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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

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SDSU teaching credential candidates Reyna Gavillan (left) and Maribel Castro Morales arrived at Tijuana's Escuela Primaria Federal Cuauhtémoc. (Photo: Sarah Wilkins) SDSU teaching credential candidates Reyna Gavillan (left) and Maribel Castro Morales arrived at Tijuana's Escuela Primaria Federal Cuauhtémoc. (Photo: Sarah Wilkins)

Open Arms and Fertile Minds: A Day in a Tijuana Classroom

SDSU’s future bilingual educators cross the border to better understand the students shared by the U.S. and Mexico.
By Michael Klitzing

TIJUANA, Mexico — One by one, 20 wide-eyed San Diego State University student teachers and their faculty leaders passed through the nondescript gateway that separates the bustle of downtown Tijuana from one of the city’s oldest primary schools.

Located in the shadow of glittering new glass and steel high-rises catering mainly to American expats in this Mexican border metropolis, Escuela Primaria Federal Cuauhtémoc is a comparatively spartan structure, its whitewashed cinder block walls and bar-protected windows gussied-up by bright, rainbow-colored curtains.

The elementary school’s welcoming committee, however, is second to none. As the SDSU contingent entered the campus, young children with beaming faces lined up in the doorways of their classroom to excitedly greet the unfamiliar visitors.

The heartwarming sight has become something of a rite of passage for teaching credential candidates in SDSU’s Department of Dual Language and English Learner Education (DLE) — the largest producer of bilingual educators in the State of California.

This was day two of a four-day experience in Tijuana that serves as the centerpiece of ED 450, a required course for DLE candidates offering a firsthand look at education in the Mexican border region. The program, which has been led by DLE lecturers Sarah Maheronnaghsh and Rick Froehbrodt for more than a decade, blends teaching opportunities at two Tijuana schools, discussions of migration and language with master’s students from Universidad Autónoma de Baja California and a variety of cultural other learning experiences.

“We've seen this grow from students saying, ‘Oh that was a fun experience,’ to ‘That really changed my perspective on teaching,’” Froehbrodt said. “It’s important for them to know and to recognize that we have the same issues on both sides of the border.”

Border pedagogy

The foundational idea underpinning the program is to help future bilingual educators better grasp the learning environments, economic circumstances and geopolitical realities many of their pupils will one day come from.

“A big part of this is understanding what we call border pedagogy, which is the dynamics of the students that we share,” said SDSU lecturer Guillermo Castillo, a Tijuana native who coordinates DLE’s online multiple subject credential program. “One day a child can be in Mexico in these types of settings and the next day they can be in one of our schools in the United States.

“The systems have similarities but also some very fundamental differences.”

As he walks through the school’s tidy courtyard, Castillo illustrates his point by gesturing to the administrative office, which is located in the center of campus rather than the entrance. In Mexican schools, he explains, parents are deferential to teachers and principals as a sign of respect. They drop their kids off at the front gate and go no further. When Mexican families emigrate to the U.S. and are suddenly confronted with a system where parental involvement is an expectation, he adds, that deference can be misconstrued as disengagement.

The differences in resources between the two countries can also be stark.

“Here, the struggle is literally for desks, the struggle is for buildings, the struggle is for materials,” Castillo said. “But I think our students see the joy of the children regardless — the joy of learning, the inquisitiveness that they have. I think a lot of them recognize that with a little bit more structured support and educational opportunities, these kids would excel.”

Added Maheronnaghsh: “I think one of the biggest things that we've been focusing on lately is to have students really focus on the assets that they see and the funds of knowledge — to look at every child individually and what they bring instead of looking at their deficits.”

Coming together

For many of the students in the program, these sights are hardly unfamiliar. Many come from immigrant families or immigrant backgrounds themselves. When the group initially entered Mexico at the Otay Mesa Border Crossing on the first day, one student recounted to Castillo how, as a young child, she and her siblings used to sell burritos to commuters waiting in the border line.

The SDSU students made the trip in three waves on consecutive weeks in November. The cohorts that crossed south the two weeks prior were largely from DLE’s in-person programs, mostly students in their 20s fresh off of earning a bachelor’s degree.

On this day the participants — coming from SDSU’s grant-funded online program that helps classified staff become teachers at their school sites — are a bit more seasoned and far more geographically diverse. For most in the group, which includes students from far Northern California and even near Death Valley, the first-day meetup at an Otay Mesa McDonald’s was the first time they had ever seen each other outside of a Zoom window.

“This program allows me to keep working and keep making money while I'm also able to get my education,” said Elizabeth Estrada, who works as a bilingual instructional assistant in Orange County schools. “In DLE, they care. If you're stuck, you can talk to somebody and you're never alone. And with this whole transborder experience, it has definitely let me know I'm not alone.

“We're all going through it.”

Powerful lessons

Less than an hour after the grand entrance at Escuela Primaria Federal Cuauhtémoc, Estrada and fellow student teacher Christina Liu were in front of a room full of third graders who could barely contain their excitement. When Estrada announced to the class, in Spanish, that she lived in Los Angeles, the children let out an obviously impressed “ooh!”

Estrada led the morning lesson, teaching her rapt audience about the five senses, aided by some Halloween candy her own 3- and 5-year olds had gladly parted with in an act of kindness. When it came time for recess, the children didn’t want to leave.

“For me it was super rewarding,” Estrada said, fighting back tears. “I was born here in Mexico. I went to the U.S. as a second grader and got my education. Coming back is like giving back to what birthed me.”

After recess the duo was back at it, this time with Liu — a classified staff member at a school in Poway who is studying in DLE’s new Mandarin bilingual program — patiently instructing a group of fourth graders how to say basic greetings and count in Chinese. The students caught on fast, flexing their newfound language muscles with enthusiastic shouts.

“Seeing the kids, their economic status might not be what we typically see back home in the U.S., but kids are not bothered by that,” Liu said. “We are here just to give whatever you can and open up our arms to them. It's just so powerful.

She turns to Estrada.

“Every time I listen to her talking I'm reminded why I signed up for the program,” Liu says. “We all share the same values and goals. It can be stressful, but we know we are doing something different to make the world a better place.”

SDSU Student Teachers Visit Tijuana
In November, 20 dual language and English learner credential candidates visited a Tijuana primary school to experience a broader perspective on teaching. (Photos: Sarah Wilkins)