maintenance and development should be supported in schools if we know that bilinguals learn best if taught in both their languages. So for me, it was being able to go to the Argentinian school and being able to continue using Spanish through college, many students don’t have that support.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Changing a bit to your career choices, you were a bilingual teacher first and I guess at some point you decided to pursue doctoral work. How did you negotiate that shift, from being a teacher to trying to become a scholar?

MARÍA PAULA GHISO

I think I was lucky in that my mentor at the University of Pennsylvania, Susan Lytle, does practitioner research and her stance is on knowledge that comes from systematic inquiry as a practitioner. I learned so much, but I didn’t come from a place where everything I knew was one thing and now I was going to have to learn something totally different. From the beginning, it was more like you have knowledge as a teacher, the things that go on in your classroom, and that is knowledge that you bring to the literature that you are reading. There is also a social justice component—teachers’ voices are often left out of policy conversations and of research. They are regularly on the receiving end of what’s going on in education rather than being the generators of knowledge. Therefore, coming to a program that saw me as a teacher and knowledge generator was really helpful to navigate what might have been a real disjuncture. I could mobilize my teacher identity even though my dissertation research was not on a practitioner research study but I really tried to articulate drawing from frameworks that are about practitioner research. Because as a teacher, going into someone else’s classroom and aligning myself to practitioner research frameworks, allowed me to see things differently. It was difficult at first, because I missed being involved in schools. I became involved in offering professional development and running inquiry groups, as part of the Penn Literacy Network, which is a literacy organization working with in-service teachers. I experienced disjuncture because I wasn’t in the classroom but at least I was able to do work with teachers for most of the time during my doctoral studies.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

What made you decide to go into doctoral work?

MARÍA PAULA GHISO

I became involved in some research studies as a master student, as a participant in communities of inquiry. Then as a teacher, I was always involved in university-based work either through student teachers I had, or classes that I was taking as a result of having student teachers, think tanks, teacher-research, etc. I never saw those two realms as separate. So then I just wanted to continue to explore some of those issues that I was really passionate about.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

What attracted you about Teachers College for your professional career?

MARÍA PAULA GHISO

First of all, I am a New Yorker, and I was very excited to be in a context such as New York City and to work with really diverse communities and with such a great population of students and teachers. With all the jobs we apply for, some are always better fits than others in terms of needs of a particular program or how your work resonates with what the institution’s orientation is or what they need. For me, TC it was a great fit. I work in the Literacy Specialist program. My training is in literacy but I am also able to infuse my dual language interests and my concerns for multilingual students within that. It has really been a wonderful place and I have tremendously supportive and inspiring colleagues here.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Your interest continues to be literacy and education in multilingual settings, right?

MARÍA PAULA GHISO

Yes.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

What would you say still drives that interest?

MARÍA PAULA GHISO

I think it’s part of what always drives me in education, which is part of my love for classrooms, both as a learner seeing the inequalities and how they shaped the way I saw education and then as someone being continually involved in community-based work. That’s what really fuels me to keep going.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

What advise would you give teachers who are contemplating crossing that bridge between being in the classroom and conducting research or contributing to the discourse at a different level?

MARÍA PAULA GHISO

I would say to remember the importance of communities of inquiry, which comes from my work with Susan Lytle. At times, PK through 12 schools and higher education institutions can be a bit competitive and individualistic. For me, part of what has been most rewarding about the work is the process of collaboration with colleagues, teachers, students, and families, where you can generate knowledge collectively. I would suggest trying to find that community work, whatever context you are drawn to where you can live your commitments. It doesn’t mean you need to find someone who thinks exactly like you, but find the spaces either in classrooms, neighborhoods, universities or in the borderlands between them where you can grapple with the real issues concerning teaching, learning, and research that don’t have ready-made answers. Part of my reason to pursue doctoral work was to try to wrestle with and explore these issues. I would also say to really embrace the power of the knowledge that you bring to the field as a teacher or community activist and to understand that you don’t have to shed those identities and leave that knowledge behind in order to become a teacher educator or a researcher. Because you may have already been doing a lot of important work and thinking that will inform your scholarship.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

I agree. Do you think it’s easy to find those spaces where you can collaborate? It seems to me that it can sometimes get a little lonely. You take your classes and then you have this research you have to do, which may not be aligned to someone else’s research. So do you find those spaces or generically create them?

MARÍA PAULA GHISO

I don’t think they are a given. You have to create them, but there is also support when working within programs or in doing research collaboratively. People can be very open and friendly but everyone works under individual pressures, so I think it is like working against the grain but you can find those spaces if it is what you value.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

What would you say is the best advise someone has given you along your career path?

MARÍA PAULA GHISO

Early on, during my masters, one of my professors, along the lines of thinking about the value of your own story, while talking about language and literacy histories, said to me, “Be careful of how your story could be used against you in a way that you are not intending” he continued to say “Somebody could read your story partially and say what a great example of language immersion, here is somebody who was placed in a sink or swim model and is so successful and doesn’t even have an accent and has thrived academically”. So, to be aware of the factors that contributed to my “success”. As a result, I am always careful about being “read” in some way and I make the factors that contributed to my success very explicit. For example, how I may have benefitted from certain privileges. The idea of the importance of the knowledge that you bring and how that helps you navigate the world and how you position yourself. Going back to advise I would give, I would say for the things you hold closely to you, or that you are passionate about, those burning questions you have, or things that unsettle you, or make you want to know more and provide better access to students, those are the things to explore and pursue. You should also know that the choices you make are not neutral, so others are reading you in some way but you have the agency to position yourself.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

I agree and I think many of us can relate to what you are describing. Lastly, what has been the hardest part in your career path and in the shift from being a teacher to becoming a professor at Teachers College?

MARÍA PAULA GHISO

That’s a good question. For me, a couple of things have been challenging. Whatever institution of education you are in, whether K through 12 or higher education, you are always in environments where you have to navigate power dynamics related to issues of gender, race, culture, language, and class. You always have to work within and against these constraints. Fortunately at TC I have many mentors and senior colleagues who have paved the way. We work within gendered patterns of participation and assessment within higher education institutions or public education schools. In my research as a professor, I always try to promote equitable processes in places that may seem by design, imperfect. For example, I have become very aware of how students are being positioned not only in classrooms but the larger educational system. But that’s the world we live in, and we have to try to make these spaces more nurturing and more socially just. Another challenge in my research with schools and teachers is the more restricted curriculum and the higher accountability teachers are subjected to today. In teacher education, for our teacher candidates, it becomes again, working within and against the system. This work needs to be done, however, and I want to continue to work with teachers and schools, so accepting that these constraints exist in schools and working to support teachers is important. It is a challenge but that’s the state of education and where we need to be. Neither teaching nor research occurs in an “ivory tower,” but in a real world with both limitations and possibilities.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

You are starting your career here at TC. What is the one goal you have or the one thing you want to be able to accomplish while you are here?

MARÍA PAULA GHISO

Being true to myself and my interests; being able to work with minoritized students and with teachers and being present for my students here and for the people I research with. I wouldn’t want to let other pressures get in the way of doing my work ethically. For me, it means being present for my students and being committed to values of inclusion and bilingual education. That’s what I would like to do with my time here.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Well, as your mentee and as someone devoted to promoting bilingual education, I can attest that you are certainly present for your students and your commitment to values of inclusion and bilingual education is ever present in your work. Thank you for being a great role model.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Estrella Olivares-Orellana (contributing editor) is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her scholarly interests are in the areas of bilingual and bicultural education, science education in bilingual settings and the academic experiences of immigrant students. Presently, she is conducting qualitative research with students who have been classified as presenting interrupted formal education. She is also a part-time instructor in the department of Arts & Humanities at Teachers College and a full-time bilingual science teacher at a high school in the suburbs of New York. Estrella holds an Ed.M. in International Educational Development from Teachers College and a B.S. in Biochemistry from SUNY, Stony Brook. She is a native of Chile but lived many years in Argentina before migrating to the U.S. in 1994.

 

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