Professor Fabiola Ehlers-Zavala

Conducted October 10, 2005

DESCRIBE YOUR RESEARCH/AREAS OF EXPERTISE?

My areas of expertise are primarily in the teaching of English as a Second Language or as a Foreign Language and Bilingual Education. The past year, I have been primarily involved in aspects that relate to how to best train teachers in those areas, if they are bilingual education or by some part of my research agenda, primarily second language practices in the areas of literacy development. So far the case of English and Spanish.

DO YOU SPEND MORE TIME WORKING WITH TEACHERS AND HELPING THEM TO BE ESL TEACHERS OR DO YOU SPEND A LOT TIME WITH ACTUALLY ESL LEARNERS?

Yes, intensive collecting research data and that’s long range working with learners these days. I taught them directly two years ago, but once I joined the University I do primarily training teachers to work with English language learners. So, my work with learners themselves primarily relates to collection of data.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE COMMUNITY LITERACY?

Basically the kind of practice where everybody has a role in shaping literacy practices of learners. I am thinking about what family members do in order to come to Literacy Development for our learners. What the community may do in terms of support literacy awareness and development. So basically everybody takes part in the community, but in different ways and degrees.

SINCE YOU HAVE BEEN AT CSU HAVE YOU WORKED IN CONJUNCTION WITH ANY OF THE COMMUNITY PARTNERS, SUCH AS CORE OR ELTC OR ANY OTHER INDIVIDUAL COMMUNITY MEMBERS?

This is just my second semester at CSU, so I am really learning about what resources we have in the area, but most of my involvement in the community has been a course that we have in the Masters program which is a practicum course where we have recruited members from the community who are interested in improving their English. That has been primarily the work of the Graduate student in reaching out to those members of our communities and bringing them to CSU so that they can at the same time teach them English. So in that way I think I am involved in the community, but other than that, I am still learning about what resources we have available.

HOW DO THEY GET THE WORD OUT TO THE COMMUNITY?

Through flyers, through by word of mouth everybody getting the word out and asking others at CSU to spread the word. They did a very nice job. We were able to have about 30 or more students in one semester.

WHERE DID YOU WORK PRIOR TO CSU?

Illinois State University

WHY DID YOU MOVE TO COLORADO?

Well, first of all, Illinois State University was the place where I graduated from and I wanted to venture to other places. Colorado is just a beautiful place to be. I was very happy with the graduate program and colleagues in this department. They have a very good reputation in the area, so I wanted to work with colleagues I respected and admired for the kind of work they were doing.

AS FOR YOUR GRADUATE STUDENTS WHO GO OUT TO THE FIELD, HOW DO YOU ENCOURAGE THEM WHEN THEY COME TO YOU? ARE THEY ALREADY JUST REALLY READY TO GO AND WANT TO DO THIS OR DO YOU HAVE TO ENCOURAGE THEM AT ALL?

We have a very diverse group of students, some of them come with teaching experience and some of them come with International teaching experience, some of them are Americans who have taught abroad, others are International students who have come to the US to learn more about the language and the culture. We have students in the program who have never taught, who are switching disciplines and decided that they would like to work with English language learners here or abroad, so we have a very diverse group. However, I would say the common element is their desire to learn and to work with English language learners, so it is never an issue for me to motivate them to get out and meet people and practice and learn from others. My courses always have a component in which they have to either observe classes, work with English language learners, so they are always having these skill based experiences to make sense of the theory that they are encountering in textbooks and reading that they are completing for the courses.

WHAT DO YOU RECOMMEND TO YOUR STUDENTS IF THEY HAVE TO WORK WITH A STUDENT AND THEY DON’T KNOW THAT PERSON’S LANGUAGE, BUT THE PERSON DOESN’T KNOW ENGLISH VERY WELL YET OR DOESN’T KNOW IT ALL? WHAT IS USUALLY YOUR FIRST RECOMMENDATION?

Well, first of all, to learn as much as you possibly can about the learner. You typically learn about the learner by interacting with other members of the community where the learner conducts his or her day to day activities. So probably getting to know family members, talking to the teachers that they may have in other institutions, talking to neighbors, and also reading about their culture. There is a lot of information that we have available here which may not necessarily exactly describing all the specifics of a particular student, but it gives some kind of sense of what some expectations of that particular culture may be. So I think for all teachers, lesson number one is always learn as much as you possibly can about the learner. You don’t need to know the learners first language to do that.

IN YOUR EXPERIENCE AS A TEACHER, HAS THERE BEEN ANY ONE CLASS OR ANY SPECIFIC PERSON THAT REALLY REAFFIRMS WHAT YOU ARE DOING OR REALLY INSPIRES YOU TO CONTINUE OR GO OFF INTO A DIFFERENT DIRECTION? IS THERE ANYONE THAT HAS JUST REALLY MADE AN INFLUENCE ON YOUR WORK AND WHAT YOU ARE DOING TODAY?

I think that previous instructors that I had. You know you always have one of those that you want to sometimes imitate or do something because you perceive them as being very successful. I think that colleagues and other instructors that I had in my career had inspired me to do some of the things I do these days. But also students. I think that these days more than perhaps 10 years ago they constitute a big component of what inspires my work. Because as I work with them I realize what kind of support they need and that typically resolves into another research question for me to address -how to best train and prepare for the very diverse classrooms nowadays. So I think that in the past there are always colleagues that I admire. I admire their work. But I think that today it is typically the motivation of better serving my students that motivates a lot of the work that I do.

WHAT HAS BEEN SOME OF YOUR BIGGEST OBSTACLES IN WORKING WITH ESL STUDENTS? MORE PERSONALLY ANY OBSTACLES IN WHICH GETTING OUT INTO THE FIELD HAS BEEN DIFFICULT?

I think that the typical problem is time and money. Those two resources, time to be able to get out and really get in touch with communities; money to make many things happen. In many cases you need resources, you need to prepare materials, to work in the field and if you don’t have those extra financial resources to develop materials, you are very limited in what you can do. So I think time and money are basic. Other than that I don’t think that I have any other major obstacles that I can think of.

HAS THERE EVER BEEN ANY PROBLEMS WITH A CERTAIN COMMUNITY NOT WANTING TO LEARN ENGLISH, FEELING IT IS NOT NECESSARY?

I haven’t experienced that. I come from Chile, a place where people know that if they want to improve their conditions in life, knowing another language would be probably be effective in order to make that happen. So for the most part I have always been working with highly motivated populations. I haven’t had yet a situation in which people are not motivated. What I have seen is that sometimes some learners have a hard time getting motivated to learn because they face difficult situations. The frustration in some cases of coming to this country, not through an illegal way. I think they are motivated to learn, but it is very difficult and sometimes that frustration really makes it even more challenging for them to learn. For the most part, I have been very lucky, my students, my learners, ESL, or teachers in training have always been very happy to learn English. English is not the issue the question I think in context here is learning other languages, other than English. That would be a totally different question.

HAVE FAMILIES EVER MADE AN INFLUENCE ONE WAY OR THE OTHER FOR A STUDENT LEARNER?

I think that students whose performance is really good in classes typically reflect parental involvement, but unfortunately not all children in our schools have the privilege of counting on their parents at home. Once they are done with their school day many parents from low socially economic backgrounds are working two or three shifts to make ends meet so they may want to support their learners, they do support their learners by providing for their families, but they may not be there to help them with their homework Or their literacy levels may not give them the confidence that they may need to have to really feel that they are making a positive impact. I think that many parents do and those that have the luxury to do that then it really affects a student’s performance.

HAVE THERE BEEN ANY SPECIFIC RESEARCH PROJECTS THAT YOU HAVE DONE OR ANY PUBLICATIONS THAT HAVE COME OUT OF THIS?

Right now I am getting ready to get approval from CSU to conduct a study with students from Harris Bilingual here in town. I am still waiting to get my OK. Once I get my OK I will be able to do that. Here typically you have to follow a number of steps in the process of being able to conduct that. So it typically takes time. Prior to coming here while I was at Illinois State University, yes, I worked with learners in the school districts studying how they go about improve their reading and writing skills, I was involved in research that related to that.

GENERALLY WHEN YOU ARE INVOLVED IN A PROGRAM OR STARTING A PROGRAM, WHAT ARE YOUR CRITERIA FOR BEGINNING IT? OTHER THAN PERHAPS APPROVAL, WHAT ARE SOME OF THE GOALS THAT NEED TO BE SET BEFORE YOU CAN REALLY GET IN AND START WORKING WITH THE PUBLIC AS FAR AS THE LEGWORK BEFOREHAND?

I think that as in anything, first of all you have to develop relationships with the various entities involved, whether it is company, whether it is a school district, whether it is students at a particular department at CSU. I think first of all one has to establish and develop those connections. Once you discover that you may have goals in common then you can start thinking about well what can we do that can be mutually beneficial. I think that whenever we conduct research we are hoping to contribute to the work that the others may be already doing. So I think that typically establishing a relationship, looking for common ground that spirals the work that goes before it.

HOW WOULD YOU CALL A PROGRAM A SUCCESS?

When it meets the goals.

THE GOALS THAT IT SET?

Correct. You typically need to have a goal in mind for what you want to accomplish and you gather the ingredients you need to have in place. Then the goals will be filled and the job is accomplished.