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Award-winning education research sheds light on diversity, literacy

Before Sandra Osorio began kindergarten, her parents, both Colombian immigrants, were told by a private elementary school to stop speaking Spanish at home.

“They told them I would get confused,” Osorio said.

Osorio’s parents disagreed, but remained patient. A few weeks into the academic year, their daughter had her teachers changing their tune.

“They said, ‘Well, she can actually skip kindergarten and begin first grade if you would like her to,’” Osorio recalls.

That experience took place more than 20 years ago, but the marginalization of students with diverse backgrounds is still happening in classrooms all around the U.S. One contributing factor: the diversity within the teacher workforce has remained largely unchanged in recent years while underrepresented P-12 student populations continue to grow.

Assistant Professor Sandra Osorio

Assistant Professor Sandra Osorio

By 2020, it is expected that 53 percent of students in K-12 classrooms across the U.S. will be Latino, African American, or Asian. According to National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), those numbers represent a 33 percent jump since 2002. Yet, more than 80 percent of educators across the nation are white.

Research that makes a difference

Osorio, now an assistant professor in the School of Teaching and Learning, said experiences during her formative years motivated her to pursue a career in bilingual education. She served for eight years in elementary-level classrooms, and had no intentions of leaving the field despite earning a doctorate.

“But I kept seeing that so many of the preservice teachers who worked in my classroom were not equipped to work with linguistically and culturally diverse students. I told myself ‘I have this degree; I should be doing something more,’” she said.

During her transition to higher education, Osorio put together award-winning dissertation research. This spring, the teacher educator was recognized with the American Educational Research Association’s Critical Perspectives on Early Childhood Education Outstanding Dissertation Award.

The applied literacy research took place in a second grade, bilingual classroom at her former school. Students were predominately Latino and of Mexican decent. Her concept was simple: Ditch the Basal for reading list of choices based on Osorio’s knowledge of the students. All the while, generate discussion, listen, and learn from those young minds.

Assistant Professor Sandra Osorio (left) with her daughter and Rebecca S. New, chair of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Critical Perspectives on Early Childhood SIG and associate professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill after receiving the AERA Critical Perspectives on Early Childhood Education Outstanding Dissertation Award.

Assistant Professor Sandra Osorio (left) with her daughter and Rebecca S. New, chair of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Critical Perspectives on Early Childhood SIG and associate professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill after receiving the AERA Critical Perspectives on Early Childhood Education Outstanding Dissertation Award.

“In the end, I was able to observe them develop their critical consciousness as they considered social and political constructs,” Osorio said. For example, Osorio brought up border stories. Some of the students were able to share how their parents crossed over and how it affected their lives.

Throughout the project, students continued to meet Common Core Standards, but Osorio said they were able to get there in a more authentic way. “The biggest thing that this work reinforced was the importance of using literature that my students could connect to,” she said. “The engagement was much higher than it was when they read scripted [Basal reader] stories that had no connection to their lives, and a skill that they were required to work on.”

Dramatic improvements

The research also demonstrated just how much some of the students’ abilities had been incorrectly assessed, just as she once was. “Some of my students had been positioned as low achieving,” Osorio said.

“In my classroom, I saw them very differently, especially in the literature discussions. They took on leadership roles and shared different experiences they had. They were positioned very differently, and that was very surprising and good to see.”

When Osorio explains her research, she emphasizes that reading lists are not “one-size-fits-all,” even if one classroom has similarities to another. What’s more, she said that her students’ choices—or ability to connect with literature—can be unpredictable. But variety is key.

For example, she included the picture book Esperando mi papá/Waiting for Papa on the list after learning two of her Latino students had been separated from their fathers.

“One had experienced the deportation of their dad while the other student’s father had moved away. One chose the book; the other did not, but the one who didn’t had a strong connection to another text on the list.”

Osorio’s decision not to shy away from sensitive issues like undocumented immigration was sometimes met with chagrin by other teachers. “The truth is, these topics are part of our students’ reality,” she said. “This is something students talk about and they see in the news. In some cases, their parents are talking about it and maybe kids are scared.”

Empowering future educators

Since arriving at Illinois State, Osorio has also imparted her research and teaching experiences onto hundreds of early childhood education teacher candidates. This includes the changes she herself had to go through as she developed her craft.

She recalls the conscious effort she made one day to enable her elementary students to lead reading discussions. Osorio achieved the opposite, creating an Initiate-Response-Evaluate (IRE) environment where the teacher is actually in complete control of dialogue.

Osorio explains that it takes time to master, but teachers must get to know their students by positioning themselves as learners. From there, they design curriculum to build off of what students bring into classroom.

“You do not have to know it all. Be realistic with students when you do not know the answer. Tell your students, ‘You know that’s a really good question; I don’t know the answer. I’ll have to research it,’” she said. “Or I will ask, ‘Do you know somebody who can talk about those things, like your mom or dad?’”  In the past, she’s treated those moments as a prime opportunity to involve parents, inviting them to share their expertise with the class.

Many of the teacher candidates she works with will be among the workforce’s 80 percent white majority, but Osorio is dedicated to ensure these educators possess the cultural competencies to be effective for all students. The assistant professor has also infused more diverse clinical experiences into Illinois State’s early childhood education courses.

“There is nowhere that teachers can go where they are not going to run across a student who is culturally or linguistically diverse,” Osorio said. “It’s the reality, and they must be prepared for it.”

Today, Osorio is in a P-12 classroom almost as often as her full-time teaching days.

This year, Osorio is joining forces with a classroom teacher to further develop culturally responsive teaching practices. The collaborative research is funded by the National Council of Teachers of English, and she’s working with a colleague from her previous school in Urbana.

Osorio said this is the type of work that allows her research to be grounded in the latest developments in the field and keep her teacher education courses relevant.

“I don’t want to be a researcher that is so disconnected that I am talking about things that aren’t really happening,” she said. “I always want to have a foot in the classroom so that I really do know what it’s like and what’s currently going on in the classroom.”

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