Leah Durán grew up hearing her grandparents speak Spanish, but it wasn't until she became fluent in the language and started her teaching career that she found her passion for bilingual education. Today, that passion has led to her appointment as the 2018 Richard Ruiz Scholar/Artist in Residence.
"When I realized I wanted to be a teacher, because I spoke Spanish, someone suggested to me that I should be a bilingual teacher," said Durán, an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning & Sociocultural Studies in the University of Arizona College of Education. "I taught in Texas in bilingual and English as a second language classrooms. That work made me want to find more answers about the best ways to support the literacy learning of bilingual children."
During the three years Durán taught second grade, a group of researchers from the University of Texas, Austin, invited her to participate in research they were conducting at her school. Inspired by the possibilities of educational research as both an intellectual pursuit and a way of influencing the kind of teaching and learning that happens in schools, Durán enrolled in graduate school at Austin. After graduating in 2015 with a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, she accepted a position at the UA.
"Once I was in the classroom, I realized how much of the methods and research about teaching reading and writing had been conducted with monolingual settings and children," Durán said of her desire to develop new and better ways of teaching reading and writing, especially for bilingual children. "I think back about myself as a teacher, wanting to be the best possible teacher for my students, and there are some important things that we do know, but there are a lot of the complexities that haven't been figured out and that we're still in the process of learning. There's a need for researchers to figure that out."
Today, her research explores the relationship among language, literacy and young children's learning, with a focus on bilingual children. Her work explores students' everyday language and literacy practices, how teachers and curriculum can build on those practices as resources for academic learning, and how teachers might best be prepared to work with culturally and linguistically diverse children.
"I teach in the Early Childhood Education Program — mostly literacy methods, or how to teach young children how to read and write — and I also teach classes in children's literature for graduate students," Durán said. "Part of that has been working with the World of Words collection, which has been really amazing."
The World of Words center at the UA, which is open to the public, includes a collection of more than 35,000 children's and adolescent books. One of the nonprofit's goals is to build bridges across cultures through global children's literature. To that end, World of Words helps support the Richard Ruiz Scholar/Artist in Residence program in collaboration with the Guanajuanto-based nonprofit humanitarian organization Resplandor International and Learning A-Z, a literacy-focused pre-K-to-6 educational provider of technology-enabled learning resources.
"We are very excited about the selection of Leah as our residence scholar this year," said Resplendor International director Todd Fletcher, a Distinguished Outreach Professor in the UA Department of Disability and Psychoeducational Studies. "Her expertise in biliteracy is a perfect fit with the purpose of the residency, which is to promote the love of reading and literacy in Guanajuato, Mexico.
"This is the third year of the program, and Leah is the first candidate selected from the University of Arizona's College of Education," added Fletcher, who established the visiting scholar program to honor Ruiz, who taught at the UA for 29 years prior to his death in February 2015. "Leah is currently a faculty member in Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies, the same department where Richard Ruiz resided."
Durán will travel to Guanajuato for six weeks this summer to share her research with colleagues at the University of Guanajuato as well as teachers in the local schools. She also will have the opportunity to work directly with children and teach them to read during a summer program. Many of them live in rural areas outside of Guanajuato.
Globally, approximately 250 million children are failing to acquire basic literacy skills, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. UNESCO believes literacy is a driver for sustainable development, enabling greater participation in the labor market, improving child and family health and nutrition, and reducing poverty. The "multiplier effect" of literacy empowers people and enables them to participate fully in society.
"The question motivating me has always been about biliteracy and how to support bilingual children," Durán said. "There is still a lot of important work to do."