Roundtable calls for cultural diversity and the arts to boost literacy
By Jennifer Berghom and Gail Fagan, Public Affairs Representatives
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Posted: 03/30/2012
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Ways to boost literacy and improve educational success, particularly by Hispanic children, was the issue of the day March 30 at The University of Texas-Pan American.

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Participants of the Congressional Roundtable on Hispanic Literacy at FESTIBA, hosted by UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen and U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, listen to Dr. Robert Jiménez, professor of language, literacy and culture at the University of Illinois at Ubrana-Champaign, speak. Sitting next to Jiménez, from left to right, are: Judy B. Cheatham, vice president of literacy services, Reading is Fundamental; Hinojosa; Nelsen; Dr. Francisco Jiménez, award-winning author of "The Circuit" and "La Mariposa" and professor at Santa Clara University; and Tony Plana, actor, director and co-founder and artistic director of the EastLA Classic Theatre.
A panel of leaders in education joined U.S. Congressman Ruben Hinojosa (TX-15) to share their thoughts on this important topic during a Congressional Roundtable on Hispanic Literacy during the University's Festival of International Books and Arts, an annual event which promotes literacy and an appreciation for the arts and humanities.

Hinojosa updated the educators and librarians on the future of No Child Left Behind and current education-related legislation being proposed in Congress, which he felt would negatively affect students locally and nationwide, particularly those who are economically disadvantaged or who are and have been underserved.

He also talked about the need for an emphasis in early childhood literacy and parental involvement he has seen in economically emerging countries such as China and India. Hinojosa initiated the South Texas Literacy Coalition to help promote reading and literacy to children and families in this region.

"I'm happy to tell you that over 450,000 books have been given out in the last two years," he said, regarding the coalition's book distributions.

Other panelists included Dr. Judy B. Cheatham, vice president of Literacy Services, Reading is Fundamental; Dr. Francisco Jiménez, award-winning author of "The Circuit" and "La Mariposa" and professor at Santa Clara University; Dr. Robert Jiménez, professor of language literacy, language and culture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Tony Plana, actor, director and co-founder/executive artistic director of the EastLA Classic Theatre.

Cheatham said teachers need to develop better ways to communicate with parents, who, she said, often feel that their input is not valued.

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Alexa Tressler, head children's librarian at the Dustin Michael Sekula Memorial Library in Edinburg (pictured second from left), and Myra Morales, a fifth grade teacher at E. B. Guerra Elementary School in Edinburg (pictured second from right), won the 2012 My Educator Rocks! and My Librarian Rocks! Awards by Springboards to Education, Inc. Springboards to Education, Inc. promotes education excellence and student success through various incentive products and programs in classrooms across Texas, including the Read the Million Words Campaign™, which encourages students to read a million words during each academic school year. Pictured with the winners are U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa and UTPA College of Arts and Humanities Dean Dr. Dahlia Guerra.
"When we communicate with parents we don't often do it in a language that they can understand," she said. "Forty-six percent, or 93 million adults, have difficulty reading. You have to be able to communicate in ways that they can understand."

She added that only one child in 300 owns a book.

"Send books home, go to the book sales, do anything you can to make the parents think that you value them. When the parents are involved, that is when you see the (students') progress," Cheatham said.

Robert Jiménez said he regularly works with young people who want to be teachers of English language learners.

"Schools are not teaching English to the students who need it the most," he said, according to recent studies. "We need to find out better ways to provide the English instruction our students need to succeed in the programs they find themselves in. It's not the student's fault that they come to us not speaking English. It's our fault that we are not providing them the English they need to succeed in reading, math, science and social studies."

If teachers select materials that relate to the cultural and linguistic experiences of their students, they will be engaged in learning and reading, said Francisco Jiménez, who described how he was forbidden to speak his native language of Spanish as a child in an English-speaking classroom and flunked first grade.

"It is important that the curriculum that is designed in the schools should reflect the diversity of the students who are being taught. If they don't see themselves in the curriculum, they see themselves as invisible," he said.

Plana said he wants educators to change their perception of how arts can be used effectively in education.

"(They should) No longer perceive them as enrichment activities but more as core, best practices methodology to achieve the academic alignment and expectations that we are trying to accomplish," he said.

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Actor Tony Plana (pictured center) poses with La Joya Independent School District librarians (from left to right) Elizabeth Hernandez, Ana Gonzalez, Sandra Chapa and Edith Vera.
Plana said he is amazed that in California the usual approach to low performing schools is to remove all the arts.

"I can't think of a more demoralizing and destructive action. If I were in a leadership capacity, I would do the opposite. I'd flood the schools with the arts and find ways of engaging students, not just academically, but emotionally," he said.

Nelsen talked about the successes UT Pan American and Rio Grande Valley educators and librarians have had in reaching out and educating students.

He said the University produces the most bilingual education teachers in the nation and college readiness has greatly improved, thanks to the work of Valley teachers and efforts of Valley libraries.

"Ten years ago 68 percent of the students who came to Pan Am had to go into remedial education; four years ago 37 percent; this year, 16 percent. We are doing the right things but we have a long way to go," he said. "From all the kids in the eighth grade who go to college, only 22 percent get a diploma, among Hispanics, it is only 13 percent. Our responsibility for every person in this room is to reach back and help a child. Help that child achieve what you have achieved. Why? Because literacy means economics."

After the roundtable discussion, Plana showed a clip of the past three decades of his work in television and film to a crowded room of librarians and other educators at UTPA's Ballroom. Afterward, Plana talked about his career and how the theater program he started has worked with libraries in the Los Angeles area to promote literacy.

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Edward Irving Wortis, better known as Newbury Honor and Newbury Medal winning author Avi, spoke to librarians and educators Friday, March 30 at UTPA's Festival of International Books and Arts (FESTIBA) about his journey in becoming a writer.
He urged the educators to embrace the arts and artists more in engaging children in literature.

"Don't just have people from the community read (books to the children), but have artists read and perform your books," Plana said. "Libraries need to be perceived as potential theaters."

Plana talked about the struggles he faced as an immigrant who came from Cuba, including mastering the English language, but he pushed through those obstacles and developed the skills he needed to become an actor.

He also encouraged them to integrate who they are into their teaching and allow them to interact with what they are learning and to encourage children to follow their dreams, whatever they may be.

"We have to allow our children to be what they imagine themselves to be," he said.

Newbery Honor and Medal award winner Avi told the group about how he went from a student struggling in school in New York to an award-winning author of more than 70 books through slides during his presentation.

Avi, who was born Edward Irving Wortis, developed a love of reading and writing when he was a child and wanted to become a writer, but he was told by his teacher and his family that he would never succeed. He did not let their criticisms, and his being diagnosed as having dysgraphia (a neurological condition that prevents people from writing clearly or correctly), stop him from becoming a librarian and author. His story drew gasps from the crowd of educators.

Even though he has been successful in having his work published, Avi said the writing process is hard and that he often rewrites manuscripts for his books 60-70 times before sending them to the publishing company.

But he said the foundation for all writers is reading, and that "writers don't write writing, they write reading."

"Writing is all about reading and the best writers write to be read," he said.