A UVM College of Education and Social Services (CESS) faculty member since 2003, Dr. Cynthia Reyes’ work with language, literacy, and its impact on identity has been the focus of her research—and a topic she can relate to on a personal level.
The daughter of Filipino immigrants, Reyes grew up in Chicago, and can remember telling her parents that she only wanted them to speak to her in English, not their native Tagalog.
“There wasn’t a push to value their heritage and their culture,” she says. “There’s a sadness about it. I consider it a loss. I really felt that during my graduate school years and when I began taking classes in education and when I began studying in the teacher education program. I just thought more and more about the experiences that students—particularly immigrant students—have when they enter the school and they want to learn how to speak English but it’s really hard to maintain the language of their parents. There’s a lot that can’t be exchanged through a second language. It’s definitely an asset—it’s a resource—and when you lose it, there’s something really profound about that.”
Connection through Storytelling
In pursuit of understanding more about language and identity, one of her earlier undertakings through UVM was a partnership with three middle school teachers in the surrounding school district over five years, working with sixth through eighth grade English language learners on a digital storytelling project.
Initially, the students were assigned autobiographical projects, but the English learner students couldn’t compose and write their narratives in English. When Reyes and the teachers recognized this as an inequity within the classroom, digital storytelling emerged as the alternative platform for the children to express themselves.
Students could write a script, create a storyboard, and add pictures found either online or from home to accompany the audio they recorded. The students were delighted to share their creations with their peers, all working toward bridging the familiarity gap between the classmates and fostering a sense of pride, commonality, understanding, and welcoming toward the English learners.
Education for Cultural and Linguistic Diversity
When Reyes received tenure in 2009, she broadened the focus of her work beyond middle level and secondary education, and set out to develop a new university minor, Education for Cultural and Linguistic Diversity. The concept behind the minor—preparing pre-service teachers working with English language learners— was one that Reyes had been long-contemplating.
When one of her secondary education students complained of the lack of training available for teachers working with that population, and an honors student surveyed her peers on their desire for courses that developed their skills to work in culturally and linguistically diverse communities—and every single student wanted to see that happen—Reyes took action. She partnered with fellow CESS faculty members Dr. Shana Haines and Dr. Barri Tinkler to create and teach the courses. “It’s been fabulous,” Reyes said. “We’re a great team.”
The minor offers two pathways. One pathway is for Education majors pursuing an additional certification/endorsement in their licensure program to work with English language learner students (ELLs). The other pathway is available for students who are not pursuing the endorsement.
Reyes’s partnership with Haines includes a three-year research project examining the relationships between refugee families and schools. The project is funded by grants provided by the College of Education and Social Services Strategic Innovation Grant, University REACH Grant, and the Summer Research Award through the Humanities Center (in the College of Arts and Sciences) and the Office of the Vice President for Research.
“We were just really interested in knowing: What are the ways in which families communicate with schools? How do they get to learn about their children’s teachers? How do they learn about how to interpret academic letter grades? How do they negotiate newsletters that are usually in English?”
Over two years, Reyes, Haines, and their students conducted 177 interviews with over 30 refugee families in two New England states with five linguistically diverse communities, children, teachers, and multicultural (or home-school) liaisons to answer these questions.
“What’s wonderful about this project is that we worked with two former refugees who are doctoral students in our College, and two undergraduates—one in the Honors College and another who was a former refugee who was Somali Bantu,” says Reyes. “Through our students we were able to navigate relationships with all of these families.”
The most interesting finding, Reyes believes, was the difference in expectations about roles of teachers and families, citing an example of one parent called in to speak to a teacher about his son who was falling behind on classwork. The father was quite upset, seeing the teacher as the authority and as the one responsible for addressing and fixing the issue, when the teacher was trying to employ a partnership approach. “You can see both perspectives,” Reyes said. “Your experience growing up—that’s what you expect.”
“What’s important is that when we actually share the vignettes and stories and narratives and you see how complicated it is, it shows the importance of schools paying attention to these stories and findings in order to bring equity,” Reyes continued. “The schools learned about this information and began to learn more about their families and began reaching out to help. Not just because of our study, but because they really care about these families.”
Reyes, Haines, and two of their doctoral students, Hemant Tamang Ghising and Ashraf Alamatouri, presented the findings in their paper, “Family-Professional Partnerships Between Refugee Families and Their Children’s Teachers: Examining Facilitating and Impeding Factors,”at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Conference earlier this month in Toronto, but the research and work is ongoing.
With the help of a $35,000 Braitmayer Foundation Grant, they’ve created a student-centered project to foster stronger relationships between the school and the refugee families—gathering the family, interpreter, teachers, and any community member who wants to attend—into a space to share their thoughts and feelings. With the use of simple prompts and a culturally appreciative approach, participants take turns conversing and learning more about one another. So far, they’ve conducted six implementations, with more to follow.
“We need to open up conversation in schools so there are no misunderstandings,” Reyes said. “There are so many issues and racial inequities—especially about children and families who speak another language other than English. When the mantra out there is “build that wall,” it’s just so unwelcoming and it’s really threatening in many ways to families, so I feel like when I’m speaking up about the work, it’s really the families and children we want to highlight—not as a burden or as deficits, but as assets.”
In addition to her research with refugees and schools, Reyes is assisting Haines and fellow CESS colleagues Dr. Colby Kervick and Associate Dean Katharine Shepherd, who are involved in work with Dr. Andrea Green from the Larner College of Medicine. Their work focuses on refugees and families whose children have intensive support needs as they navigate the complex medical and educational systems. Reyes is also collaborating with Haines and Dr. Kelly Clark/Keefe on an upcoming book intended to address and humanize the methods and processes directed by federal guidelines in working with vulnerable populations. The book is meant to serve as a handbook for students and teachers.
Respected and admired across campus, UVM doctoral student Hemant Tamang Ghising describes Reyes as “a person with authentic passion and culturally accommodating within the professional world.”
Doctoral student Ashraf Alamatouri likewise stated, “She is dedicated, enthusiastic and respectful to her students regardless of their level and background. This, in turn, encourages students to be creative and to develop self-confidence. Her vast knowledge paired with humbleness shapes an excellent rapport with students. I was lucky to be in her research team. The participants of the research were very comfortable working with her and Dr. Shana. Every time I listen to Dr. Cynthia, I discover more of her determination toward enhancing learning and teaching to meet the needs of different communities not only at UVM but also at the school system in Vermont."
Haines echoed their praise. “I love working with Cynthia for so many reasons. She is a deep listener who is wisely attuned to subtleties. She’s intuitive and curious. While these are valuable traits for any collaborative partner, they are particularly important when working on an ethnographic study. She has been a model for me in fostering strong relationships with students and community members."
This year, Reyes received one of the highest university honors, the George V. Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award, which honors one full-time UVM faculty member for “excellence in teaching and extraordinary contributions to the enrichment of campus life.” She is the first CESS faculty member to receive the award since Betty M. Boller in 1975.
“It was a shock—I didn’t expect it at all. I actually thought it was a crank call,” Reyes laughed.
Along with the prestigious award, Reyes will be given an honorarium and will present on her work and research during a ceremony to honor her in the fall. “I’m definitely going to extol the virtues of teaching!” she said. “As a field, it doesn’t receive enough positive recognition, and I want to get into why people should go into teaching—it is a vocation.”
Reyes is quick to share the accolades with her fellow faculty, whom she calls her “inspiration.”
“They’re excited to teach, excited to try out new curricula and strategies in the classroom,” Reyes shared. “This is a real honor for me and a real honor for our College.”
Reyes recognizes the significance of the more contemporary use of “Filipinx” as an attempt to decolonize the term “Filipino” from its context of historical colonialism. However, she chooses to use the traditional term given her parents’ and ancestors’ familiarity of the word from their own history and time.