Lilia Bartolomé

Lilia Bartolome

Dr. Lilia I. Bartolomé is Professor of Applied Linguistics in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Her areas of expertise are language and literacy development, linguistic minority education, qualitative research methods, and language teacher professional development. Her research interests focus on teacher beliefs and attitudes, immigrant/minority student experiences in school, and critical pedagogy. | April Interviewer: Ana Solano-Campos

  1. Lilia, can you tell us about yourself and about how you became interested in issues of critical pedagogy and language education? In your work you have pointed out that it is important for educators to develop ideological and political clarity. Which experiences were key in your development of political and ideological clarity? 

Ana, you ask an important question because in my own research I have attempted to identify educator ideologies, life experiences, predispositions, among other factors which appear to relate to progressive educators’ understanding that, in order to positively impact the education of students from subordinated populations, they must work “against the grain” and consciously and consistently intervene on behalf of their students. Thus, teaching involves so much more than having a tool box of skills that allows teachers to neutrally transfer content knowledge to all students while they reproduce the very white dominant values that devalue non-white subordinated students. Teaching should never be reduced to a method and the current focus on what works and the so called teacher-proof scientific methods devalue teaching. As Paulo Freire (1998, p. 4) so succinctly put it, teaching, “by its very nature, involves rigorous intellectual pursuits … [and teachers should not assume the role of apologists and feel] . . . responsible for assuaging all the ills of society, particularly the cruel and unjust presence of human misery that directly affects in multiple ways the students they teach.”

I came upon this understanding of the power of ideology to either work against or on the behalf of subordinated populations as a young child. Although I was born in Mexico, I grew up in San Diego, California and I consider myself “Chicana.” As a Chicana who grew up in a segregated, low SES barrio in Southeast San Diego, I was pretty much restricted to socializing and going to school with other working poor Chicanos, Mexicanos, and African Americans. Unfortunately, my teachers did not defend me or most of my peers from the human misery that Freire wrote about and neither did they veer off from the scripted deficit narrative that viewed most of us, at best, as needing to be fixed through remedial work or, at worse, not fit for education. As a result, they did not provide us with the critical tools to understand that the educational cards were stacked against us and how to defend ourselves.

Fortunately for me, although I was a child during the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and the Chicano Movement, I was strongly influenced by their liberation ideologies in general and, in particular, by the Chicano Movement’s unmasking the colonization history of Mexican-American people by Whites in the US. Similarly, learning about the enslavement of African peoples and their subsequent subordination helped me understand, as a junior high youngster, that my people’s low social status was not a result of some inherent aspect of the culture, as was put forth by “invisible” white dominant culture beliefs perpetuated by schools and media. Instead, the social movements at the time (not schools) helped me to figure out that Chicano and Mexican American low social status resulted from sociohistorical constructions in a context of asymmetrical power relations between the minority and the white dominant culture group that were seldom acknowledged or named yet were daily experienced psychologically by me and most of my peers.

Although I did not have the language to describe my understanding then, I intuitively understood that white supremacist ideologies were directly connected to the hurtful and discriminatory practices in school that I witnessed on almost a daily basis. I built on this organic knowledge base throughout my high school and university experiences. In fact, I double majored in Sociology and Education precisely because I wanted to become a bilingual teacher to positively contribute to my community and to create spaces where intelligent and motivated Mexican American and Mexicano children would thrive rather than buy into the deficit model that permeates school culture. Later, when I serendipitously ended up in a doctoral program at Stanford University, I formalized my interest in studying the “invisible” aspects of teaching in multicultural contexts where not all cultures were seen and treated as equal even though one of my professors discouraged me from pursuing my research on Mexican Americans since, according to her, “as a Chicana, I could not be objective in studying my own people.” However, this professor banked on the invisibleness of her whiteness by willfully failing to acknowledge that most educational researchers who study white students are conducted by White researchers who almost never become suspects of biases.

As a teacher-educator, I believe that one of my key challenges is to assist my students—prospective and in-service teachers—in acknowledging and naming their ideological beliefs particularly around low social status students (e.g., working poor students, students of color, non-white immigrants, non-native English speakers, etc.) and to consciously work to short-circuit potentially classist and racist beliefs and actual practices that are becoming more subtle and thus more difficult to identify, deconstruct, and denounce. Even in seemingly progressive contexts, racial hostility is often dismissed by educators as a personality issue such “they just don’t like you” when, in fact, “they don’t like you because of your race and ethnicity.”

It is important to underscore that although I write about working towards achieving political and ideological clarity, the process that I make reference to is a never-ending one. No one ever truly achieves complete political and ideological clarity. We are all works in progress which means that we must remain constantly vigilant in monitoring our own contradictions and potential biases. As works in progress, we must recognize what Freire refers to as our own “unfinishedness.”

I should also note that solely writing about achieving political and ideological clarity without a plan of action to transform existing discriminatory practices and the current expanding human misery due to class exploitation and income inequality is, no more and no less, armchair critical writing that does not go beyond a language of critique. Progressive educators must also be activists to some degree and remain engaged with the subordinated people about whom they write and off whom they make a living. To do otherwise is to use critical-writing-as- denouncement as a career platform where the political project is reduced to the writer’s career goals and not the transformation of unjust and discriminatory institutional structures and practices—institutional structures that remain largely racist and are becoming more so.

  1. You wrote “Beyond the Methods Fetish” in 1994, where you argued that “the actual strength of methods depend, first and foremost, on the degree to which they embrace a humanizing pedagogy that values the students’ background knowledge, culture, and life experiences, and creates learning contexts where power is shared by students and teachers” (p. 190). Since then, educational reforms in the United States have continued to marginalize the linguistic backgrounds of bilingual children and youth by focusing on methodological aspects of teaching rather than on the political and sociocultural context of learning. What is your advice for educators to sustain pedagogies of hope under increasing pressure to succumb to the methods fetish?

You are correct in pointing out that my “Methods Fetish” 1994 article is more relevant today than ever. The current English-only movement coupled with the push for high stakes standardized testing (in English only as well) and the imposition of common standards (also in English only), the move away from bilingual education and toward foreign language education as witnessed with the fetishization of heritage language education as well as a push on the part of the Federal Government to fund projects that employ teaching methods and programs that are “Scientifically  Based Teaching Methods”–a process that vulgarizes teaching by associating it to a one-size-fits-all method is, according to Freire, “informed, above all, by two main considerations: On the one hand, such [association] prevents the distorted comprehension of the task of teaching, and on the other hand, it makes it [difficult] to unveil the ideological fog that deceitfully covers the intimacy of the false {association]” (Freire, 1998, p.4).

Thus, we see in our US education history that, despite brief moments in time when more humanistic and culturally and linguistically responsive approaches have been tolerated, the reality is the belief in “magical approaches” coupled with our society’s myopic and assimilationist beliefs around the desirability of English only instruction, even when students have not yet acquired sufficient English language proficiency to comprehend English only instruction, continues to be the norm. This is true even though the failure rate of English only with ELLs is undeniable as The Boston Globe (2015) recently reported, “[the] Justice Department . . . found that, since 2003, the Boston schools hadn’t properly identified or adequately served thousands of English learners … [and] … 49 percent of English learners in Boston’s secondary-level education are receiving not enough specialized instruction, or none at all.”

The reality is that educational institutions (including higher education institutions) are not designed to meet the needs of low status student populations and that, unless parents, community, and other advocates rise in protest similar to the movements of the 60’s and 70’s, teachers of such students will be forced to instruct students using lock-step methods and materials in a language that students do not yet fully master working toward unattainable goals that masquerade as “high expectations.” However, the reality is that these so called “high expectations” function mainly as exclusionary practices—practices that favor middle-class students who come to school already possessing the necessary cultural and linguistic capital.

In my work with ESL pre- and in-service teachers, one key goal is to help them understand that it is necessary to consciously intervene to ensure that the educational institution responds appropriately to the academic and linguistic needs of the students. One challenge is to assist the teachers in understanding that if they do not intervene on behalf of their students (and to intervene, they must possess some degree of political and ideological clarity), then the resulting educational status quo will likely continue to fail the majority of ELLs and other subordinated student populations.

Teachers of ELLs should rigorously study first and second language acquisition and be armed with the theoretical knowledge about how language is acquired and taught so that they can capably interrogate English-only mandates (like the one in Massachusetts which was passed in 2002 by white, suburban voters and imposed on non-white, urban, multilingual groups). However, language acquisition courses cannot be reduced solely to technical issues as it is typically done in most foreign language departments. Courses on language acquisition must also address the politics of language that interface with acquisition.

Hence, teacher education programs should require that students assume a sociohistorical perspective across crosses. For instance, in ESL Methods and Approaches courses, students should examine past and current English-only movements which prohibit the use of languages other than English in the classroom. In this manner, they can come to understand that currently state-mandated English-only policy and instruction are a continuation of past practices that they have to purposely subvert so as to honor their students’ home cultures and languages while teaching English in an additive and empowering fashion.

In this way, students will recognize that, as state employees, they are limited in terms of how far they “push the envelope” at their place of employment. Nevertheless, they can become equally conscious that they can overcome these restrictions by engaging in parent and community organizing efforts outside their own school districts. For this reason, teacher educators cannot limit their work to university classes. They must also remain organically linked with the very communities within which these schools exist and with other colleagues for, according to Freire, “the project of democracy must never be transformed into or understood as a singular and individual struggle, even, as often happens, in the face of cheap persecution against this or that teacher for reasons that are purely personal” (Freire, 1998, pp. 6-7).

I have witnessed students, who are currently teachers in local school districts, link forces with colleagues in order to organize and work with each other’s schools and communities so as to avoid being penalized by their own districts. They have worked with parents and community members in their colleagues’ schools, and have advocated for native language instruction and for repealing the repressive state English-only mandate in Massachusetts. In addition, some students have volunteered to provide free, in-service preparation to interested teachers on topics that include, “The benefits of native language instruction on ESL acquisition,” and “Developing native language development opportunities at home.”

As a teacher educator, it is inspirational to witness students’ plans for strategically circumventing instructional practices that they deem harmful to their linguistic minority students. Without a doubt, assisting prospective and in-service teachers in developing a socio-historical understanding of current English-only policy and facilitating their mastery of mainstream and critical orientations in applied linguistics has produced generation after generation of critical, visionary, energetic, and committed educators.

  1. You have highlighted the role of teacher preparation programs in supporting the development of political and ideological clarity of prospective teachers and their students (2004). You have also written about the significance of authentic Cariño and caring (2008) that embodies Freire’s concept of “armed loved.” Can you share more about this with our readers? How can EFL teachers around the world translate the political and ideological aspects of love to their teaching practice?

Well, it is important to distinguish between ESL work carried out by teachers in the US with subordinated minority student populations and EFL instruction carried out abroad and typically in school settings with affluent or privileged student populations. The reason I say this is because, school instruction, as presented to students from subordinated or marginalized populations, as opposed to that utilized with mainstream or privileged populations should not be perceived or treated as identical simply because the two student groups share the commonality of learning English as an additional language. The socioeconomic and historical contexts are different and the issue of student cultural group’s social, political, and economic subordination, while present in one context, is typically not present in EFL teaching abroad. On the contrary, EFL is necessarily viewed as valuable asset in that middle-class students, or those aspiring to learn English for entry into the middle class, do not experience the coloniality that shapes ESL instruction in most urban schools in the US context. Whereas English as a foreign language is always regarded as an added value, the native language of linguistic minority students who are struggling to learn English is often viewed as a liability that interferes with the acquisition of English as a second language.

As a case in point, I remember having a conversation with Paulo Freire about the importance of distinguishing between teaching affluent student populations as opposed to subordinated student groups much like he did in his own work with the poor in Brazil. I spoke with Paulo sometime in the early 1990s when I shared with him that many North American university professors advocated utilizing a cultural circles instructional approach in university settings as they viewed this approach as automatically liberatory and emancipatory. Paulo looked at me incredulously and countered that methods should not be uncritically exported. Furthermore, he told me that it was appropriate to utilize a lecture approach in his university courses given that students possess the necessary cultural capital to succeed in a formal setting such as college and are comfortable with learning via lectures.

Paulo emphasized that lectures can also be dialogic but are not typically appropriate for students unfamiliar with school-like ways of verbally acquiring and demonstrating knowledge that typically require that teachers and students assume pedagogical distance from each other. I believe that this pedagogical distance exacerbates already existing social distance and antagonism between them. In fact, in my opinion, these students typically experience additional subordination because of the “foreignness” of school-like ways of verbally acquiring and demonstrating knowledge as well as the artificial pedagogical distance that is created.

Much has been written about the need for teachers to care for and identify with their linguistic minority students.   However, the political and ideological dimensions of caring and loving are seldom addressed. Similarly, in my work as a teacher-educator I have encountered numerous teachers who sincerely believe that “care and love are all you need” when it comes to improving the academic performance of students from subordinated cultural groups, but few of these educators are aware of the political and ideological dimensions of caring and love, particularly in their work with students who are perceived and treated as having low status.

That is, radical caring should never be reduced to an inauthentic coddling and it “should [not] turn the task of teaching into a form of paternalistic coddling that leads to laissez-faire and accommodation because, in our exemplary mission as caring teachers, we cannot reconcile a nurturing posture with acts of rebellion, with protest, or with strikes by teachers, just to mention a few examples” (Freire, 1998, p.4).

In other words, while cariño should always be present in all interactions between teachers and students, particularly students who feel subordinated by the very reality of schools, it does not mean that it should be vulgarized to a feel good moment that culminates in catharsis for the teacher. On the contrary, cariño (caring) implies struggles as shown by the examples provided by Freire above. Teachers who radically care go on strike not only ameliorate their working conditions, but they do so to also enhance the school experience for students. Thus, caring, being rigorous, and protesting against racism and sexism are not mutually exclusive. These acts of rebellion, in fact, represent the ultimate form of radical caring.

  1. In “Dancing with Bigotry” you and co-author Donaldo Macedo spoke powerful words about the role of English in the invisibilization of White ideologies that subordinate “members of the cultures we study through English” (p. 233). How can educators, and particularly, language educators in the United States and abroad, question “the role of the dominant language in the devaluation of the[ir] cultural and ethnic groups”? (p. 233). What is the role that World Englishes play in this social dynamic?

I think that it is important to address two important issues: (1) the hegemony of English in the US and (2) the understanding that English, like other languages, continuously change, evolve, and become possessions of the groups that speak these varieties. The bottom line is that we know that language and identity are, as Gloria Anzaldua described, “twin skin.” Thus, as educators of linguistic minority students, we need to figure out how to create classrooms where students’ cultures and languages are welcomed and honored while standard English language is taught in a manner that encourages the students to additively appropriate the language and” make it their own.” I will limit my response to the role of English as the dominant language in the devaluation of subordinated home languages and cultures in US classrooms.

Currently, in the US, when one discusses the education of linguistic minority and immigrant students, the acquisition of English is equated with content education and sometimes with intelligence itself. What I mean by this is that the focus is so much on ELLs learning English that the issue of subject matter knowledge learning loses significant. This is true even when discussing sheltered English instruction (SEI) which is the Massachusetts State-mandated instructional approach for ELLs. Although in theory, SEI is meant to teach both the English language and subject area content, this approach is designated as appropriate for ELLs at an intermediate or higher level of English language proficiency. Unfortunately, students who have not yet begun to acquire English and score at beginning levels of English are placed in either “sink or swim” classrooms where they are forced to fend for themselves or in SEI classrooms where they neither acquire English or subject area knowledge because they are not yet sufficiently proficient to benefit from English-only instruction and language sheltering strategies meant to render English more comprehensible.

This tradition of romanticizing the significance of the English language can be linked to the historical colonial practice of touting English as a superior language both in the US and abroad. In the US, our history of colonialism and subjugation of native indigenous peoples, Hawaiian people in Hawaii, Mexicans in the Southwest, and enslaved Africans has amply demonstrated that these groups were forced to surrender their native languages and learn English. The official reasoning has always reflected the false belief that only through linguistic and cultural assimilation can “newcomers” become part of the societal dominant culture tapestry.

However, in reality, unlike white, European immigrants who were able to assimilate to full citizenship, the assimilation of non-white, subordinated people generally resulted in their assimilation for subordination. It is important to clearly understand that even though language policies aimed at European immigrants and nonwhite linguistic-minority groups can be similarly described as “assimilationist,” in the case of nonwhites, they involved a domestication rather than integration dimension. Taking away the native tongue, while never really giving access to the discourse of power, is a common practice in a colonial model of education. Such a deskilling process in which people are rendered “tongue-tied” in both languages effectively works to deny them access to the mainstream while simultaneously taking away essential tools that can be used to build the cultural solidarity necessary to resist exploitation and democratize and transform society.

Like their colonized counterparts around the world (as in India and English-speaking countries in Africa), US subordinated groups have developed their own English language varieties (e.g., African American English Vernacular, Chicano English, and so on) that are as linguistically viable as standard English yet are treated and viewed by the dominant culture as inferior and “bastardized” versions of standard English.

Teachers of linguistic minority students should learn what sociolinguists have long understood: that preferences for certain language varieties over others reflect social biases rather than linguistic truths. In fact, when attempting to distinguish a “language” from a “dialect,” it is difficult, if not impossible to do using purely linguistic measures since the real determiners have to do with power and sociopolitical and economic factors. In other words, a standard language is also a dialect—it just happens to be a dialect whose speakers have power in the society.

As far as linguists are concerned—languages—nonstandards and standards—are inherently linguistically equal. That is, they all follow linguistic rules (syntax), possess a sound system (phonology), use particular words (lexicon), and mark words in regular ways (morphology). In addition, sociolinguists are also quick to tell you that, when we refer to a language—for example, the English language—in reality, we are not speaking of a single, homogeneous entity. In actuality, we are referring to a conglomeration of regional and social dialects, personal and group styles, all of which are different from each other in varying degrees. That is, it is false to speak of one English language. In reality, we should be speaking about various Englishes be spoken throughout the US and the world.

Teachers can begin to question the role of Standard English in the devaluation of languages spoken and brought into the class by students from low status cultural and ethnic groups by becoming familiar with the sociolinguistic facts discussed above as well as with the history of English-only movements in the US. Again, as discussed in my previous responses, teacher education programs have the responsibility to cover this literature as part of their goal to prepare politically and ideologically clear teachers who emerge from such programs with not only the technical knowledge and skills to teach English and various subject areas but who are also ready to tackle the hard task that faces educators of subordinated students. Teachers should be prepared to authentically honor their students’ various native languages, nonstandard English language varieties, their equally legitimate multiple voices, and their ways of being in a multilingual and multicultural world while simultaneously assisting them in joyously and critically appropriating middle-class English language varieties in the same manner that white, middle-class students learn foreign languages.

  1. Lilia, our readers are particularly interested in the native speaker fallacy and how it perpetuates inequality. How does linguicism intersect with other forms of discrimination and with the racialization of language? And how can educators build the courage to denounce these social issues with strong conviction?​

 The native speaker fallacy refers to the belief that learning a foreign language from a native speaker makes for a superior learning experience. This preference for native speakers over English proficient non-native teachers, even in cases where the native speakers have not received adequate training or have been minimally prepared, continues to be the norm. In the US, this preference is predominant in the ESL context but almost absent from the foreign language context where the teacher specializing in the target language that he or she teaches with a heavy American accent, never suffers discrimination or has his or her competency , in terms of methods, intelligence, and or capabilities, questioned. These same attributes that are never questioned in the foreign language teaching context in the US are discriminatorily used to keep nonnative ESL teachers from teaching. Take the case in Somerville, Lawrence, and other communities in Massachusetts after bilingual education was outlawed and where tenured, nonwhite bilingual teachers were fired because, it was claimed, they did not demonstrate adequate command of English and spoke it with “a heavy accent.” This same measure is seldom applied to a white American teacher who speaks the target language with a noticeable American accent. In fact, many of us have witnessed foreign language grammar lessons taught entirely in English with no consequence to the teacher who often produces failure for students learning the target language.

In response to your question regarding how educators can build the courage to denounce this type of linguicism and racial discrimination, I believe that preparing courageous educators necessarily starts with assisting them in developing and increasing their political and ideological clarity. In fact, it is clear from the literature and my own research that effective teachers of linguistic minority students who have acquired some degree of political and ideological clarity, often possess a great deal of courage and see themselves in solidarity with their subordinated students as well as their communities (which requires educator involvement with parents, local communities, and agencies).

What is not clear is how these teachers acquired such an understanding and commitment to linguistic minority education. While it may be true that these individuals may have gained this clarity not in teacher education programs but through their individual life experiences, it is my belief that efforts can be made in teacher education programs to better understand and teach to prospective teachers the significance of political and ideological clarity, courage, solidarity, and ethics related to working effectively with subordinated populations. However, political and ideological clarity cannot be fully developed in a teacher education program that claims to be progressive at the level of discourse only. A teacher educator can claim to be as critical as she or he wants but will remain inauthentic if he or she spends little or no time in classrooms populated by the students that they defend solely at the discourse level. It is even worse when the so-called progressive educator reduces his or her criticity to armchair encounters solely within the halls of privilege and safety and feels uncomfortable when visiting the communities from which the students they claim to defend come.

Although there are many teacher education programs that provide learning experiences with the potential to help prospective teachers increase their political and ideological clarity, as well as confront issues of courage, solidarity, and ethics, few programs are structured to ensure that these key areas of knowledge are present across the course of study. For example, many teacher education programs require that their students visit, observe, and student-teach in culturally diverse and low-socioeconomic communities. In addition, a number of programs present their students with opportunities to study abroad in order to develop bi/multilingual and bi/multicultural competencies. Despite these good intentions, students are generally left to their own devices in terms of “making sense” of these cross-cultural and cross-social class experiences.

Too often, students who participate become unconscious voyeurs who view their new situations through never-acknowledged assimilationist and deficit ideological lenses. The unintended end result is that students often emerge from these experiences ever more bound to their unquestioned ethnocentric ideologies in that they remain colonizers whose main purpose is to appropriate and exoticize the “other” or, in the case of English language teaching within hegemonic contexts, is to save the “other” from his or her status as a non-English speaker.

Hence, development of political and ideological clarity should become a required element in teacher education programs since, without some degree of clarity, most teachers will not recognize that teaching is the equivalent of a tapestry woven together by love, passion, struggle, compassion, contractions, anger, and hope among other factors that are situational and contextual. The challenge is to understand the tapestry weaving process and the importance of each factor and its interaction with other factors rather than simply downloading ready-made, one-size fits all tapestry in the form of teacher-proof educational curricula and methods to be used in all contexts and situations. It is important to recognize that teaching is complex as it requires intellectual rigor to deconstruct as well as reconstruct the tapestry that we call education as Freire (1998) noted:

The problem of teaching implies educating and, furthermore, educating involves a passion to know that should engage us in a loving search for knowledge that is—to say the least—not an easy task. It is for this reason that I stress that those wanting to teach must be able to dare, that is, to have the predisposition to fight for justice and to be lucid in defense of the need to create conditions conducive to pedagogy in schools; though this may be a joyful task, it must also be intellectually rigorous. The two are not mutually exclusive. (p. 4)

Thank you Lilia!

Works Cited

Bartolome, L. (1994). Beyond the Methods Fetish: Toward a Humanizing Pedagogy, Harvard Educational Review, 64 (2), 173-194.

Bartolome, L. (2008). Authentic cariño and respect in minority education: The political and ideological dimensions of love, International Journal of Critical Pedagogy.

Bartolome, L. (2010a). Preparing to teach newcomer students: The significance of critical pedagogy and the study of ideology in teacher education. National Society for the Study of Education, 109 (2), 505-526.

Bartolome, L. (2010b). Daring to infuse ideology into language-teacher education. In S. May & C. Sleeter, Critical multiculturalism: Theory and praxis, NY: Routledge (pp. 47-60).

Bartolome, L. & Macedo, D. (2001). Dancing with bigotry: Beyond the politics of tolerance. NY: Palgrave.

Freire, P. (1998). Teachers as cultural workers: Letters to those who dare teach, Boulder, CO.: Westview Press.

The Boston Globe (2015), March 31, p. A12.

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About Ana Solano

Ana is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Ana holds degrees in Applied Linguistics, TEFL, and TESOL and taught EFL/ESL for many years. She is interested in qualitative, interdisciplinary, and comparative perspectives to the education of bilingual/multilingual immigrant and refugee children in top migrant destination countries.

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