Transcript of interview
Layla: Welcome to the Colorin Colorado podcast series, Meet the Experts. I'm Layla Wright-Contreras and with me is Dr. Rebecca Palacios from Corpus Christi, Texas. She's a pre kindergarten teacher and has been for over thirty years. She's currently teaching a dual language program. Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Palacios.
Dr. Palacios: I'm glad to be here.
Layla: Let's start by talking about why pre-kindergarten is so important. Why can't these four year olds just spend their days playing?
Dr. Palacios: Pre-kindergarten is really important because it creates a foundation upon which everything else will be built upon. And when we talk about a good pre-kindergarten program, a lot of it looks to children like play. And it is hard work. We build on their knowledge of what they already know when they come in. They're already curious. They're natural. They want to know more. And within that type of environment of curiosity, we use their play to create their environment, to use their ability to explore, to use centers and their environment to learn a little bit more.
For example, let's say that the children are working with seeds, and sorting them and putting them into like groups, and things like that. For them, it's play. They're looking at colors. They're looking at shapes. They're looking at sizes. And so what we want to do is develop classification and order and sequencing ideas for children that are going to be important prerequisites now in pre-K that are going to build on that knowledge as they move through elementary, middle school and high school. And the way that they're going to classify, for example, insects, plants, animals, later on in their scheme of learning about science and science learning.
Layla: What would you say are the qualities of a strong pre-K program?
Dr. Palacios: Well, I think in meeting the needs of the whole child, I've done extensive travel. I've traveled to China, to Russia and soon to Egypt working with early childhood delegations. And what has amazed me the most about these quality early childhood programs around the world is that they center on the children's physical needs, their social and emotional needs, their cognitive needs. And we're looking at the way that they require rest and they require active periods and they require knowledge, learning basis and times of exploration and acquisition of language, and so forth.
I think in a well-rounded program, you're going to look at the whole child. Because I can have a wonderfully bright child that has really difficult social, emotional issues in the home, separation, death. You can name all the different kinds of tragedies that can happen to a child. And when that child comes to us with difficulties in the social and emotional realm, that is a huge impediment to the child's learning, even though they're ready to learn and they want to acquire that knowledge and those types of things.
And we know, of course, if they're hungry or if they're tired, then they're not going to be learners that are ready to come to the environment. So there's a lot of factors I think that develop a great early childhood program: qualified teachers, involved families, using components of all the aspects of an integrated curriculum, using different approaches, thematic approaches, in which children can learn and acquire knowledge in their own way and having those different types of learning styles met.
Layla: Now, what would be the characteristics of a strong pre-K program for English language learners? What would be different or added onto what you just told us?
Dr. Palacios: Well, I think that all those things are the foundation, of course. You know, great early childhood best practice. You know, with a qualified teacher and a systems paraprofessional in the classroom, family's involved and so forth. And the other part for English language learners, what I've found is that there are adequate resources and materials available that will scaffold children's learning, that are able to be resources for the teacher, wonderful technology, great ideas of how children learn through the preparation of the teacher.
The teacher needs to also self-develop and continue his or her opportunities to grow in ways that they can use multiple strategies for children. And I think also one of the important things that we forget is that we have to accept children, how they come to school. And we forget that a lot of the teachers don't have that preparation in their welcoming and their invitation to accepting diversity in the classroom. And I think that's why the American Federation of Teachers Colorin Colorado website is so huge.
Because for me, as a veteran teacher, I can use that tool as a way to show my pre-service teachers, my student teachers and the novice teachers that I work with important strategies that they're going to need as they go on in their own classrooms to work with English language learners. So strategies are huge. Resources are big. And the involvement of families is also critical.
Layla: You've been touching on teacher preparation. What types of skills do these teachers need to master in order to be successful educators?
Dr. Palacios: What I have found over the years is that our teachers have a lot of content knowledge. But to make that content knowledge deliverable to children who don't speak the language is the harder part. So I think, in the end, providing strategies to teachers that will meet the needs of the students, whether they're young or they're middle school or they're high school, what are those developmental strategies that are important in scaffolding that learning for children?
For example, I know that when the teachers come and they speak the language, you know, some people think, oh, the louder I say it, the more they're going to be able to understand it. And it's not about the volume or the quantity of language we're giving them, but the connections that each child makes with the materials and the resources that they're going to work with. And with four year olds, especially in pre-K, you want to be able to have them have that hands-on opportunity.
The teachers need to know how to have other children work with them, providing that peer interaction that's going to help them talk to one another and develop language in context. And that is a big piece in second language learning. We know that book learning is not going to be the way. But it has to be real. It has to be meaningful to the student. And it has to be something that they have ownership of.
Layla: What kind of training should other educators have, let's say paraprofessionals or early child care providers?
Dr. Palacios: Well, they all need to have the similar types of strategies that make second language learning meaningful to children. And I think that it's incumbent upon the teacher to help train those that are going to be working with their children. And collaboration is essential, especially, for example, I'm going to talk about our dual-language program in which we share children.
If I'm doing a Spanish delivery and then those same students are going to work with another teacher in English, then that teacher and I and those assistants and those paraprofessionals need to have similar types of strategies and second-language learning that are going to be important to the consistency in which those children will understand the material being presented or being made available to them to learn. And I think one of those things that we can do is have weekly types of discussions about the children, analyze their work, look at where they are in language learning.
I think the other thing that's really important for me is assessment. How do we monitor their second language development? How we do we assess them? I've developed a set of rubrics that we look at the end of every theme to gage their second language learning. And we share that responsibility with a paraprofessional. I do the journal and the journal writing. And yet, my paraprofessional looks at their content type of learning within our classroom, seeing how they're progressing on those academic standards that we're accountable for within our district. So it's a shared responsibility of strategies and curriculum instruction and assessment.
Layla: Great. You were mentioning that you work in the dual- language program. I happen to know it's a very high quality one. Can you tell me some of the characteristics of that program?
Dr. Palacios: Well, I think that the thing that we started with was initial teacher preparation. Before we even began our dual-language program, we had to make sure that the teachers were trained. We had quality professional development, that we had adequate resources available to us to be able to set-up the environment and have, for example, in Spanish. Did I have enough songs? Do I have enough charts? Did I have the books, the literacy books? And one of the jokes that everybody says about me and my work with dual-language programs is that I'm the queen of the junk.
Because everything to me is an exploration, whether it's an empty bottle, whether it's a tube. And so people always say, 'I may not have enough resources.' But anything can be your resource. You can use that to teach language because it's something that's real. It's viable within the classroom. It's experimental, experiential for the students. And so those types of things, we had to make sure that the environment was set for second language learning with what is in the environment. And we wanted to use a lot of real things.
I think a crucial component is support from the administration, support from the community and support from the families that understand that this is a process that children go through to be able to become proficient in two languages and they are going to know that there is going to be some bumps in the road as children become more proficient in English and the Spanish waits a little bit. Or maybe the Spanish is going to really gain. And the English is going to take a little step back.
But that at the end of the process, at the end of the years of the child's going through the transition process to acquiring language, it's going to take time. And we know that research tells us that it takes five to seven years and even beyond for them to learn that second language. And that's one of the hardest things right now in our public schools: a lot of people don't believe in that support. We don't have that for our students in America. I can ... as I travel, I can see the support for two languages in China, in Russia, places I've been and the classrooms that I've visited.
And yet, we don't foster that culture of multi-lingualism in America. And I think that's something that we need to take away for our children to compete in a global community.
Layla: So obviously, the support is an important challenge in working with a dual language model. What are some other challenges that you've come across?
Dr. Palacios: Well, the biggest challenge for us right now are test scores. Because as we went through our dual language program, we have a really strong early childhood dual language program. But when you get to third grade when the scores are going to be much more real in our testing preparation of our students in our state, what we're finding is that the teachers don't want to continue that dual-language program. They don't want to give it the time it needs to be able to develop a biliterate child. Because they feel like they've got to get them into English. That's the biggest challenge. Get them into English. Get them into English. So they can do well on their test scores.
So even within our teacher group, even though they know, philosophically speaking, that this is crucial for the children of both types, whether it's a language majority or language minority child, knowing that we have to get them to English to be able to perform well, second, third, fourth, fifth grade and beyond, then the challenge is to do away with the dual-language program because they don't want to give it that time investment that it needs to be able to create those biliterate, bilingual children.
Layla: What would you say are other models that work well for teaching English language learners?
Dr. Palacios: Well, we have used very successfully the bilingual transitional model. And we know in our training and in our district how to work with children in the levels that they are coming in, in the classroom. We know how to gage them with language assessment models and taking language samples and working with them. So we have very successfully used transition models. Though we can see that, you know, it's a subtractive model, we're trying to get them into English as quickly as possible. We've been able to do a good job with the children's language development in English, even though we're taking away that Spanish.
But what we know in our dual language approach is that students that come back to talk to me about the way that we've nurtured their second language capabilities and their second language abilities that they come back and say, 'wow.' You know, I've been able to secure better paying jobs and much more types of opportunities because I am bilingual. And I have those bilingual abilities. And to me, that's one of the biggest successes of our program: the students themselves.
Layla: You were telling us that you've traveled around the world and seen other schools. Can you tell us what are some characteristics or successful techniques that you've seen at work there that we should be using here in the U.S.?
Dr. Palacios: They fully immerse them in a teacher that is proficient. The teacher is highly proficient in English. So when I went to China, there were English teachers. There were teachers from either England or America that were teaching the English. And one of the things that I found really interesting about both the Chinese and the Russian schools is that they use a lot of the aesthetic art and music approach that we just don't do a lot of.
I'm not just talking about early childhood. It carried through the elementary years. So you walk into a Russian middle school, they had music in the background and music as a resource to teaching. And so we always downplay the fine arts in the United States when it comes to funding. And just really push the test scores and the cognitive approach and the academic learning which I think is crucial. It is. But not to the detriment of the arts, the theater, the ballet, the dance, the singing, the things that the children can do to develop those multiple intelligences. I have children that are just so talented in art or music or dance. And we tend to lose that.
And those are important other second language acquisition pieces. Because, for example, in Spanish there's a whole just fountain of resources when it comes to singing and dancing, el patio de mi casa for example, and using those cultural components to teach that second language.
Layla: With this in mind, what do you think is something that pre kindergarten teachers could start doing today to help their struggling English language learners?
Dr. Palacios: Well, the most important thing, of course, is the literacy. Reading to the children and finding books that are high interest, that are thematic based, that are able to be foundations of what the children are learning about using fiction, non fiction books, using rhyming text, using different array of highly or high interest books that children are going to love to read about and want to read again on their own.
And that's one of the things that I've done over my career is that I've taken every single book that I own, and I own about six filing cabinets worth of books. And my student teachers just walk in and pass out when they see that. Like, oh, my gosh. You have so much stuff. But I think it's real important that I have them catalogued in themes of where they are. Because I always want to have them available. I can't always have all the books out. But the children can come and ask me. I want to read this book again. And I want to be able to go find it quickly. I don't want to have to, well, you know, what? Let me go to the library. By the time I find it, I'll get back with you. If that child wants that book now, I'm going to get it now. Because literacy is a key. So I want to be able to develop that high interest piece. And so what can teachers do now? Develop their libraries. Develop their charts. Develop their repertoire of skills that are important in teaching second language learners. And develop those high interest strategies and techniques and using graphic organizers. I love to do that. I love to draw in front of the children. And that leads to that literacy development. It leads to reading.
Layla: I'd like to look at the big picture for a second and ask you in your opinion how do you think we're doing as a country in training our pre-K teachers to teach English language learners?
Dr. Palacios: Well, I think we have a long way to go. I don't think we value, like I said before, the importance of second language learning. So we've fallen behind unless a teacher is a specialist going into a teacher prep program on second language learning bilingual education or ESL. Our regular teachers coming out may have special population strand of learning. But they don't have the techniques that are necessary to be able to be successful teachers of second language learners.
So what we want to be able to do is provide some type of integrated strand that's a lot more rigorous, that's able to provide them a background of information. What is second language learning? How do I develop this? And I think Colorin Colorado does a wonderful job. I'm also Vice Chair of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. And so our English is a new language certificate for teachers that have been in the classroom, or even new teachers can use these standards to guide their practice on what is best practice for a teacher that's working with a second language learning population.
So those types of resources that are high rigorous academic standards for myself as a teacher, plus using Colorin Colorado strategies and the website to be able to use those for the community, the family, for my students. Those types of resources are critical as we start to develop the second generation of professionals that are going to be taking, for example, my place as a dual-language teacher.
Layla: Can you tell me what role parents play in determining the success of their Pre-K ELL children?
Dr. Palacios: Parents are a huge and critical component in the child's success in school. The more that we can involve the parents, the more that they can be partners in the child's education. The more that that child is going to be successful. We've seen wonderful opportunities for parents in the different classrooms across the country where we bring them in and allow them to work with the students, work with their child at home. And providing, I think, resources from the school to home and vice versa.
Because parents we think of them, oh, it's all one way communication. And really what we've learned is that it's a two-way communication. They have so much to share. Parents that are coming from other countries, coming in with wonderful knowledge about language themselves are able to be wonderful resources in the classroom. And when we use them as models for their children, then it just elevates them to a whole different level.
So we want to validate parents and all and we want to have them be partners in their child's education at home reading to them, working with them at home, helping them out. And then also being very visible in the classroom and in the school community. And what we're finding is that a lot of the parents still are very afraid to take that step. And so we want to provide ways that we acknowledge them and we accept them as partners in education.
Layla: We know that sometimes it's difficult for schools to get the parents to come into the school and get involved. If a teacher could only get them to do one thing to participate, what should that one thing be?
Dr. Palacios: The most important thing they can do is read to their child. Because we talk about how the home environment is so critical to a child's success in school. And reading is the key to everything. Reading is the key to great science or math or music. And so we tell them if you can read to your child, sing to your child, those are the most critical things that you could do. And if you do not have the resources, you do not have the books, I'll get them for you. You know, I'll find ways to put those books in your child's hands and have them help out at home.
Layla: You've been at the job of teaching for quite some time. What is it that keeps you from coming back to the classroom day after day?
Dr. Palacios: The kids. The students are just so wonderful when it comes to walking in and seeing their little faces light up. And what do we have in store today? You know, what's going to happen? And what are we going to do? And one of the things that while I was trying to have an element of surprise in the classroom for the students, their routine's going to be very predictable.
They know what it's going to be like. So they're safe within this environment. I tell them today may be a little different because we're going to do this. But we're going to have the same expectation. They're going to know that there's consistency within this schedule. But there's also going to be very exciting things to explore and do.
And so, every year, it's just a different innovation. I try it a little bit differently. And this year, I'm looking at introducing more technology in my classroom and creating more of a teacher type of group, a learning community, that's going to work on using technology that's a key role in second-language learning. So I'm excited. I always try to do something different every year to keep myself vested in the children's learning. Because I want to model lifelong learning. I don't want to come and be the same teacher every year. And whatever it takes for me to help the students learn that second language, whether I have to sing and dance, whether I have to put on that hat or I have to, you know, have magnifying glasses in front of me or, you know, do something very different, I'm going to do it for those kids. And that's what keeps me coming back.
Layla: Well, on that note, I'd like to thank you very much, Dr. Palacios. And also thank our listeners. We hope you enjoyed this episode of Meet the Experts, a podcast series from Colorin Colorado. For more information on helping English language learners read and succeed, don't forget to visit www.colorincolorado.org. This podcast was made possible by the American Federation of Teachers.
Dr. Rebecca Palacios has been a pre-Kindergarten teacher in Corpus Christi, Texas, for more than thirty years. She's now a dual-language pre-kindergarten teacher at Zavala Special Emphasis School and holds certification from the prestigious National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, on which she also serves as the Vice Chair. She has received numerous prestigious awards and honors for being an outstanding educator from nationwide organizations.
She's served as an adjunct professor, has led delegations of educators abroad to learn about foreign education systems, and currently serves on the AFT's nationwide advisory task force on English language learners. Dr. Palacios holds degrees from Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi and the University of Texas at Austin.