Books offer a portal to fantastical worlds and new adventures, allowing children to not only exercise their imagination but also learn, build their vocabulary and bond with parents who read to them. But that opportunity is often lost in translation for the families of nonnative English speakers.
It's a reality teacher Zenia Gutierrez heard loud and clear from parents of her third graders at Bloomingdale Elementary in rural Van Buren County, Michigan.
"These students are among our most vulnerable populations due to the language barrier. They come from unique backgrounds. Their parents work hard to provide for their families and want to provide a good education for their children."
She began surveying the parents as part of a family engagement project in her master's program for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at Western.
"They said they were lacking books at home to read to their children, which reminded me of my childhood experience and not having those available when I was growing up," says Gutierrez, who moved to the United States from a remote village in Mexico when she was in first grade. "Not understanding not only the language but the culture was very difficult."
Gutierrez decided to try out a pilot program, using money from a grant Western received from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of English Language Acquisition to purchase bilingual books that six of her students could take home and read with their parents. The books told stories in both English and Spanish. It didn't take long for Gutierrez to witness the impact of the project. One boy's face was full of pride when he told her his father had been reading to him at night. Another parent mentioned this is the first time she had ever been able to read a book to her 10-year-old child.
"How a simple change made such a big difference is unbelievable," Gutierrez says. She knew the program couldn't stop there and got to work on a pitch to take the program districtwide. Her presentation tugged at the heartstrings of now-retired superintendent Deb Paquette.
"In my mind, I was having flashbacks of laying in bed reading with my son and thinking, 'I can't imagine not being able to do that.' It literally brought tears to my eyes," Paquette says.
With Paquette's support, Gutierrez officially launched Breaking Barriers with Bilingual Books, expanding access to more than 150 families in the district's two elementary schools in the 2021-22 academic year. Now after accepting a position as an English Learner and migrant education teacher in Van Buren Intermediate School District, she's talking with other school districts in the area about instituting the program.
"It started with six students, now four school districts—I have to take it one step at a time, but my lifelong goal is to get the books where they are needed," she says. "The lack of bilingual books is a problem that exists throughout our entire nation, and if there isn't a voice in other states, I want to be that voice."
Gutierrez started a fundraising webpage to begin raising money to expand the reach of the program. Her hope is to get enough to start small bilingual libraries at several schools, which districts could bolster with outside funding over time. As the impact of her work grows, so does the praise she's received from community members.
"It does make me proud. But to me, more than anything, this is something that's long overdue. I feel like it's my duty," says Gutierrez, remembering the challenges she faced as a young girl trying to learn in a classroom and within a culture she didn't quite understand. "It makes me feel like I'm helping close the gap that is very much there in education."
The project has also helped her find a new sense of pride in her heritage—something she struggled with even into her adult life. "(Growing up) I always felt that my culture, my language was less than. It wasn't until I took graduate classes with Dr. Selena Protacio that I realized (being bilingual) was a blessing and not something for me to feel like a second-class citizen. I felt more proud of being bilingual after taking that class," she says.
"We really try to emphasize in the program that multilingualism is an asset," says Protacio, interim chair of special education and literacy studies at Western. "We want to embrace all of the languages and the cultures that students bring to the classroom. And I think Zenia's project really shows this. And it goes beyond the students to their families and acknowledging the literacy skills that families have in other languages."
Protacio says Gutierrez's success shows the impact of supporting educational programming in traditionally underserved populations.
"It's a testament to how important it is to get students from diverse backgrounds into teaching," she says, noting Western is doing its part to expand its capacity to train ESL teachers.
"This fall, we launched our brand-new elementary education and TESOL undergrad program. This would allow students of this program to graduate with a preK-3 initial teaching endorsement and a K-12 ESL endorsement, which is a critical shortage in our state as well as across the nation," Protacio says.
The University also recently received a new $2.96 million grant from the Department of Education's Office of Language Acquisition, which will provide financial assistance in terms of books and endorsement fees for 75 in-service and 60 pre-service teachers over the next five years. The previous grant, which helped fund Gutierrez's pilot project, supported 166 in-service and 22 pre-service teachers in Western's program over a five-year period.
A full circle moment
Breaking Barriers with Bilingual Books is more than a passion project for Gutierrez; it's a chance to give back to the community where she grew up. It was in classrooms in the Bloomingdale Public School District where the spark for education first ignited.
"Going into teaching has been ingrained in me since I was little. Because once I came to the United States and I became familiar with the language, (teachers) would put other ESL students next to me so I could do the translating and help them with their homework," she says. "I've been training for this since I could start speaking English!"
The encouragement she received from her high school Spanish teacher and counselor gave her the confidence to pursue higher education.
"I guess they saw in me a brightness that I didn't see in myself," says Gutierrez, who began the process of applying to colleges. "I got a full-ride scholarship to Western Michigan University, and that's when my life really changed. Education changed and shaped my life."
Gutierrez found support in the TRIO Student Success Program, which helps first-generation, income-eligible students make the transition to college through academic, financial and career assistance.
"It really helped me as a student, because they would check on you and see how you're doing, how your grades were," she remembers. "On top of providing that support, if there were any personal things I was going through, (my mentor) would always give me great advice. I felt that TRIO made a big difference."
After working three jobs in high school to support herself and help her family, Gutierrez says Western put her on the path to a better future.
"It was like winning the lottery," she says, having earned a bachelor's degree in Spanish in 2012—the first person in her family to do so. "Walking in the line (at commencement), I was in disbelief that I had made it through. I graduated; I had a degree. I had made something out of myself and I was about to start my dream job as a teacher."
Returning to earn her master's degree in TESOL, which she completed in spring 2022, Gutierrez is now able to pay that jackpot forward, creating new avenues of opportunity for families just like hers.
"I'm going to continue to be that voice," she says. "These kids depend on us to provide these resources so they have an equitable education just like their peers. And their parents deserve the same rights … and resources where they are able to also be part of their education at home."