UCLA Scholars Stress Impact of Heritage Languages at LAUSD Achievement Conference

Institute-affiliated faculty and educators discuss culturally relevant approaches to closing the achievement gap in Los Angeles schools.

UCLA Scholars Stress Impact of Heritage Languages at LAUSD Achievement Conference

Spanish Professor Claudia Parodi discusses multilingualism in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jonathan Friedlander)

By Jonathan Friedlander

Professors Concepcion Valadez and Claudia Parodi demonstrated keen awareness of the challenges facing the audience of K-12 teachers attending their sessions at the 15th annual "Closing the Achievement Gap" professional development conference sponsored by the Los Angeles Unified School District and its Academic English Mastery Program (AEMP). The International Institute coordinated a series, or "strand," of presentations by UCLA scholars on March 11, the second day of the city-wide conference held at the Los Angeles Airport Hilton.

Speakers at the conference at large, attended by some 1,800 educators, focused on its theme of "culturally responsive" teaching strategies designed to take students' backgrounds more fully into account in the classroom. More than 150 teachers participated in the UCLA Scholars Strand.

Valadez, who heads the Division of Urban Schooling at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies (GSEIS), said that all teachers, whatever their academic expertise, need as a practical matter to be language instructors. That is because awareness of students' linguistic situations and competencies is key to making any subject matter clear to them. The point was backed up by U.S. Census data cited by Parodi during her presentation. The figures from 2000 give English a slight, less than 1%, edge over Spanish as Los Angeles' leading language; with Asian and Middle Eastern tongues figured in, "minority" language speakers easily outnumber speakers of English.

Using case studies from Spain and Paraguay, where she served as a consultant, Valadez addressed dilemmas facing school systems with respect to language diversity. Employing Spanish as the prime example, she examined sometimes conflicting policies regarding language instruction.

A professor in the UCLA Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Parodi spoke about the relationship that minority languages, mainly Spanish, have with English and about differentials in the prestige of variants within a given language. A few of the non-standard variants spoken in Los Angeles are Chicano English, Chicano Spanish, American Japanese, and American Vietnamese. Parodi engaged the audience in a discussion of how to improve students' mastery of standard English.

The morning session continued with a demonstration, by Epifania Amoo-Adare and Robin Nicole Johnson, of culturally responsive teaching tools such as GlobaLink-Africa developed by the Globalization Research Center-Africa based at the UCLA International Institute. The online resource promotes critical thinking about globalization in Africa and U.S. policy towards Africa. Designed for high school students, GlobaLink-Africa provides culturally relevant lesson materials with a social justice agenda while adhering to everyday classroom needs tied to California state standards.

Conference participants were introduced to an array of culturally responsive educational materials, from geometry lesson plans integrating Ashanti African and Navaho textile patterns to literacy-based elementary instruction employing African tales and fables. Meanwhile, GSEIS Professor Robert Cooper spoke on intervention policies for stemming high drop-out rates.

As part of its ongoing efforts to build bridges between K-12 and higher education, the International Institute will continue to collaborate with LAUSD. This conference was especially successful in clarifying some of the close relationships between ethnic and international studies, academic concerns that have drawn nearer in this globalized age.

We are grateful to Dr. Noma LeMoine, director of AEMP/Achievement Gap Branch, for her commitment to the pursuit of excellence in education for diverse learners, and to AEMP instructional specialist Carlos Barron for his dedication to strengthening the bond between UCLA and the District. Special thanks go the UCLA Latin American Center and African Studies Center and their respective directors Professors Randal Johnson and Allen Roberts for supporting the scholars strand of the conference, and to the educators and professionals on both sides who made it a productive and memorable event.

For more information about the International Institute precollegiate program, including upcoming professional development opportunities for teachers, visit the Outreach section of this website.

Jonathan Friedlander is the chairman of the UCLA International Institute's Outreach Committee and assistant director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies.