Patricia Velasco with Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Dr. Patricia Velasco

Dr. Patricia Velasco

Dr. Patricia Velasco began her professional career as a speech pathologist in Mexico City. After finishing her Ed. D. at Harvard Graduate School of Education in the United States, she went back to Mexico to establish Casa de la Ciencia to work with indigenous bilingual children and their teachers in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas. Upon returning to New York City, she first worked for the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University, supporting teachers with the literacy and language needs of English language learners. Additionally, she was part of the faculty at Teachers College in the Bilingual and Bicultural Education Program. Presently, she is an Assistant Professor of Education at Queens College, City University of New York, where she coordinates the Bilingual Program, and the director of the Bilingual Common Core Initiative (BCCI), a project launched by the New York State Department of Education to develop scaffolds and descriptors to support teachers in developing new and home language in bilingual students. In conversation here with Estrella Olivares-Orellana, who worked with Dr. Velasco as one of the writers of the project, she discusses her career path, her work with the bilingual common core initiative and the importance of effective bilingual education programs.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

I understand you started your professional career as a speech pathologist in Mexico City. Did you grow up in Mexico? Why were you interested in speech pathology?

Patricia Velasco

Yes, I grew up in Mexico. I really wanted to get into the field of education. I have a cousin who is in the field of speech pathology and the wonderful thing about speech pathology is that it covers many different aspects. You need to know about education, language, testing, parental engagement, etc. and at the age of seventeen, which is the age, in Mexico, at which you decide what you want to study, that seemed to be an area that offered many possibilities. Furthermore, the program I went into was not just in speech pathology, it was actually for hearing-impaired children, speech pathology, and for children with reading and writing difficulties. It provided a broad education in those areas for the first two years, and in your third year you would decide an area in which you wanted to specialize. I became a teacher of hearing-impaired children.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

I see, so your interest in education was always there. How did you go from that career path to an interest in bilingual education and to pursuing a doctorate degree in education?

Patricia Velasco

I then went to get my masters degree at McGill. I was still very much interested in the education of hearing-impaired children. I had been a teacher of hearing-impaired children for many years even while getting my masters. I actually went into bilingual education through my doctorate program, that’s when it actually happened.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Tell me a little bit about Casa de la Ciencia in Mexico. How did you start that?

Patricia Velasco

I think I have to go over the political environment at the time. This was in the South of Mexico, Chiapas, in 1994 during the Zapatista uprising. This movement brought forward what we had always known, which was that the whole country faced inequalities. Something that always existed but was seldom confronted was that indigenous people faced many inequalities. An opportunity presented itself because out of the many governors that took over the ruling of Chiapas at the time, there was actually one governor who had federal and financial support and his backing coincided with that of other research institutions that wanted to create something that went a step above just research and toward something more educational for children and teachers. I shared this idea with a friend of mine, and we happen to come across a house that was unclaimed at the time. We asked the government for the house in order to create Casa de la Ciencia, and they not only gave it to us but also decided to remodel it. Subsequently to obtaining the house, we created a curriculum for Casa de la Ciencia. One fascinating aspect that had a great impact on me at the time was reading the book “The Museum Experience”, which explained that museums had to change their perspective on how to deal with knowledge. They had to outreach to people and create opportunities for those who were far away and provide them with access to that knowledge. In our case, the knowledge was science-based. We then asked from $250,000 from the Kellogg foundation. We were originally going to have two of what we called “camiones de la ciencia” in San Cristobal, but we were able to have four. These “camiones” were intended to reach the indigenous communities that were too far away to bring the children to the city, San Cristobal. We had many microscopes we had received from the German government, those were everyone’s delight; we had a telescope and a portable planetarium; and in addition to all of that, there was a literacy component accompanying the scientific knowledge.

The partnership was with Pronatura, which is an ecological institution based in Chiapas, and then there were El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, a research institution, and El Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia, which offers scholarships for students going abroad from Mexico and is also very influential in issues dealing with science education in Mexico. Children are interested in science because of its hands-on nature; we took advantage of that and centered our curriculum on using the scientific method for discovering knowledge.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

As a bilingual person, what was your experience with bilingual education? Do you feel that you are what some people call a “balanced bilingual”?

Patricia Velasco

Not really. I don’t necessarily feel that I am a balanced bilingual, if there is such a thing. I followed a very regular path. I was brought up in Mexico. I was sent to a bilingual school; I was what Baker would call a sequential bilingual because I started at the age of five. But I was really immersed in a Spanish-speaking environment. I was only taught English at school. I do remember many things about learning English though. I was recently telling Ofelia Garcia that I remember how important context was for me, when learning new words in English. Every time I learned a new word, I always remembered the context in which I learned that word because that helped me remember its meaning. I am actually now working on a small scale with cognates. Cognates are generally taught in a decontextualized manner, often given as a list of words. Furthermore, there is always this fear of false cognates when teaching a new language. I have been working with some colleagues with English/Spanish cognates in something called “Juego de Palabras”, which kids seem to love. For example, a student created one recently and said, “can you really rest when doing a resta (subtraction)?”, or another one was with lexical homographs, for example the words once and once (eleven), which are spelled the same but have different meaning, we worked with a vignette that said something like:

Ms. Morales has a dog named Sputnik. Sputnik was very depressed and she decided to take him to the veterinarian. The veterinarian gave him pills and wrote: Take once a day. Ms. Morales read it as take “once”(eleven) a day. How do you think Sputnik felt?

The understanding of translanguaging is really trying to bring this to the forefront of language learning, the fact that you can play with these cognates and lexical homographs and false cognates because they bring metalinguistic awareness to this kind of analysis of words.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

I like that. I am sure that emergent bilinguals find those exercises humorous. I agree that context is important when acquiring an additional language.  How does your bilingual education upbringing in Mexico compare to what takes place in bilingual education classrooms here in the U.S.?

Patricia Velasco

My experience with bilingual education was old-fashioned. What we have here in the U.S. is a lot of dynamic bilingualism, or bilingualism as a first language. I am currently working with a student who is a Chinese speaker. Her family is Chinese. She married a Korean person. They have a six-month-old baby. The language of the couple is English but she speaks Chinese. He doesn’t speak Korean very well but his mother takes care of the baby when they are not there. So the child is exposed to English, Chinese, and Korean. So what is really the mother tongue there? There is no such thing. That is why there is a change in terminology occurring, such as the use of the term ‘home language’ for example, because we often cannot determine if there is only one language working as a primary language, and the reality is that the language a child dominates today can change tomorrow.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

When I started my studies at Teachers College, I recall you were there working in the Bilingual and Bicultural Education program, which at the time was part of the International and Transcultural Studies Department. I recall meeting you briefly but I think that was the year you left Teachers College. Currently you are at Queens College coordinating the Bilingual Education Program, what has your experience been like, working with bilingual education teachers in New York City?

Patricia Velasco

I think New York City bilingual teachers are entirely committed. There was a change between the population of teachers at Teachers College and the population of teachers at Queens College. The teachers at Queens College do want to be public school teachers. What I do find is that, in both environments, there is a political commitment needed of bilingual teachers, in the sense of educational politics, and in the sense of seeing education as something that can change society. That is why I love to work with teachers. Because in spite of all the negativity that teachers and many of us in the field of education are getting, you find that there is a new generation of teachers impervious to that.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Presently, you are the director of the Bilingual Common Core Initiative, a project launched by the New York State Department of Education to develop new English as a Second Language and Native Language Arts Standards aligned to the Common Core Standards, which is how we met. How did you get involved with this project?

Patricia Velasco

I got involved in the Bilingual Common Core Initiative at the request of the state, Arlen Benjamin-Gomez contacted me and explained the nature of the project and the potential impact it could have on education. It has been a year already since I got involved.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

As part of this initiative, the team has developed New Language Arts Progressions and Home Language Arts Progressions for every New York State Common Core Learning Standard in every grade. Theoretically speaking, the bilingual common core initiative is grounded upon the belief that language is a social practice, rather than a list of words and grammatical guidelines that must be followed, how do you think these progressions will help teachers set up environments for this socialization process?

Patricia Velasco

The Bilingual Common Core Initiative had a steering committee at the regional level. People like Ofelia García, the representatives from the Regional Bilingual Education Network, Nelly Mulkay, Terri Brady-Méndez, etc. were all involved. There was also a national advisory board, which consisted of people who are prominent figures in bilingual education, such as Jim Cummins, Kenji Hakuta, Guadalupe Valdes, etc. so this means that the bilingual common core initiative was informed by many people who thought carefully about this. Therefore, the first thing that we must stress is that this initiative brought to the forefront all the main ideas about bilingualism, such as using the new terminology, the idea of new language versus second language. Home language versus first language, etc. Secondly, New York is moving from recognizing four levels of language proficiency to five levels. Mainly because there is recent research supporting that teachers tend to focus more on emerging students or beginner students, but we have to be cautious about the students in the middle ranges, those who need to develop academic language. Another aspect being stressed is that of translanguaging, which is embedded in the templates. If possible after the first stages have been reached, we encourage teachers and teaching environments that allow for students to use both languages.  We have to be careful about something though; many teachers feel that just because they go to another language in their lesson that is good bilingual education. However, the purpose of allowing translanguaging within bilingual education settings is that it permits you to raise the level of difficulty of the work and of what you are teaching. It’s not just a question of allowing the other language to enter in, or to open the spaces for the two languages to exist; it is more about education and using the language(s) a student has in order to access the complexities or the cognitive demands of the curriculum. I don’t know if I am explaining it clearly.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

I understand. I am wondering if what you are cautioning against are some of the examples used in the successful campaign against bilingual education that Ron Unz ran in California and that culminated with the passing of Proposition 227, and then later Proposition 203 in Arizona and Question 2 in Massachusetts. A strong case was made against bilingual education, using examples such as what you are warning against, in which students in the middle ranges, who may have acquired a second language may not be able to demonstrate academic potential with that second language, or make academic progress with either language for that matter. Would you say that this bilingual common core initiative is perhaps allowing for progress to be made in those areas?

Patricia Velasco

I think so. But I also think that because this is a new concept that is being introduced into the field of bilingual education, we have to be very specific about the purpose of translanguaging in bilingual education settings. In terms of the propositions you mentioned, take the case of Massachusetts for example, Question 2 passed at a time very close to the events that took place on September 11 of 2001. There was a feeling of fear of immigrants at the time. Interestingly, we have to acknowledge that although New York was the place that suffered the most loss as a result of the September 11 attack, it is a state that did not react in that matter. I think it is something to be commended for.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

I agree. I was impressed by the tone and language used in the campaign for Question 2 in Massachusetts. However, I think in California, the case presented against bilingual education was different. It had more to do with the failure of existing bilingual education programs rather than with fear of immigrants; perhaps it was a strategic move to persuade voters.

Patricia Velasco

Yes. But if you analyze the way Ron Unz was running his campaign you would learn that it was based on personal anecdotes. He constantly talked about his grandmother, etc. Nonetheless, somehow California has enough loopholes that actually allow the implementation of bilingual education in many settings. I don’t know how they actually do it but they manage it (laughter). There are many groups in California that have strived for bilingual education and have demonstrated that this “English for the Children” movement has not really worked. There needs to be flexibility.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Yes, and speaking in terms of education policy, bilingual students face many challenges especially in this accountability driven education system, where even emergent bilinguals in high school are expected to take and succeed in standardized exams, such as the English language Arts (ELA) regents exam in New York in addition to the NYSESLAT.

Patricia Velasco

Yes. Actually, one of the consequences of the Bilingual Common Core Initiative is that it doesn’t only provide scaffolds for teachers on how to access the common core standards but it will also inform the new NYSESLAT. It obviously needs a big change from the four to the five levels of proficiency, and to really be more careful about testing language and not content, which has been mixed. That has always been a challenge, especially in terms of the conceptualization of bilingualism. When are you really testing content and when are you really testing language?

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Right. Assessments need to evolve as well. The ELA exam actually keeps many adolescent emergent bilinguals from graduating in New York State because of the way it is structured. I think its modification should also be considered along with that of the NYSESLAT.

Patricia Velasco

Yes, that is a great idea. Now that you mention it, perhaps it will spark some initiative (laughter). The NYSESLAT is being reviewed. Another result of this Bilingual Common Core Initiative is that now Colorado and New Mexico are also going to be implementing the home language progressions.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

These same progressions being developed in New York?

Patricia Velasco

Yes.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

That is wonderful.

Patricia Velasco

I also want to say Estrella, because you were part of this, and I will try not to get too emotional, that the development of these progressions lasted six months and those were six very intense months, as you know, but it was really meant to be.  You guys are really wonderful teachers.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

I really admire you. You are such an amazing individual and a very hard working person. It was really a pleasure to be part of this project. I have expressed this to you before, and I have shared with many people, that while I was part of this initiative I learned extensively about the common core standards, given that parts of it were new to me, but the most important thing I learned was your level of collegiality and respect for those working with you and for you. That was actually one of the most important things I took away from that work.

Patricia Velasco

(laughter) No, I think all the stars coincided. We had this wonderful constellation of teachers. We thought it would be difficult because people were brought together from so many different parts of New York. But everyone ended up working so nicely together. It was inspiring.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Certainly. I think all of us learned from one another. I most definitely enjoyed working closely with Barbara Johnson, the lead editor of the initiative; she is such a wonderful and caring individual.

Patricia Velasco

Yes, it was a great group of people. This kind of work was needed in order to provide the teachers with the necessary scaffolds. Another piece to this project will be to offer the information for the NYSESLAT, and the third part will be developing curriculum, which will be done in Spanish, Chinese, and hopefully in other languages as well. Those are our next steps, in which we hope to get you involved (laughter).

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

(laughter)

Patricia Velasco

The curriculum aspect will be more like units of study that can reflect the progressions developed as part of the initial portion of the project and that are around topics that cover the same areas of knowledge delineated by the state but we don’t really have to use the exact same topics that have been created by New York State. This offers us a wonderful opportunity to create a curriculum with which teachers can work flexibly feeling supported by the state. They will not be perfect because nothing is perfect. We all have to become tolerant and recognize that we have state backing and we are going through an important period of time. We have to make the most of it.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

I think that it will be very important work and hopefully the alignment of more appropriate assessments will follow, in order to make education equitable for all students, especially for bilingual students.

Patricia Velasco

Exactly. Another thing that may happen, because of this, is the creation of a Spanish test. Therefore, there will be real language art assessments that are bilingual in nature. However, when it comes to testing, I really hope things begin to change. The underlying basis behind assessments is a lack of trust, from the government to the teachers, from the teachers to the government, and to society. Hopefully, we can move to a better place because I really believe that when it comes to assessments, we are in a bad position. There is an overkill of assessments and it actually stems from a lack of trust and a lack of dialogue.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

I agree and I would add that when it comes to teacher training and the common core standards, perhaps assessments have been implemented prematurely.

Patricia Velasco

That is the culture of mistrust I was referring to. We really need to strive to move to a better place

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Yes, and for bilingual teachers in particular, there are extra factors that must be considered and that are sometimes overlooked, such as the understanding that students are dealing with language acquisition in addition to content acquisition.

Patricia Velasco

Right.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

What advise would you give to prospective bilingual teachers?

Patricia Velasco

I think that if you know two languages and you have not gone for your bilingual certification, you should. Additionally, what we are all trying to do is to create positive environments for bilingual teachers and bilingual students, so I would say that the work of advocacy goes hand in hand with being a bilingual teacher. There is a sense of trust that bilingual students and families place on the education system, and we need to strengthen and foster those relationships.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

I know that you have been tremendously immersed in this initiative since it began about a year ago and it is near its end. What’s next for you, post bilingual common core work?

Patricia Velasco

Well, the fun part for me was working with all of you in the creation of the progressions. Since then, it has been the revising of all the templates, etc. Hopefully, the revision aspect will culminate in February. We are now trying to prepare a set of documents to be sent to the national advisory group to get their feedback and be able to post them for teachers. The teachers that have already accessed some samples through the engage New York website have said that they find them very useful, in particular the fact that the translanguaging statements are there. They find the linguistic demands very helpful as well. We have learned that the part that requires the most work is twofold. First, there is the deconstruction of the standard. Secondly, understanding the scaffolding. Consequently, we have been working on simplifying the templates and we should be able to post them soon. You are correct in saying that I have been completely immersed in this initiative.

The first article on the common core initiative is coming out in 2014 in A Handbook to Implement Educational programs, Practices and Policies for English Language Learners. It is being edited by Liliana Minaya Rowe.  That is where we are now. There has been a great deal of staff development and there is still need for more and at some point we need to move on to developing teacher preparation material. But the next step will be curriculum writing and that will be the fun part. One of the people that will be consulted for this is Catherine Snow. She has an effective word generation program for students, which has a Spanish component. We want to base our curriculum on oral language development, discussions being a big part of it. We also want to include topics topics that are relevant to the Spanish speaking population. For example, in terms of science we would like to include information about scientists and role models that are representative of our Spanish-speaking students. Guillermo González Camarena, for example, was a Mexican engineer who invented the first color television. We feel that students would appreciate to see role models that come from their countries.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Yes, that is very important.

Patricia Velasco

We must not forget that bilingual education is about educating students. The purpose of providing a space where translanguaging can occur freely is to allow access to rich content. Bilingual education is not to water down curriculum or to provide direct translations. All students deserve to be challenged and we must have high expectations and provide access to difficult concepts in order for students to be able to succeed. That is what we are trying to accomplish with this initiative.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

I look forward to the next phase of the bilingual common core initiative. The need for effective professional development and appropriate curriculum to implement the bilingual common core standards is imminent. This conversation has been a pleasure. You are somebody that I admire greatly. I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to work with you and hope to be able to continue to do it in the future.

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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