If you asked me some years ago what entering Latino students need most to thrive in a university environment where they are threading through unfamiliar territory, given my background in languages and literatures, I would have said, they need to strengthen their writing skills as it is essential in so many areas of their college education. I’ve slowly begun to change that mentality in favor of a more personal investment in their learning approach. It’s not that I no longer think writing is crucial to their success in college, but rather as an educator of the whole person, I’ve moved toward using writing, and other forms of creative communication, as an opportunity for students to reflect on their experiences. Our Latino student population, many of whom are first generation students, specifically benefit from these types of activities that help them come to grips with their identity. Through journaling and end of semester creative projects they have delved into aspects of their identity that perhaps they’re exploring for the first time. Not only have they reflected individually on what being a Latino college student means, but they have also collectively developed a sense of group identity and bonding that goes beyond the confines of the classroom. However, in order for this type of work to happen, a safe space, where their stories are validated, needs to be created.
For many incoming first year students at Linfield the Inquiry Writing Seminar is a dreaded class that all are required to take regardless of their previous experience with writing. Even the ‘experts’ need to think of themselves as novices, as a famous article suggests. With this motto, for over five years in my class for bilingual and heritage speakers of Spanish, I set out to reinforce writing skills by immersing this population of students in the Spanish language that for many of them is their native tongue. To support their search for identity we deal with topics that touch upon bilingualism, interculturality and social issues that continue to impact Latinos all over the U.S. Yes, I confess, my aim initially was for us to create a sense of community and thereafter hammer the standard forms of Spanish while devoting a significant number of class hours to workshops on different aspects of writing. All our work would culminate in an end of semester research project where as expected, they would reflect the conventions of good writing in Spanish which they could then transfer to any class in English. To my chagrin, I found that year after year, while my intentions were well received by some students who produced quality work, there were others simply going through the motions, not feeling thoroughly invested. A number of questions began to pursue me about how to find a balance between skills students need to develop or enhance and how to redesign assignments to validate their cultural experiences. Given that one of our goals at Linfield is integrative learning, one year I asked them to think about how they might apply an aspect of their major to the novel we were reading. It so happened that year that there were two art students who collaborated on a painting. What they produced was truly illuminating in terms of how deeply the experience of the two young protagonists, whose paths cross at critical junctures in their lives, had touched them. It was then that I decided to sacrifice the more traditional pedagogy that framed my class objectives for a more personal approach that was more liberating.
Why, one could ask is this turning to the self something first generation Latino students or others, for that matter, benefit from? Well for starters, research on bilingual/heritage learners shows that they need to feel a sense of connection to the materials they are engaging to spur their motivation. “Identity trumps grammar” is what leading linguists who work with this population are telling instructors. Do I hear in these words the mandate to do away with grammar and the conventions of writing? Not quite so blatantly. Rather, I have learned that by foregrounding activities and assignments that allow students to explore the many layers of their identity as individuals learning to live between different worlds, they must first grapple with conflicting narratives about who they are. Often they feel torn between their family identity and that of young college students. Add to that a gender lens, given that most of my students are young Latinas living away from home for the first time, and their identity gets all the more complex. All this plays itself out in one form or another during their college years and in our classrooms. Why then, not use the classroom space to reflect critically and constructively about these matters that are foremost in our students’ minds?
In recent years, through creative projects that reflect themes in the novel we read, my students have begun to make sense of their often entangled identity web. I have seen a family tree tracing deep cultural roots through several generations; a rosary with beads symbolizing different aspects of their Catholic faith; a stitched butterfly that reminds a young woman of the freedom she longed to have as a college student getting ready to further expand her wings to take her abroad; or a poem about the movement of waves as a way to inhale and exhale to feel life in all its vibrancy but also in its most vulnerable stages. The possibilities for connecting the self with experiences described in the novel are endless, as I’ve come to realize. And only by giving students free rein to find those connections, can they really tap into the fountain of free expression that’s swelling up in their innermost being as they learn to become young adults.
Nonetheless, this seemingly haphazard way of engaging with a work in an academic class, has a shape and form, an introduction, development and conclusion that can then be transformed into a piece of writing that’s engaging, meaningful and innovative. But most importantly, it leaves students with a takeaway, not just for their own personal growth but also for that entire class community they have all helped to build and that toward the end of the semester becomes very cohesive. That creative energy is so eloquently released as students share with fellow classmates those deep underlying currents the novel moved in them or those dormant fears, images or memories it awakened and that they now display through an artistic medium. Often the session when they present their work, turns into a catharsis of sorts and for some even a rite of passage to emerge renewed, with a new layer of skin to help them face challenges ahead. Thus, is the power of art that no well-structured essay with language perfectly polished, can unleash.
Conversely, such creative energy reverberates in my veins long after those end-of-term presentations have concluded, reminding me too of my own fluid identity as a person constantly negotiating between all the spaces I inhabit and that I’ve learned to make my own. My fifteen years at Linfield witnessing the institution change from a primarily White middle class student body to our present day population of students of color hovering around 35%, as well as my own background as a Latina and first generation college student, puts me in the position of being a teacher-mentor, a role I have embraced with conviction. In the end, my hope is that classes and the projects I’ve described above, serve to remind students of how far they have come and how vital those cultural roots they now nurture will be as they find their own path in the myriad of possibilities college life offers them.
To my fellow colleagues I pose the question: If we’re not already doing so, why not make our classrooms spaces where students’ with diverse backgrounds feel their experiences are validated? This should not only happen in classes such as mine where they operate within their own cultural frameworks but also in the larger college context. Consider, for instance, encouraging students to find those connections that speak to them, their culture or their communities in class assignments as much as possible. By doing so, we strive for more inclusivity and diversity in our curriculum. And if we provide the space to share with others, we can uphold in our classes one of the tenets of the Diversity Advisory Committee’s mission which involves “Ensuring a sense of place where ALL community members can engage, model, and celebrate our diverse identities and differences.”
Dr. Sonia Ticas received her Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in 2001 in Romance Languages and Literatures. She has been at Linfield since 2001 teaching courses in Spanish language at all levels, Latin American literature and culture classes including Latin American cultures through film, Latin American women writers and historical figures. A native of El Salvador, her published work focuses on the history of women’s suffrage in the region and the study of women’s literature from the first half of the 20th century. She has published a number of articles studying the interplay of literature and women’s changing societal roles and is working on a book on the Salvadoran women’s suffrage movement.