Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Best for Our Children

    Critical Perspectives on Literacy for Latino Students

    Edited by María de la Luz Reyes and John J. Halcón

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2001. 258 pp. $58.00, $26.95 (paper).

    The Best for Our Children is a book that, as promised by its title, presents critical perspectives on literacy for Latino children. Editors María de la Luz Reyes and John J. Halcón include a wonderful array of authors that speak insightfully about issues, theories, and practices of literacy that systematically exclude Latino students from traditional academic discourse. These authors present critical perspectives that expose systems of exclusion and propose alternative and inclusive strategies that have been proven to work well with Latino students and may work for other marginalized students as well.

    The Best for Our Children
    is organized into three general themes. Part One, Sociocultural, Sociohistorical and Sociopolitical Context of Literacy, lays the theoretical foundations of literacy within a cultural context. In chapter one, Luis C. Moll, professor of education at the University of Arizona at Tucson, presents an overview of a cultural-historical perspective on literacy. Moll describes a project called Funds of Knowledge, in which researchers, university professors, and teachers worked with the community to develop a theoretical vocabulary to find common knowledge in mechanisms of social exchange. These funds of knowledge are examples of what Moll calls “mediating structures,” which he defines in the Vygotskian sense as the places where theory and practice are discussed within a community of parents, teachers, and learners. For example, Moll depicts teachers visiting their students’ households and communities as learners seeking to understand the ways of these households and to learn how people use resources of all kinds (what he calls funds of knowledge) to engage in life activities. Moll also gives an example of how a cultural-historical approach works in La Clase Mágica, an after-school program in which this approach is put into practice.

    In chapter two, Esteban Díaz and Bárbara Flores, both professors of education at California State University at San Bernardino, depict the sociocultural and sociohistorical approach at the micro level through a case study of a teacher and a student. Díaz and Flores discuss how this teacher and her student engage in the mediation of knowledge using the example of the teacher who moves away from a model of “negative proximal development,” the idea that teachers traditionally ignore the “proximal” or positive potential of children by focusing instead on “dead-end” skills.

    In chapter three, Lilia I. Bartolomé, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and María V. Balderrama, a professor at California State University at San Bernardino, explicitly point to the political nature of education and stress the need for “political and ideological clarity” in the teaching profession. In a case study of a successful high school, they identify four teachers who share the “recipe” for the academic success of minority students, as well as various ideological beliefs that operate in practice to structure success.

    In chapter four, John J. Halcón, a professor at the University of Northern Colorado, recounts the historical trajectory of bilingual education. He focuses on the negative political motivations and strategies utilized throughout history, such as language control in literacy instruction, to impose mainstream ideologies.

    Part Two, Biliteracy, Hybridity, and Other Literacies, addresses the issues of Latinos as linguistic minorities and the use of language dominance (Standard English in this case) to strategically exclude other languages and dialects. The authors in this section offer a range of possibilities and success stories under the theories of critical pedagogy and cultural-historical perspectives.

    In chapter five, María Echiburu Berzins, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Alice E. López, a bilingual teacher in the Colorado public schools, describe a program in which language status is negotiated in a two-way bilingual program by focusing on the communicative properties of language. They describe in detail how they believe that their students use two linguistic codes (Spanish and English) to construct meaning and to engage in learning activities. They also describe some of the “survival strategies” that they address in teaching their students how to explicitly distinguish between different discourses, and how they build a collaborative partnership with parents in planting the seeds for biliteracy.

    In chapter six, María de la Luz Reyes, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, presents four case studies of students as examples of unleashing possibilities in literacy acquisition. Through these students’ writings and their own interpretation of their bilingualism, one can appreciate how language use is determined by sociocultural factors. The “unleashing of possibilities” for these four students is made possible by conceptualizing language as a meaning-driven system, as opposed to the form of linguistic symbols in which teachers contributed to concept-acquisition activities or activities that were contextualized and children were free to use their “natural linguistic resources” to build meaning in a sociocultural context.

    In chapter seven, Kris Gutiérrez, professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, Patricia Baquedano-López, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and Héctor H. Alvarez, a graduate student researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles, view literacy not only as a learning goal, but also as the central means of appropriating knowledge. These ideas are the basis for the organization of Las Redes, an after-school club in which all prejudices are put aside to truly negotiate a zone of proximal development — in other words, defining the zone of proximal development between what the child knows and his or her potential, and not what the adult thinks the child should know. The authors present some writing samples from children to illustrate how a “cultural-historical perspective” takes a student beyond bilingualism to play with language across cultures and codes.

    In chapter eight, Eloise Andrade Laliberty, a former teacher in the Colorado public schools, remembers her own feelings of inadequacy as a learner of English. Now a teacher, she tells the story of how her students get “hooked on writing.” She recognized the exclusionary effects of focusing on English as the language of instruction, and realized that by opening the writing projects beyond language codes she was including the students learning English, who were being systematically marginalized in an English as a Second Language pullout program. Through sharing personal narratives, focusing on the process of writing instead of on the product, and linking literacy to students’ lived experiences, she inspired and guided students to become authors.

    Part Three, Reading the Word by Reading the World, is a collection of success stories of literacy, reflections on linguistic codes, and the voices of Latino parents. In chapter nine, Robert T. Jiménez, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, presents the case of Sara, a bilingual Latina student, to demonstrate strategic reading for language related disabilities. Sara was a student at risk of being referred to special education due to her reading problems. She represents those Latino students who are systematically ignored and omitted from the curriculum due to their language background and cultural identity. Through methods grounded in critical reflection, Jiménez uses specific reading strategies that worked with Sara in improving her literacy and that he recommends for other Latino students.

    In chapter ten, Carmen I. Mercado offers her reflections on the power of Spanish as a vital language among our youth: “When Latino youth enter the schoolhouse door, so does the language that introduced them to the world” (p. 170). In four case studies, she highlights some of the multiple dialects of Latinos in the United States to demonstrate Latino youth’s bilingual and multidialectal capabilities. Mercado quotes Heath and McLaughlin to express the value of using Spanish to lessen the social distance between Latino students and their teachers. They claim that creating a sense of belonging and community “depends much more on how those in one’s immediate environment ask questions, give directions, frame time and space, and reflect expectations than it does on verbal declarations of collective or acceptance” (p. 170). Thus, Mercado’s research focuses on dialect differences and cultural meaning rather than on an ubiquitous definition of Spanish. By recognizing these differences as linguistic abilities, Mercado argues, the communicative repertoires and career opportunities of Latino students would be improved.

    In chapter eleven, Roberta Maldonado, Title I coordinator of the Boulder Valley Public School District in Colorado, applies a truly critical perspective when she expands her literacy lessons to help students with real-life struggles by applying the Freirean idea of taking learning to the real-world level. She focuses on reading not as an academic skill but for a purpose, and sees herself as a learner reading the lives and needs of her adolescent students. Maldonado relies on a concept of “two-way” background knowledge, in which both student and teacher learn about the other’s background, to move students from the reality of their lives to classical literature and back again to their own lives. She helps the students to make culturally meaningful connections to the classics and to world culture, and teaches them to critique these connections and understand the intrinsic value of literacy — all through a critical lens.

    In chapter twelve, Robbi Ciriza Houtchens takes the approach of situating literacy in her students’ realities by first providing them with a wide variety of texts and genres (i.e., classics, comics, novels, plays). Although she explicitly addresses some of the basic strategies that her students should have been taught earlier, Houtchens focuses on inclusion as a literacy strategy by providing readings and discussions that reflect the lives and aspirations of her students.

    In chapter thirteen, María E. Fránquiz, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, presents the program, It’s About YOUth!, which explores alternative ways of achieving literacy. Fránquiz analyses three ways in which a community takes literacy to the community level and builds a community identity, which includes the youth’s own value and definition of literacy: first by disseminating these through public access television, representing conocimiento (knowledge) in a mobile mural sculpture, and emphasizing the role of social responsibility of their audience. As students appropriate these media, they develop a unique academic identity in which they do not feel they need to “sell out” to succeed academically.

    In chapter fourteen, Alma Flor Ada, a professor at the University of San Francisco, and Rosa Zubizarreta, a former bilingual teacher, present a collection of parents’ narratives to illustrate parental interest and commitment to their children’s education, and some of the cultural values they instill in their children to help them succeed in school. Ada and Zubizarreta set the narratives in the context of their analysis of the ethnocentric nature of “social capital,” and they stress the need to include parents as partners in their children’s education.

    With a foreword by Sonia Nieto, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and an afterword by María De La Luz Reyes, I felt I was reading in the pages of this book my history and the reality of my children as Latinos growing up in this wonderful yet confusing time of negotiation. The voices of these authors made me feel hope and a sense of solidarity and belonging that is seldom available for minorities and language minorities in the academic world. Others can find in this book, if not the echoes of their own realities, the reflections of their own teaching practices and the theoretical foundations that could inform their research. I recommend this book as a unique example of bridged practice, research, and theory, and a faithful application of critical pedagogy and of cultural and historical perspectives.



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Book Notes

The Gendered Society
By Michael S. Kimmel

Honored but Invisible
By W. Norton Grubb, with Helena Worthen, Barbara Byrd, Elnora Webb, Norena Badway, Chester Case, Stanford Goto, and Jennifer Curry Villeneuve

An Elusive Science
By Ellen Condliffe Lagemann

The Best for Our Children
Edited by María de la Luz Reyes and John J. Halcón

Holler If You Hear Me
By Gregory Michie