Tell us about iWEPA! libros and how it started.
iWEPA! libros is a highly specialized resource for public schools and libraries across the U.S. in search of authentic multilingual literature. Many school districts partner with us to enhance their linguistic and cultural educational services with the literature that we import from Latinoamérica and España. We also link arms with them to provide books from our iW! International line, which includes books from Ukraine, Poland, and Russia; we just recently added Romanian to our repertoire as well.
iWEPA! libros was born from the urgency behind the deficit in literary support for multilingual education. We work towards addressing this need. The business has grown, supplying amazing collections of books from all around the world based on the needs of the schools and libraries that we partner with.
What is unique about us is that we combine the ability to acquire vibrant books with an understanding of the role they play in multilingual community engagement. It’s been such a pleasure to craft unique projects such as multilingual book festivals, newcomer 'maletas' (suitcases), and golden ticket incentives for dual language learners.
An additional unique characteristic is our ability to take the weight of searching for books off of the shoulders of practitioners. So many talented educators are in the midst of intense curriculum development as part of dual language program initiatives. We offer a unique service where those teams can send us their maps, and we take on the mentor text alignment process for them. Gone are the days of endless hunting, and still coming back empty handed. It has been an honor to be entrusted with projects like this, and we have received great feedback from schools, teachers, and students on the positive impact the mentor texts have on student engagement.
What does iWEPA! mean?
I get this question quite often. I will try my best, but keep in mind that it’s one of those phrases that just doesn’t transfer precisely to English, much like the phrase ¡Colorín Colorado! ¡WEPA!, pronounced /weh-pah/, is a multilayered Latin American exclamation used to express excitement, joy, and celebration. You say it when you are excited! It was born into fame by the song ‘El jolgorio’ by Alfonso Vélez in 1974, and it’s very typical to hear it in Salsa music. It’s most prevalent in Puerto Rico and Colombia.
I decided on that name for the company because it aligns perfectly with how we feel about our books, our festivals, and our approach towards serving multilingual communities. We do it with passion, with love, and enthusiasm. Feel free to check out our social media post on this topic where I go into more detail about it.
How did your experience as a multilingual educator inspire this work?
My experience in multilingual education is the catalyst and continues to be the fuel for this new way of serving. I started my career as an ESL teacher in the northern Chicagoland area. I taught in an incredibly diverse community with representation of over 60 languages. It was also during this initial chapter of my career that I invested my personal time in volunteering for refugee- and immigrant-serving organizations. For many years, I engaged in community work in the area of refugee resettlement. Supporting newly arrived families in acquiring their first apartment, setting up utilities, linking them with support services, tutoring their children, and conducting home visits are unforgettable experiences for me. I linked with a local library to support their adult ESL conversation groups that would happen in the summer. I even volunteered to walk immigrants through the citizenship application process.
These experiences were critical in my understanding of the students I served in my classroom, and they also pushed me to do more. I quickly realized how much advocacy was needed, and I decided to pursue a degree in leadership. The next chapter in my career involved being a district level administrator. In this role, I supported the multilingual programs of 15 schools, PreK-5th grade, in a primarily Latino community. I was on a leadership team that spear-headed district wide implementation of a dual language program from the ground up. My responsibilities in this large-scale plan were in the area of curriculum & instruction, as well as programmatic development. Designing a culturally-responsive learning experience for our children was the number one goal, and the texts we selected were a fundamental component for this.
Later on, I also served as an instructor and coach at the university level for undergraduate students pursuing the field of Early Childhood Education. I taught the foundations course, or introductory class to serving English learners. It’s with pride that I share that many of the pre-service teachers, who never thought they would be interested in pursuing an ESL endorsement, decided to become endorsed after that course. We still keep in touch to this day, and they are trailblazers in our field. My coaching experience at the university level was tied directly to supporting the bilingual-teacher pipeline in Chicago. I was a mentor, a listening ear, and a cheerleader for student teachers in their clinical experience. I wish I had that kind of support as a student teacher! Aligning bilingual teachers with bilingual mentors is an extension of how critical it is for young children to see themselves in the teachers that serve them. Representation matters.
All of these experiences fold into my new chapter, iWEPA! libros. I’m able to have a different kind of impact, and it’s incredibly rewarding.
Why do kids need to see themselves in books?
Choosing Books for ELLs
See more resources and ideas in this article:
Children seeing themselves in books is directly related to equity and social justice in our school systems. Classrooms today are increasingly diverse, and as educators, we have an ethical obligation to serve all students equitably. The books that are utilized for instruction, the books that are made available in a classroom library, or a school library all funnel into the message that is being sent to students about themselves, their families, their culture, their language; their identity. Diverse and inclusive books validate, celebrate, and welcome multilingual students. When students feel this way, not only can they learn; but they will excel to their fullest potential. This directly links with student engagement and achievement.
Having a critical eye in the types of books available to children is pivotal. Many teachers share with me that right now they are experiencing an increase in enrollment of students from Venezuela, Colombia, and countries in Centroamérica. While it’s wonderful to have a book that’s in Spanish from Spain or Argentina or Chile, aligning resources to your community’s demographics is crucial. This extra layer of culturally-responsive practice will result in stronger bonds and opportunities for growth in multilingual children.
Why is it important for families to have access to high-caliber, multilingual resources?
I remember as a child, and even early in my career as an educator, I acquired an acceptance of there simply not being books in my language or the language of my students here in the U.S. What I received as a teacher were typically translations of American titles, donated books that were pre-owned with old publication dates, or simply books that were just not very exciting. I’ve grown tired of multilingual communities getting the short-straw in the area of resources. High-caliber, multilingual resources exist, and they exist in abundance. Our children, our families deserve the best: books that are bold, vibrant, with storylines that capture the richness of their culture. This mirrors the assets that they bring to our communities. Providing access to this is all about equity, and embracing that multiculturalism and multilingualism adds strength to our society.
Tell us how your Ukrainian collections developed.
We began to hear from our colleagues in the field that their communities were receiving an influx of Ukrainian families. In some cases, the influx was so sudden and large, that administrators were in a position of needing to develop at the bare minimum a bilingual resource program because they had surpassed the state criteria for provision of ESL services. They also shared that they were struggling to find home language resources to support their students, and that families were indeed advocating for Ukrainian materials as well.
It prompted us to act; at the bare minimum, we had to try. At the time, we only imagined specializing in Spanish materials. With the benefit of my professional experience and connections in the multilingual world, we were able to add rich Ukrainian books to our collection, and that’s how iW! International began.
Since then, it has been an explosion of projects related to serving the Ukrainian community. Schools are utilizing these materials in a variety of ways to meet the needs of not only students sitting in the classroom, but families yearning to continue to nurture their language here in the United States.
What are some of the countries and languages represented in your collections?
Currently we import our Spanish literature from Latinoamérica and España. One of the unique aspects of this area of our expertise is being able to acquire books from Puerto Rico, Colombia, and Venezuela. We are also well known for our iW! International line, which currently includes books from Ukraine, Poland, Russia, and we just recently added Romanian to our repertoire as well.
Navigating international markets has been quite the journey! It takes significant time, resources, and effort to investigate and ultimately, formally add books in a new language to our collections. We have a high standard that we are known for, and that’s something we don’t sacrifice. It is quite interesting to see how the multilingual collection continues to evolve, as it’s directly aligned to client requests from community demographic influxes that they experience.
How are schools using your book collections?
I always tell my clients, "You dream it and we’ll make it happen." Well, they’ve definitely taken me up on that approach towards serving their needs! Several that jump out to me include:
- Newcomer Maletas — We have several school districts that have or are in the process of implementing newcomer maletas as a way to welcome students and families into the district. Essentially they are little suitcases with a curated set of books inside aligned to the language of the family. They’ve been utilized as door gifts for families during a cultural event, raffle items during an event, and currently in the works — multilingual bundles that can be checked out in a school library in response to promoting diversity and inclusion within a school building.
- Multilingual Lending Library — Early winter we supported a school initiative related to a lending library constructed in front of a school building. It was part of a Taking Informed Action social studies project by a 3rd grade dual language classroom. Students were focused on ways to serve as engaged citizens. The lending library concept isn’t new, many schools have implemented it, and communities love the take one, leave one concept. It promotes a sense of togetherness. We were able to elevate this concept and incorporate multilingual books (Spanish & Ukrainian) to create more inclusive access.
- El billete dorado — As a way to encourage attendance for a Multicultural celebration, a school asked us to craft golden ticket incentives. Students who attended the event were asked to bring back their passports for a chance to receive a golden ticket. Children who won exchanged the ticket for an authentic, culturally responsive book in their home language. The approach towards family engagement created a lot of anticipation, excitement, and ultimately increased event attendance!
- Teacher Book Festival — Book fairs have seemingly always been associated with students and families. Of course, this ties directly to encouraging family literacy and establishing a family-school connection. But what about teachers? We recently partnered with a school district who invited us to create a book festival for teachers. It was aligned to a day the staff would be receiving professional development. The last hour or so of their day was dedicated to shopping! Each teacher received a budget, and utilized the time to create a wishlist of books they wanted to add to their classroom library. From a leadership perspective, this is a phenomenal way to celebrate teachers, improve morale, and promote programmatic goals of bilingualism and biliteracy. It also is an opportunity to elevate understanding of multilingual literature, and teachers have the opportunity to physically interact with hundreds of linguistically diverse books of a high-caliber. Many teachers were taken aback by the beauty, quality, and the sheer abundance of books available. This goes back to chipping away at the thought paradigm that multilingual literature is scarce and of low-quality. We have provided a similar celebration for a BPAC Parent University graduation, and are providing another teacher book festival for the summer of 2023, but with a more curricular twist. All of the books that teachers can select are aligned to their biliteracy curriculum maps, which provides for more instructional flexibility.
You’ve created a multilingual book festival. Why are these events so important and uplifting for families?
I bring many perspectives (my childhood in a Spanish-speaking home, my community service, and my experience as an educator) that immigrant families often experience isolation. Going from a community-oriented way of life in a country outside the United States, to an individual-centered societal structure is one of the many ‘shocks’ immigrant families experience when they move here. The multilingual book festivals are a fantastic way to create relationships and celebrate families. It naturally brings people together in a low-stress environment, which creates a nest for trust and relationship building.
The multilingual book festival we recently designed was highly calibrated to the community. I listen and learn from the Multilingual leader and staff involved in the event planning as they describe their demographics to me. Some examples of how we utilize this information to inform our design of services, aside from aligning the languages of the books offered, includes door gifts, treats, and activities. In this case, families were welcomed with hand-held flags aligned to their country of origin.
Upon entering the event venue:
- they were offered Cuban coffee, and a variety of Ukrainian and Polish chocolates
- there was diverse music playing in the background
- there were activity centers with imported cultural games being facilitated by teacher volunteers
- and a photo backdrop that served as a family-selfie opportunity accompanied with culturally-aligned accessories.
Many families approached me asking when we would be coming again to do this. There were Spanish-speaking families buying Polish books, monolingual English-speaking families buying Spanish books; the context highlights the rich diversity and unifies families at the same time. Attendance was incredible, and families stayed for a long time! They talked to each other, played games with each other, their children bonded, teachers connected with them — this is truly the groundwork for a fruitful family-school relationship with students at the core of all of these adults coming together.
What kinds of costs are involved in importing and distributing books from global markets?
When schools ask us to break down the cost of our book collections, I explain that navigating international markets is complex. It takes significant time, resources, and effort to investigate and formally add books in a new language to our collections. That’s not even digging into actually getting the books here, and offering them in such an efficient way to clients. Every country has their own approach towards exporting the books. Shipping overseas is quite costly, which has a significant impact on the price of the books when they arrive.
That being said, we want schools to keep in mind that we can customize book collections and projects for a variety of budgets.
What are some ways that schools are funding these book purchases?
The majority of schools budget for our books and services utilizing Title I or Title III funds. Title I Part A provides allowable expenses in the areas of parent and family engagement and covers things like:
- guest speakers/supplies for a family event/activities
- light refreshments to support meetings and attendees
It’s important to note that only ‘Targeted/identified’ students may be served or may benefit from this funding.
Title III has allowable expenses in the areas of:
- improving the instructional program for English learners by acquiring and upgrading instructional materials
- providing community participation programs, family literacy services, and parent/family outreach and training activities to English learners and their families — to improve the English language skills of English learners; to assist parents and families in helping their children to improve their academic achievement and becoming active participants in the education of their children
This is a condensed version of federal funding; I strongly recommend that practitioners refer to guidance provided by their state board of education to learn the details of this.
What other suggestions do you have for finding funding?
Many local businesses are happy to partner with schools for initiatives that serve to benefit multilingual students and families. This is especially true for businesses owned by immigrants! There is a strong sense of solidarity and pride in many immigrant communities, and linking arms is a natural and culturally aligned practice. I also know that there are grants available to specifically serve the Ukrainian community right now. We were able to take advantage of this ourselves when looking into professional translation services for our inventory documents of Ukrainian literature. Refugee resettlement agencies will often have knowledge of funding opportunities or at the very least, a strong network of support services that practitioners can tap into as well.
What are some of your favorite stories of how people are responding to these books?
We recently helped an ESL teacher in Wisconsin acquire Ukrainian books for a newcomer student. She reached back out, and shared the story of when she presented the books to him.
“Thank you so much for being so helpful in getting…Ukrainian books. We showed them to [our student] today. His eyes got so big…and it was hard to get him to do anything else for the rest of the day because he only wanted to read his new books!” - ESL Teacher
We have the honor to partner with deeply invested educators like the teacher quoted above. We engage in this work because of them, because of the kids, and because of the families.
What kind of journey do the books go on before they arrive in schools and libraries in the U.S.?
The journey our books embark on to arrive in the United States in many ways mirrors the experience of immigrants. This is especially true of our Ukrainian, Romanian, and Russian books. War has had a tremendous negative impact on acquiring just about anything in Ukraine. A major publishing house located in the east, had to uproot their entire establishment and move to the west because of the invasion. Imagine starting over from scratch - a building, machinery, employees, materials, still having authors willing to write, still having illustrators. Many times in war or even a pandemic, basic goods become scarce and costly, right now, it’s paper. Finding paper, producing paper, is challenging. This has a significant impact on publishing books.
Another element is exporting goods. It is no longer happening via planes in Ukraine. So in order to export the books, semi trucks are being utilized to transport the books to neighboring safe countries, and from there they get stocked into planes to get to the United States. Typically, they land on the East Coast first before getting to the Chicagoland area. The journey is long, intense, and has many stops along the way before finally being able to safely flourish in a classroom or in the home of a Ukrainian family here in the United States.
How can schools connect with you if they are interested?
- Learn more about our services and books on our website
- Connect with us on social media to continue learning about our latest news, projects, and events (Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook)
- Take a look at two seasonal VLOGs (one that focuses on highlighting experts in our field and another that highlights the Latin American nonprofit that we partner with)
- Email us at [email protected] with questions or project ideas