University of South Carolina

Conference highlights biliteracy, bilingualism

By Craig Brandhorst,, 803-777-3681

Twelve years ago, when the state of Arizona enacted the controversial law known as Proposition 203, replacing its public schools’ bilingual education programs with a classroom approach called structured English immersion, University of South Carolina assistant professor of instruction and teacher education Julia Lopez-Robertson was on the front lines—or more exactly, at the head of the class.

The new Arizona law required “non-English dominant” students to enroll in English-only classes and pass a proficiency exam before they could opt into a bilingual education track. But Lopez-Robertson, a first- and second-grade teacher at a bilingual elementary school in Tucson at that time, had read the research on biliteracy and bilingual language education and already had established teacher-parent relationships with many families benefitting from it.

The Boston native had also grown up in a bilingual home herself—speaking Spanish with her Cuban father and Colombian mother, English with her siblings—and she felt strongly that forcing children into English-only classrooms was not only pedagogically suspect but culturally damaging.

“We know from research that you can’t become English-proficient in three months, but the tests scored them as English proficient,” says Lopez-Robertson now. “The parents at my school had a choice: do you want to keep your child in the English-only classroom, or do you want to move your child to the bilingual classroom?”

“Well, all of our families went to the bilingual classroom. But until then, the kids were almost in a holding cell.”

Lopez-Robertson left Arizona to join the faculty at USC’s College of Education in 2006, but her passion for bilingual education hasn’t faded. She regularly works the hot-button topics of bilingualism and biliteracy into classroom discussions, explaining that what’s happening in the Southwest today could also happen in South Carolina, given the Palmetto State’s growing Latino population.

“People here are so far removed, physically, from what’s been happening in Arizona. They don’t know what’s been happening at all,” she says. “So, of course, in all of my classes I talk about it. I tell my students that we have to watch what happens there because it can impact us here as well.”

She also shows her students the 2011 PBS documentary “Precious Knowledge,” which chronicles the more recent efforts by the Arizona legislature to outlaw ethnic education courses. The school at the center of the film, Tucson High School, is in the same district where Lopez-Robertson taught for 14 years.

“When I saw the film the first time, I thought of some of my kids, my little ones who I taught over the years. They had to suffer these things as they got older and went on to high school.  I didn’t see any of my specific children in the film, but I could easily see that mine would have had to go along that trajectory.”

But simply reaching her undergraduate and graduate students each semester isn’t enough for Lopez-Robertson, who also reaches out to the public school teachers already in classrooms around the state. As they increasingly encounter Latino students and their families, she says, they need to understand the Latino culture and those students’ specific classroom needs. That’s partly why she co-founded the annual Latino Children's and Young Adult Literature and Literacies Conference in 2008 (with former USC library science professor Jamie Naidoo), and why the conference is now attracting top names in the field.

This year’s conference, which wrapped up on Saturday, Sept. 29, paired readings at local schools by author and illustrator Maya Christina Gonzalez with a campus appearance by keynote speaker Donaldo Macedo, a leading figure in the critical literacy movement. The conference also featured a special screening of “Precious Knowledge,” hosted by Latino scholar Augustine Romero of the Tucson Unified School District.

“We’re the only conference of this kind,” Lopez-Robertson says. “My friend (and conference co-founder) Jamie Naidoo has a conference now at the University of Alabama, but it’s more focused on the Latino literature. My focus is on biliteracy, bilingualism and dual language, and how these affect our schools.”

As a self-described “teacher-activist,” Lopez-Robertson is equally focused on advocacy for a community that can’t always make its own needs known.

“My thing is, I have a voice, I can say things,” she says. “My Latino families may not do that, because they may not feel they have a right to, or they may not be here in this country with permission. They don’t want to call attention to themselves. But I can say what I want. I’m American.”

The annual Latino Children's and Young Adult Literature and Literacies Conference brought three distinguished Latino literacy scholars to the University of South Carolina campus last week to discuss the hot-button topic of bilingual education. For conference organizer and USC assistant professor of instruction and teacher education Julia Lopez-Robertson, that’s a step in the right direction.  

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Posted: 10/01/12 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 09/28/12 @ 4:53 PM | Permalink