El Puente: Building Bridges through Language and Literacy Partnerships

By Tracey T. Flores & Iris Treinies

“I have a dream, that for 11 years I’ve been dreaming to meet my son again. In darkness, I left my hometown…A few years ago, I realized I can do more if I accept my reality and work with our possibilities…Any family shouldn’t be apart for any reason.” ~Diana, Puente adult learner

Diana (pseudonym) shared her dream with Iris, a pre-service teacher, in their partnership during our Puente session. She drew and wrote about her dream after a shared reading and discussion of the bilingual poems, “En Mis Sueños/In My Dreams,” and “The Dream on Blanca’s Wall.” Both poems, written in English and Spanish, are examples of the different kinds of dreams we hold for ourselves, our communities and our worlds. After both Diana and Iris shared their dreams with one another, they moved into the individualized reading and writing lesson that Iris planned for their time together.

Diana was one of 15 adult learners that my undergraduate pre-service teachers, including Iris, and I had the privilege of working with and learning from during “El Puente” Partnership.” “El Puente” is a collaborative partnership between the SEED program, an adult family and learning community located at an elementary school in Central Texas and pre-service teachers from the University of Texas at Austin. For eight weeks, as part of the practicum experience linked to my Community Literacies course, my 15 pre-service teachers worked alongside adult learners, as co-learners and co-teachers, to support them in their language and literacy learning through shared reading, writing and arts-based activities. Through collaborative planning and continuous dialogue, pre-service teachers created individualized language and literacy lesson for their adult learner that centered on their funds of knowledge and cultural, familial and linguistic resources.

In this post, we, Tracey (the instructor of the course) and Iris (a pre-service teacher) share our experiences learning alongside our adult learners and one another in El Puente. We discuss the ways we worked with our adult learners to cultivate a community that was collaborative and built on confianza, or mutual trust, and respect. We describe our work in Puente, providing details about our sessions, including our opening reading and writing activity and Iris’ work and learning alongside her adult learner, Diana. Finally, we provide suggestions for building partnerships and relationships with parents, families and communities.

Partnering to Prepare for El Puente

Prior to the start of El Puente, I (Tracey) met with Cameron, the founder and director of the SEED, to plan the partnership and establish shared goals. The SEED program is a dynamic adult learning community that is rooted in the needs and lived realities of the adults. They meet daily, to practice and improve their English literacies, to learn about the educational system, while working together to support each other in navigating the various spaces of their lives

Our collaboration with Cameron and the SEED was not a new partnership, but rather a relationship that had been built and sustained over time and space by the various university faculty and doctoral students that had served as instructors for the Community Literacies course and the Puente partnership. Together, we developed a plan for El Puente that included an outline for each session and follow-up throughout the project. Building an open and honest relationship with Cameron was vital to working together to ensure that we were staying on track with our shared goals and that we problem-solved together–in the service of both pre-service teachers and the adult learners.

Cultivando La Comunidad de Puente/Cultivating the Puente Community  

To plan, organize and cultivate community within our “El Puente” Partnership, I drew upon my experiences working alongside youth and families in writing workshops. We opened each Puente session by gathering together in whole group to engage in a reading and writing activity. For this opening activity, I intentionally and carefully selected a culturally relevant bilingual (English/Spanish) text that centered on the cultural, linguistic and sociocultural backgrounds and experiences of adult learners and pre-service teachers. These texts also served as mentor texts to invite and inspire the drawing and writing of stories from our lived experiences.

Our workshop sequence included the following steps:

  • First, we read and discussed each text in English and Spanish.
  • Then, I modeled my own writing in response to the text, asking guiding questions and prompting adults and pre-service teachers to examine and reflect upon their own lives.
  • After, adults and pre-service teachers drew and wrote their own stories based upon their experiences and shared them with one another.
  • Finally, parents and pre-service teachers volunteered to share their writing or explained their drawing to the entire group.

This community-opening reading and writing activity led us into 1-1 time between pre-service teachers and their adult learners. During this time, my pre-service teachers also observed my use of culturally relevant texts, modeling, and sharing of my own experiences, and the ways I invited our adult learning partners into drawing, writing, and sharing of their knowledges and stories. This provided them additional guidance for their own lessons and another opportunity for them to learn about their adult learners, and themselves. In the next section, Iris shares her learning and collaborative work alongside, Diana, her adult learner.

Literacy Partnerships: Learning Alongside Diana

For a 20-something college student, sometimes talking to adults is uncomfortable. Talking to adults who speak a language you look like you were born to speak but don’t, is practically unthinkable. When I first heard we were going to partner one-on-one with adult learners, I was incredibly nervous. Luckily for me, I stepped into a pretty awesome space when we began our work in the SEED portable. My professor, Dr. Flores, encouraged us all to truly listen- to our ourselves and to our partners.

From the beginning, Diana made it clear that her family was her driving force and each goal we set was with the intention of benefiting them. Diana’s language and literacy goals included focusing on grammar in writing, oral fluency and building knowledge around topics that were significant in the daily lives of her family. It was important to me that each time we met, the work we did together was meaningful and connected. With Diana’s goals in mind, I carefully planned and organized weekly language and literacy activities that we could work on together.  

Our work together was a continuous cycle of going back to what we did last week, what worked/what didn’t work, and what we wanted to do moving forward. We started off each session by sharing and discussing our writing from the opening activity. One of the first poems that Diana shared with me was about her dreams for her family and for her oldest son. I felt so honored that she was willing to share her work and so much of her heart with me. It was important to her that everything was grammatically correct in English. Together, we carefully read each line of her writing, talking through edits and revisions.

Next, we read a bilingual book, written in English and Spanish, that were based upon my Diana’s interests and relevant to our shared goals. Since many of our pláticas, or talks, centered around stories of love and the different ways we show love, cooking and food were prominent themes in the books we read. A few books we read together were What Can You Do with a Rebozo? by Carmen Tafolla, Tortillitas Para Mamá by Margot C. Griego, and Arroz con Leche by Jorge Argueta. Diana would read the parts in English and I would read the Spanish.

After reading, we talked about different things we were experiencing in our lives. For example, one time Diana came in upset about a doctor’s appointment. Upon the recommendation of the classroom teacher, she had taken her son to get tested for ADD/ADHD. At the office, the nurses and doctors only spoke English and when she asked for an interpreter, they told her not to worry because they could understand her. But when she tried to ask them questions, she wasn’t given the information she needed.

Diana wanted to educate herself on ADD/ADHD in order to advocate for her son at her next visit. Together, we brainstormed questions for her upcoming visit.  This was a process where we moved back and forth between both English and Spanish. Diana would tell me the question in mostly Spanish and I would translate it for her into English. Once I translated it, I checked with her to make sure that it was correct and then we would rewrite the question in English and Spanish on a notecard. Later, I researched ADD/ADHD and talked to one of my friends who spoke Spanish and had ADD. She shared her experience in Spanish with me so that I was able to pass along not only research but also a story from a student who had experienced this process.

At our final El Puente session, we had a celebration with all pre-service teachers and our partners. We came together to celebrate and reflect upon our collaborative learning. It was one of those really special moments where you are just so glad to be somewhere that all you can do is smile and shove another bite of chocoflan in your mouth. I thought of how I first felt when I walked into the portable and how those nervous feelings turned into excitement because I knew I was entering a place where important work was happening. Before we said our good-byes, my partner gave me a letter she had written about the importance of being patient when teaching. I think about that letter often, especially in my current teaching placement, as a reminder that building community and confianza, or mutual trust, will not happen overnight but through intentional listening and negotiations.  

Building Bridges: Learning and Growing Together

From our work in El Puente, we are reminded of the of the importance of teaching and learning that is rooted in the needs and concerns of the communities that we serve. Each Puente session was designed to build community through the sharing of histories and stories and to support each adult learner in meeting their language and literacy goals. Beginning each session with a shared reading, writing and drawing activity provided each adult learner and pre-service teacher with time and space to reflect upon their lived experiences and share of themselves with one another in powerful ways. The stories that we crafted allowed for all of us to learn from one another about the people, places, and memories that we hold in our hearts and our shared desire to achieve our goals in the service of our families and communities. Together, we built a community that supported us in cultivating open and honest relationships leading to meaningful literacy learning and strong partnerships.

Tracey T. Flores is an assistant professor of language and literacy in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a former English Language Development (ELD) and English Language Arts (ELA) teacher, working for eight years alongside culturally and linguistically diverse students and families in schools throughout Glendale and Phoenix, Arizona.

Iris Treinies is a senior at The University of Texas at Austin. Currently, she is student teaching in a third grade class filled with amazing readers and writers. She will be graduating this May with a Bachelor of Science in Applied Learning and Development with a focus on literacy and practice based research. After graduation, she hopes to teach in Austin, Texas.

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.


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