Katie McKay: Podcast Interview and Interview Transcription
How parents, teachers and both private and public sectors can work together to support meaningful learning for diverse groups of students and build a greater sense of community together.
Katie McKay – Introduction, Experience and Background
Angela: Hi. Welcome. This is Angela Pack-Zia, from Think Bilingual Austin. Today I have a special guest. Her name is Katie Mckay. I’m going to let her introduce herself and tell us a little bit about her experience as a bilingual educator and writer.
Katie: Sure. My name again is Katie Mckay. I am currently working as the co-director of The Heart of Texas Writing Project at the University of Texas in Austin, which is an affiliate of the National Writing Project, which is based out of Berkeley. We are one of over 150 sites. We provide professional development in the area of the teaching and writing to Austin area teachers through the form of society workshops. We do a month long summer institute and we also provide consulting out in schools.
My experience as a bilingual educator, I taught in Washington D.C. area for a few years with international students and public schools. I taught abroad in Buenos Aires at the Lincoln International School with students from all over the world with variety of linguistic backgrounds and cultures. I’ve taught here in Texas in Austin for about ten years as a bilingual educator in fourth grade, and fourth and fifth grade as an English language learners’ coordinator at another school. Next year, I’ll be going into a new position in Austin ISD as a bilingual specialist at Travis Heights Elementary.
New Vertical Alignment Initiative Connecting Teachers, Parents & Students with the Community At Large
Angela: Excellent. You’re doing something really interesting in the school district–vertical alignment to get teachers and parents involved in the community. Can you explain that a little bit?
Katie: Absolutely. We are a group that we’ve called Nuestras Escuelas, Nuestras Poderes. Nuestras Escuelas we’ve kind of shortened it to recently. We’re a group of teachers and parents and we hope students will start joining us as well from the schools that feed into Travis High School. There are about eight elementary schools and two middle schools and then Travis High School is our feeder high school. We come together once a month in the Travis high school to talk about and name the strengths of our schools, what great teaching and learning is going on in our schools, and how we can make more public those projects so that we can involve the community in that work, and also promote our schools in our communities.
We found that it’s been really exciting to make stronger connections between our schools. Teachers are learning from parents, parents are learning from teachers about what great instruction looks like. We do focus quite a bit on writing instruction, but we invite teachers from all different subjects areas, especially teachers who are thinking about project-based work.
Angela: Okay. It’s a lot about authentic learning. A lot of these schools have similar challenges. Can you talk a little bit about what do these schools in this district look like, and what are some of the challenges that you’re working on as a collective group to overcome?
Katie: Well, as a country one challenge that our schools struggle with is the idea of high stakes testing and standardization of learning in order to meet those tests. A challenge that we all have is to remember to value and prioritize research-based curriculum and learning instead of prioritizing test preparation. One thing we think we can do as a group is to highlight more great projects and research-based curriculum that’s happening in our schools already, to help grow support for that and also to help inspire other teachers be a part of that.
Community Involvement in Supporting Student’s Education
We also found it challenging to do really strong positive public relations and PR for our families to know more about what’s going on in our schools. Principals and teachers are so busy that for them to really let the community know what great things are going on, and to find people, and where they are on a daily basis, as opposed to having to have them come to the school to find out. If we go to them, if we have our projects in our work, in community spaces, then maybe we can let more people know about what’s going on in our schools.
Angela: These community spaces can be libraries, or coffee shops, local recreation centers, and things like that. Is that right?
Katie: Absolutely, yes. Some other types of community partners that I’ve partnered with in this type of work have been public libraries where we can display students’ books. I’ve talked to local businesses who are interested in supporting their area schools by having that work displayed in the business, like a restaurant or a coffee shop. I’m also talking to Parks and Recreation, our shared public parks are another place where we could display between work.
What we’re trying to do as a group really is to look at the world around us, spaces that we already inhabit as community members and citizens and to think, “How might this be a space where students could bring their work outside of the school and make it more an integral part of the community and our daily lived experiences?“
Our Diverse Student Body: Diverse Language and Cultural Strengths from which to Draw From and Support
Angela: I think we have a lot of Spanish [speaking] language learners [in your school district]. You also have and are working with a lot of refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan?
Katie: I haven’t gotten to meet those communities yet, but next year at Travis Heights in my new position I will be supporting teachers of refugees that speak primarily Pashto. At Travis Heights there are 35 families approximately that attend that school, about 50 students from those areas of the world. I’m excited to get to know their diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds as well.
Angela: One of the things I know from your experience and of having worked with you in the past through different events that we’ve hosted, is that you’re very passionate about biliteracy and maintaining the native language. Can you tell us a little bit about why that’s so important for children who come from another language at all, to maintain their native language and develop their biliteracy skills?
Katie: Absolutely. Some of the things that I think of as primary benefits to maintaining biliteracy, I think sometimes of these concentric circles where we start with ourself as a person, as a human, and then we think of our social emotional learning. One benefit to maintaining our biliteracy of our home language is that that’s the language that we have grown up and that we have our experience with. So, when we promote biliteracy instruction, we can help grow all the language strengths that our students come to us with and therefore value them as people, as opposed to subtractive curriculum that only works toward one target language that might not be the language of the individual from home, which would devalue their experience outside of school.
Another benefit I think of is, as intellectuals, there’s a lot of research now that talks about [the fact that] we don’t separate our languages in their brain. There are the connections [in our home language] that we’re always making and that those are strengths that we have, not weaknesses. We want to be able to build on those strengths. Also, there’re a lot of educators who work with culturally and linguistically diverse students. I have been reading more of the research, there’s one book specifically that I love called Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. A lot of my work is thinking about culturally responsive and sustaining teaching.
I like that term, culturally sustaining, that we want to think about. What are the strengths and language strengths such students can learn and how can we sustain those? The idea is, or what more brain research is telling us is that, our brains are actually wired for our cultural patterns, like, collectivist versus individualist traditions, or oral versus written tradition. There’s more ways that we can structure our classrooms like using written and oral languages or traditions in the classroom that add value.
Our brains are actually more prepared to receive new knowledge when the languages and cultures of our homes are valued in the school. We’re more prepared to learn when we feel that our culture and one is valued in that space.
Angela: I would think that, having that diversity in the space and in the learning environment also adds to the richness of learning for other children who are not from that culture. Correct?
Katie: Absolutely. When we think beyond that circle of just our own home community and our own person, and the roots of our language and culture, then we think also about the added benefit we can [gain] when we write and we read and we produce a language in a diverse language background. We’re also able to teach others about that language; to teach others about that culture; and to relate to each other who share some of those languages patterns and cultures.
The Importance of Storytelling by drawing from Native Language and Culture.
Angela: One of the things you talk about is storytelling. Can you explain a little bit about the importance of storytelling in your own language or utilizing your own language and culture to tell stories?
Katie: In schools we do a lot of reading and that’s of course an important part of our literacy, but what we’ve seen is that there is still a problem of diversity in the books that are on the shelves. So, when we can encourage our students to be also producing stories and documenting their stories in two languages, then we are contributing and helping to diversify the stories that are out there and that we have access to. When we share stories, it helps us to build community, to learn and connect to each other, to see that we have similarities across differences, to see that we relate to each other, we love, we laugh together.
Also in the academic sense, [we are] seeing that those stories belong on the shelves and understanding that they are valuable and that they have value, as opposed to students feeling like they have to create a story that looks like what’s on the shelves. The story you have from your life is what should be on the shelves.
Angela: On the opposite side, for example, English native speakers, when they’re exposed to these stories, exposed to these cultures, and also exposed to languages and that process of language learning, there’re a lot of benefits that these students are receiving as well. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Katie: Absolutely. Of course, like we talked about, [there is] the brain intellectual benefits; but also this broader audience that we have access to, to learn from and to connect with. When we know more than one language, we learn that, we feel in those languages, and we can produce and connect with other people in new ways that we couldn’t have when we had only access to one. Knowing more, of course, about other languages is an enriching experience that helps us to be empathetic, and connect, and relate to others.
In our society, we look at the media and think about movies, books, music, English is what we just hear the most often. The more often we can expose all learners to other languages, the more we can level that playing field and say, “All of these languages are appreciated, are loved and valued, and honored in our society.”
Angela: There is value to that. I would also think that it provides a sense of the broader scope of the world. It brings the awareness that there’s a larger world out there.
Katie: Yes. I think it helps us to take a critical look at why other media are using certain language choices, and why some are valued and others are not. –Seeing where we are and to say, “Why is it that way in our world and how could we maybe make a difference?”
Building Community based on Respect and Value
Angela: What you’re doing with the vertical alignment with the school district, is [that] you’re having these stories in the public domain now. You’re adding that element and elevating those stories and the work that these children are doing from all these diverse backgrounds. That helps to provide some form of validation.
Katie: Whenever students know that their writing and their stories are going to be read and heard by an audience other than, for example, their teacher, they have a new sense of motivation, a new identity as a writer, as a contributor to their society, to their community and connecting and knowing that others can appreciate [them]. I do think that there’s one thing we have to do, to do it in a responsible way. As teachers, we have to be aware of the biases and the prejudices that still exist in our communities and to think about how we display that student’s work in a way that the peers or audience see that work through an appreciative lens.
Sometimes putting it out there alone isn’t enough. We might also need to have a sign there to talk about what was the purpose of this learning, why it is important students are using other varieties of language in this way. We might even have to explain that, it’s about not only appropriate writing, [but] that it’s a kid’s work, done by kids. It might not look polished in the same way that it might be if it were published in a newspaper. Then when we do that, we’re promoting the importance of the process of writing and growing writers as opposed to just evaluating the product, which is what a lot of our tests are doing.
Angela: I think there’s also a lot of the development in that higher order of thinking. The critical skills that come with just that process of engagement and writing, but also recognizing that this is for the bigger purpose.
Angela: Thank you very much for joining us today.
Katie: Thank you for having me.