Sonia Nieto with Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Dr. Sonia Nieto

Dr. Sonia Nieto

Dr. Sonia Nieto has devoted her professional life to questions of diversity, equity, and social justice in education. A native of Brooklyn, New York, she began her teaching career in 1966 in an intermediate school in Brooklyn, moving two years later to P.S. 25 in the Bronx, the first fully bilingual school in the Northeast. Her first position in higher education was as Instructor in the Department of Puerto Rican Studies at Brooklyn College where she taught courses in bilingual education for preservice and practicing teachers. Moving to Massachusetts with her family to pursue doctoral studies in education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, she received her degree in 1979 with specializations in curriculum, multicultural education, and bilingual education. In 1980, she accepted a faculty position at her alma mater where she remained for 26 years, retiring as a full professor.

Professor Nieto’s research focuses on multicultural education, teacher education, and the education of students of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, topics on which she continues to write and speak. In addition to scores or journal articles and book chapters, she has written or edited eleven books including the best-selling Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education, a textbook widely used in teacher education programs around the nation and beyond. Dr. Nieto has received numerous awards for her scholarly work, teaching, and advocacy, including six honorary doctorates. Her most recent book is a memoir, Brooklyn Dreams: My Life in Public Education (Harvard Education Press), to be published in November 2015.

In this conversation with Estrella Olivares-Orellana, Dr. Nieto discusses the early stages of her teaching career and describes how important it is for children to have role models they can identify with and to feel like school is a place where they are welcomed, accepted, and loved.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

¡Hola! Primero que nada déjeme agradecerle su tiempo y disposición. Thank you for allowing me to inquire into the mind of somebody I deeply admire.

SONIA NIETO

Oh, thank you very much.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

You were born in Brooklyn and educated in the New York City Public Schools. Can you talk a little about how your own schooling experiences have informed your practice as a teacher and professor?

SONIA NIETO

Yes, of course. Your experience always informs whatever you do in good ways or bad.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Right.

SONIA NIETO

In a negative way, it said to me, “culture is unimportant,” or at least it said to me, “your culture is unimportant. There’s no place for it in school. You are here to learn to be an American and the sooner you forget Spanish the better, or at least keep it hidden.”  Even though my teachers and schools may not have intended to give that message, that was the message we got loud and clear.

So of course, that affected me in negative ways. My experience at P.S. 25 Bilingual School started to change things around for me. Actually, right after college, I went to Spain to study for my Masters through New York University. It was at Complutense University of Madrid. Ironically, it was in Spain that I really became aware and proud of the fact that I was Puerto Rican. It sounds funny. It sounds unexpected but even when I had visited Puerto Rico, I was not seen as Puerto Rican. I was seen as not quite Puerto Rican because I was born and raised in the States. I didn’t speak a lot of Spanish then. I’m sure I did but, according to most people on the island, lo mataba.

When I went to Spain, everybody there accepted me, not as an American, but as a Puerto Rican and also as an American, but they didn’t see those as contradictory. People thought it was great. That started me on a different road. My first school, as a teacher, was a middle school and there was nothing multicultural, or bilingual about it. Although it was in the middle of a very contentious community control movement, since it was the beginning of a demand for diversity awareness and a change in the curriculum. However, it was when I got to the bilingual school that it became sort of full blown for me. Everything is a process and this was a process that took a while for me.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

I see. Can you talk about your experiences at the bilingual school?

SONIA NIETO

Yes, I have a memoir coming out soon and everything will be there. But I’ll tell you a little bit about it. I grew up at home speaking only Spanish. Therefore, I also had to go through the experience of learning English when I went to school. When the bilingual school started, since it was an experimental school, I had to be interviewed… I actually spoke about this recently at the TESOL International Convention. When I went for the interview with Hernán LaFontaine, who was the principal at the time, he said there were two values upon which the school was being built. One was that bilingualism is a virtue and secondly, that parent involvement is really important to the education of kids. My honest reaction was … Well, I don’t know if I believe in bilingual education. I didn’t have it and I turned out okay and my parents were never really involved in schools. I was hired in spite of the silly comments I made, but I made them because that was my experience and sometimes we think that our experience is the only way to judge things. Within a couple of months, I was completely sold on both ideas and in fact, years later when I did my doctorate, my dissertation was on Puerto Rican parents and bilingual education and their role in bilingual curriculum development particularly.

When I was at P.S. 25, the Bilingual School, I really saw firsthand that creating an environment where young people are free to speak either their native language, or their second, or third, or fourth language, whatever it may be, sends a powerful message of affirmation, of acceptance, of worthiness, of the fact that they are worthwhile, even if they don’t yet speak English. And also, that it was important for kids to see people who look like them and who sound like them. That was an experience I never had as a kid growing up in New York City. I never had a Puerto Rican teacher until after I finished my Masters program. And it was with a fellow teacher from P.S. 25, Luis Cartagena, who taught a course at NYU through a Masters program for teachers in the Bilingual School. I already had a Masters because I got it right after college, but I did take a number of courses in that program. That was one of them, my first with a Puerto Rican teacher. That course was really important for me in many ways. One, was that Luis Cartagena, who later became the next principal of P.S. 25 when Hernán left, was the teacher and he was Puerto Rican. The other was that this was a history that I had never learned before. The curriculum in my schools when I was a student didn’t include any of this history. Those two things became very important for me. It was not just that it was a bilingual school, but it was an ethnically affirming school, which was really significant. I learned a lot from my years there. I taught for two years and then I became a curriculum specialist for two more years before moving on to higher education.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Interesting. Well, bilingual education in the United States has been like on a roller coaster ride. Experiencing some good moments of support and some moments of clear opposition. I think we are now in a moment of opposition due to the anti-immigrant sentiment we are experiencing currently. How do you see the future for bilingual education in this country?

SONIA NIETO

In some ways, I think it’s really on a downward trajectory right now. Every office of Bilingual Education in the States, it seems to me, has now been renamed, “Office of English Language Development” or “Office of English Language Learners.” Thus, the focus is overwhelmingly on learning English. On the other hand, there is the case of Latinos in this country. It is evident that Spanish-speaking Latinos are not going anywhere. Not only are there a lot of us here, but also our numbers are growing. I have to think that this is going to make a difference in terms of the kinds of educational options that are going to be available to kids and that this fierce opposition and fear of bilingual education and bilingualism will have to dissipate. At least, I hope, people will calm down about it. I have said many times that many people are not against bilingual education because it doesn’t work, but rather because it might work, and it does. So I think that’s scary for some people who are afraid of English losing its supremacy.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Right, definitely, I agree. Earlier when you discussed your experiences in New York City Public Schools and the absence of your Puerto Rican culture and language I thought of the book you edited and published many years ago, Puerto Rican Students in US Schools, which was written primarily by Puerto Rican writers. Why did you think it was important to compile those contributions? It does a great job at tying identity and belonging to academic success. What was your main message with that book?

SONIA NIETO

Well, that was it, to let people know that we are here. “We Puerto Ricans are here.” There are more Puerto Ricans in the States than in Puerto Rico and that is something that a lot of people don’t know. So it was to say, “We’re here. We’re going to make a difference, we are making a difference and we want to be in charge of this conversation.” That doesn’t mean that others can’t help and can’t work with us on these issues. We need as many people as possible to work with us. Prior to that book being written, I don’t think there were any books about the education of Puerto Ricans that included a majority of Puerto Rican authors. The books that I had read before, if they were anthologies like this one, had almost all of the chapters written by authors who were non-Puerto Rican. I have great respect for most of them. They did important work when it had to be done and when we didn’t have folks in our community who had the kind of education that you need to do this sort of thing. I had relied on those books and those articles and I respected the authors for the most part. But it was also time for Puerto Ricans to step up. Just to give you an example of this, after I left P.S. 25, I went to Brooklyn College and I worked in the Department of Puerto Rican Studies. There was a program for people who wanted to become teachers in bilingual schools. The Department still exists and it’s doing pretty well. It’s always been one of the strongest departments of Puerto Rican Studies.

At the time, there were eight faculty members in that program. Five of us, I believe, did not have doctorates and the five of us where from the States, Puerto Ricans from the States, either who had been born and raised here or had lived here for many years. The ones who did have doctorates were recruited from Puerto Rico to come and teach, but most of them didn’t have a commitment to the community here. This is not a negative thing, but they expected to go back home. They expected to put in a few years here and then go back home. They were the ones with the doctorates. In the states, at that time, most of us Puerto Ricans did not have the credentials that were necessary. We had the experience, but not the credentials. Therefore, that was one of the messages that I wanted to give readers, “Look, we’re here and we are taking the education of Puerto Ricans seriously.Here we are, I want you to know who we are.” Just yesterday, I had lunch with a former student of mine who’s not Puerto Rican. She is a professor herself now and has been for years. She shared that in her classes, she always tells students the story I told her about a Puerto Rican student saying to me that he didn’t know Puerto Ricans wrote books. That’s kind of sad, isn’t it?

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA  

It really is.

SONIA NIETO

But you know, that’s their experience. My former student pointed that out as an example of invisibility and the kinds of attitudes and perceptions that people have because of their own experiences. That’s why when I was interviewed as a new teacher, I started out with my own experiences about not really buying into bilingual education and not really believing that parent involvement was necessary. That was my experience. People use their experience as the truth. That’s why education is so important, because it opens your mind to other truths. I wanted people to know that Puerto Ricans do write books, that Puerto Ricans are educated. There are too many problems in education for Puerto Ricans and I wanted to get that message out of them.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA  

That’s great. Of all of your books, the one I have read and used to most is The Light in Their Eyes. It has been so informative and vindicating in my practice as a teacher of minoritized and marginalized populations. When and how did you come to the realization that employing multi-cultural, pedagogical methods was not only important, but it was also necessary and not only for minoritized populations, but for all students?

SONIA NIETO

Well, first of all, I should say that the former student I mentioned having lunch with is Ann Scott. She has several excerpts from journals that she kept over the years in my classes, on The Light in Their Eyes. So look for her name now.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Oh that’s great. I will.

SONIA NIETO

She’s really wonderful. In fact, she’s a good example of the question that you just asked because she was always very open to difference and wanted to learn new things, but even in one of those journals, she writes about the fact that she thinks of herself as a White woman who hadn’t thought very much about her privileges before. She writes about her English language privilege.

I think it’s very important for students of all backgrounds to be immersed in a multicultural perspective because it just opens their minds and their hearts to different possibilities. I guess I started becoming aware as soon as I started teaching, and that was right after I came back from Spain. I didn’t have a word for it yet, I didn’t call it multicultural education, but I knew that using students’ experiences, knowledge, and background in the curriculum was important and I was starting to do that little by little, in different ways. For example, talking about how they celebrated with their families, or bringing in different kinds of books. However, it wasn’t until I went to work at P.S. 25 that the importance of using students’ experiences became even clearer to me. I still didn’t have the language to explain it, because that language wasn’t yet used. When I went to work in the Puerto Rican Studies Department at Brooklyn College, we talked about Puerto Rican studies, ethnic studies, but not broader than that. I had always really wanted to see things in a broader way. I mean being immersed in Puerto Rican studies was wonderful to me, but I knew there was more, there had to be more.

I then got to the University of Massachusetts in 1975. I was a doctoral student in curriculum and bilingual education. Those were the areas that I wanted to look at. I walked into my very first class at UMass. It was Foundations of Multicultural Education and that was a true revelation for me. That course gave me the language that I was missing in the practice that I was trying to do. It became my third area of concentration and obviously, a very important one. That course was transformative for me and it sort of changed the way that I would look at my future. It really gave me not only the language, but also the concepts and the theories that I would use to conceptualize my work in the field.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA

Right. So did you always know that you would pursue a Doctorate degree in Education or was it something that came about through your work or after seeing some gaps in the field?

SONIA NIETO

That’s interesting because I didn’t think that I had always thought I would get a doctorate. In fact, even the thought of graduating from high school was a big deal in my family because my parents hadn’t graduated from high school. My father didn’t go beyond 4th grade, my sister says 3rd grade, but I think it was 4th; I’m not sure. We have a little disagreement about that. But I had always known, even from the early grades, that I wanted to go to college. I’m not sure why I knew that. We didn’t even have a TV at that time. We got a TV when I was like 12 years old, and that was when I could see other possibilities, although not any with Puerto Ricans. I guess the reason that I wanted to go to college was that I knew by looking at my teachers that they had gone to college and I wanted to be a teacher. I didn’t think that I had plans to study for a doctorate, but in writing my memoir, I went back and looked at old newspaper clippings and my diaries, which I kept for years and one of the newspapers that I found was an interview during my last semester at St. John’s University where I studied my undergraduate degree. In that final newspaper issue of the year, they interviewed a few of the graduating seniors and I was one of them. There’s a picture of me and I’m wearing a corsage for some reason, I have no idea why. Under the picture, it says that I was going to Spain to study for my Masters. But it also said “she expects to come back and teach, but maybe she will be a professor in the future.” I was really surprised when I saw that. Maybe it was something that I did have in mind, I really don’t know at this point. After I was recruited to Brooklyn College without having a doctorate, I thought, “I love this work and this is what I want to do for the rest of my life so I’d better get a doctorate.”

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA  

That’s great! And how was your transition from a school teacher to higher education?

SONIA NIETO

Every transition is hard, but I think I was made for this, I really do. I had to learn a lot. I mean this was completely new for me, especially because unlike you, I didn’t go from a teacher education program to a doctoral program and then on to higher education. I went to higher education and then went to a doctoral program. It was hard.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA  

That must have been challenging.

SONIA NIETO

Right, and I didn’t have a typical going away experience to college either. I commuted. It was different, I took the subway every day…

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA  

Right, I’m asking you that question because as you know, I’m a doctoral candidate and currently I teach Bilingual Science at a high school full-time but I also teach education courses part-time. When asked if I am ready to dedicate to teaching higher education full-time, I struggle with the notion of leaving the high school as I feel my experiences as a high school teacher strongly inform my commitment to the field of Education and my practice as a teacher educator.

SONIA NIETO

Yeah, you’re sort of bifurcated; you have a bifurcated life. I went in cold. My Masters experience was not about becoming an academic, it was about getting a Masters’ in Spanish and Hispanic literature.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA  

Lastly, things have changed since you were in the classroom as a teacher. What questions do you think current classroom teachers should be considering as they prepare their lessons to educate today’s children? What do you think are the main questions teachers should be examining about their practice?

SONIA NIETO

I just got two Honorary Doctorates this past weekend. Actually, it was a pretty amazing weekend and…

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA  

I saw that, congratulations.

SONIA NIETO

Yeah, thank you. I was given an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters along with Pedro Noguera at Duquesne University, and then I received a second one at Syracuse University. Both were amazing experiences. At Duquesne, I also spoke at the diploma ceremony. I was asked about the kinds of things teachers need to know and should be able to do, and instead of the typical kinds of things, I talked about the fact that they need to know that students need to feel welcomed. They need to feel loved. They need to feel that this place is for them. That they are not aliens in this space. I gave the example of a young man who we interviewed many years ago for the second edition of Affirming Diversity. He had had many problems in school, had been suspended, expelled, and arrested. When he was interviewed, he talked about the fact that he was by now nineteen years old and in an alternative high school. He was doing quite well there. He talked about how when he was in elementary and middle school he had only felt comfortable in school one time and that time was when he took an African-American History class. He said these words, “I felt like the realist person on earth.” So, I asked the graduates, especially if they were becoming teachers, counselors, principals, assistant principals, or curriculum specialists, to work on trying to make all students feel like “the realist person on earth.”

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA  

That’s great. It is so important for students to feel like they belong.

SONIA NIETO

Of course, teachers also have to know a lot of other things. They have to know their subject matter. They have to know their pedagogy. All of that goes without saying, but they also need to know that they are teaching young people, many who feel alienated and as if they don’t belong, as if they’re not worthy. Therefore, I think it is really important for teachers to keep this in mind.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA  

Definitely. Well, I am looking forward to your memoir, and I just want to say thank you so much for everything you have done for students and teachers. You’ve inspired so many teachers and so many professors and so many students. I hope that we can carry on your work the way you meant it.

SONIA NIETO

Thank you. I think it’s really important to pass the torch. So, I’m passing it on to you and to others like you. I’m still going to be around for a while. I still hope to continue to make some contributions, but young people need to pick up and do this work. It is really, really important for those of us who are senior people to willingly hand over the torch, and for young people, young scholars to know that there’s a lot of work to be done, a lot of work.

ESTRELLA OLIVARES-ORELLANA  

Well, thank you so much. I hope we can carry on your legacy, and of course you will continue to contribute and inspire so many of us dedicated to educating children

SONIA NIETO

You’re very welcome.

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Estrella Olivares-Orellana

Estrella Olivares-Orellana (contributing editor) is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is the author of “Equitable ways to teach Science to emergent bilinguals and immigrant youth,” which appears in a new collection titled, Excellence through equity: Five principles of courageous leadership to guide achievement for every student. 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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