Marjorie, Professor of Education, CA

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My ideas about playfulness, and creativity, and crossing borders meet with a lot of resistance from people who think schools should be teaching kids the rules, and how to follow them: how to do things "right".  Many people assume that we adults know what kids need, and we need to make sure they get those things.

Marjorie Faulstich Orellana is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA.  She serves as Director of Faculty for the Teacher Education Program and Associate Director of the International Program on Migration. Dr. Orellana’s research centers on the experiences of immigrant youth in urban schools and communities.

Additionally, she runs an afterschool program that connects theory to practice and serves as a site for introducing undergraduates to the field of education, connecting elementary school children with college students, and conducting research on language and literacy practices.  This work is summarized in her book, Immigrant Children in Transcultural Spaces: Language, Learning and Love (Routledge, 2016).  Dr. Orellana's explorations of their work as language and culture brokers is reported in her 2009 book, Translating Childhoods: Immigrant Youth and Cultures. She is a past president of the Council of Anthropology and Education and is a columnist for the Huffington Post.  You can find out more about her work on her website: .

Dr. Orellana was interviewed as part of our #EdLeader series by RE-ENVISIONED's Co-Founder & Executive Director, Erin Raab.

The first question is just to tell me a little bit about your world, and your journey in the world of education.

All right, well, let’s see where to begin.  I graduated from college with a BA in Psychology in 1982.  I considered going directly to graduate school in clinical psychology. But I decided I wanted to go out into the “real world.”  There was an economic recession in New England, and there weren’t many jobs.  I heard about a teaching shortage in Los Angeles.  And I said, "Oh, I like kids. I'll move to California and become a teacher." 

I laugh, because — you know, I look back and I say, "I was 21, 22.  I was naïve.  I was idealistic."  I still am idealistic.  Hopefully I'm less naive.

So I moved to California and secured what was called an “emergency credential.” I observed other teachers for four days, and then took over a classroom in one of the largest schools in the country, with 2,700 kids K to 5. 

It was a multitrack, “year round” school – a particular scheduled called “Concept 6 Modified,” which meant that the school day was extended by 40-minute, but the school year was cut by an entire month. In the logic that is unique to school systems, this offered students the same number of minutes of instruction in the year, but many fewer days.  This was how school politics determined equity: if you had the same number of minutes in the school year, then you had an equitable education.  But anyone who knows kids knows 40 minutes at the end of the day is not the same as a whole extra month of mornings.  In this overcrowded school, three teachers shared two classroom spaces, and two of three“tracks” were on at any one time. 

So that was my introduction to education.  I learned on the job.  I got my credential at night while teaching during the day. Later, when I became a researcher, I wrote about this in a piece called “Year Round Schools and the Politics of Time.”

During my teaching years I was also very active with teaching groups on Central America and human rights, on different committees, and active with Central American Solidarity Group in Los Angeles.  So that was the '80s, and I was teaching, and being an activist, and getting my credential. I also had my first child. After seven years of teaching, I went back to graduate school at night and kept teaching during the day.  And that eventually led me to an academic career as a professor of education.

Clearly, there’s a lot more I could say about any of these things, but perhaps that will suffice as an introduction.


Could you briefly say more about what your work has been on as a professor?

Yes. My graduate program was centered on Language Literacy and Learning, and I focused on bilingual communities and thinking about language in new ways.  I also worked with a sociologist, Barrie Thorne, at the time.  She introduced me to the sociology of childhoods and thinking about children in new ways, and children as a social category, and ways of thinking about the processes through which we construct categories, including gender and generational categories. I spent three years working as a post-doc working on a project with her, looking at children's daily life experiences in the community around the school in which I had taught here in L.A. It's the community where I'm continuing to work now.

That project introduced me to thinking about children's whole lives and experiences in new immigrant communities.  Putting that together with my interest in language and literacy led me took at the work that the children of immigrants do every day as language and cultural brokers for others.

I spent ten years studying children's work as language and cultural brokers, hanging out with kids outside of school, thinking about applications to school, curriculum, and classrooms, and then doing some design work with teachers.

In short, I've worked in homes and communities, outside of school, in schools, and now in an intermediate space - an after-school program that brings me full circle.

I have moved from my own in-school classroom teaching experiences, to studying children’s out-of-school, then back into school in the form of designing curriculum, and now applying this in our own unique space of an afterschool program.  The kinds of things we're doing in the afterschool program very much reflect the things I wanted to do and tried to do as a teacher, not always as successfully as I might hope, but now I'm coming with a little more experience, and trying to now train a new generation of teachers to think in these ways, and confronting all the challenges that come along with that.

Yeah.  I want to come back to that idea towards the end!

The next part of the interview relates to a child you care about.  So...

Take a minute and think about a kid you care about, then describe them for me: For instance, their personality and your relationship with them.

I'm presented with a challenge in addressing your question because I could think of several kids.  In some ways it feels important to me to think about several kids, one being my own son, who is in his second year of college, so he's still in school.  He is perhaps the person I'm most intimately connected to as a young person, and I’m very much invested in his happiness, and health, and future. Then there are all the kids I work with in the afterschool program who are far less privileged than my son, and thinking about them provides an important counterbalance to me.  Would I want the same things for them that I want for him?  Why or why not?

Okay, so first about my son.  Andrés is - his father is Guatemalan.  His father had a sixth-grade education when I met him and was undocumented, and his mother, my son's grandmother, did not really read or write. She worked in a garment factory for 35 years in L.A.  On my side, I have the privilege of whiteness, but I came from a large catholic family and grew up in a working class town. So in these ways Andrés doesn't really come from a lineage of privilege.  But he grew up during the years in which I became a professor — he was one year old when I took my first academic position - so he experienced his childhood as the son of a professor.  In that sense he was certainly privileged — although less privileged than many other children of professors, because we struggled economically for years, too.

I frame this discussion in terms of privilege because the kids I work with are very much not privileged in these ways. They don't have parents who have these kinds of cultural capital and economic or educational privilege, and they also have very precarious lives, perhaps especially in this moment of immigration reform and control.  Their futures are very uncertain, and that matters for what I hope for them in terms of education. At the same time I would argue that the future for all young people – for all of us – is uncertain, because of the state of the world that we're in right now.

That's what I really think about: what do all young people need for the future?  Can we even know what they're going to need one year, five years, ten years, twenty years from now, what the world is going to be like, how they're going to find their place in it, how they can contribute to it and perhaps hopefully make it better?

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In that sense I want the same things for my son as I do for the kids in the school I work in: Fundamentally I want them all to be happy, healthy, and whole. 

But I'm jumping ahead.  I didn't really tell you about my son.


That's all right. Would it be possible for you to pick one student?  And even if you want to use a pseudonym for them, and then also your son, and just tell me a little bit about both of them and kind of their unique personalities, and then we can kind of go back and forth and make the contrast, where there is a contrast?

 Yes, they’re very different ages.  Maya – we’ll give her a pseudonym - is an eight-year-old girl in the afterschool program I work in.  Her family immigrated from Southern Mexico; I think they identify as Zapotec.  Maya has, at times, claimed that and mentioned speaking some Zapotec.  She's in a bilingual program in school, English and Spanish, and this is her second year in our afterschool program. In the first year I remember she was very quiet.  This year she's just blossoming, and she's the one who has most connected with me this year.  She seeks me out.  She also seeks out the other adults.  She asks them questions.  She's very curious about things.  She's curious about words.  She asks, "What does that mean?" when she hears a word she doesn’t know.

Maya’s very interested in gardening, so she's been asking to help plant a garden, and she had a very clear idea of what she wanted to plant in it.  She has a bright smile, and she seems on one level happy, but I read a sadness underneath there too.  She's a little bit overweight, and I say that because — you know, it concerns me, seeing kids growing up in this community where they don't have much space to be outside and play. They have access to very unhealthy food – that’s inexpensive and addictive.  This makes her interest in the garden so important.  She wants to grow vegetables, and she wants to take the vegetables home to her family.  She also wants to bring the vegetables to feed the homeless.  

I think about the fact that when her family lived in a rural area in Southern Mexico, they came from a tradition of living very close to the land and eating healthy food.  And then they move to Los Angeles, where healthy food is expensive and junk food is cheap. We knowstatistically about immigrant families and the health paradox: the longer they are here the less healthy they become. And that concerns me.  So that's a little bit about Maya.

Thank you.  That's perfect.  And what about your son?  What is his name?


Andrés.  And what is his personality like?

He's a very sweet, very kind, very thoughtful kid.  He has a level of self-awareness – he has some insecurities, but he's aware of them.  He deals with some anxiety, and he's aware of that. Apparently some huge percentage of young people today are dealing with clinical levels of anxiety – and that factors into my thinking about education, too.  

When Andrés was about Maya's age, that's when we went through a very difficult time in our family.  I ended up getting divorced.  I had breast cancer.  It was a really hard time for him, and his older sister was struggling with some things too. The very real struggles that so many young people have growing up in the world today, that take different forms in different circumstances.

All of these things make me very much attuned to matters of whole health and well-being — emotional well-being, physical well-being, attunement of body, mind, and spirit, and how fragile that can be. 

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I think some of the challenges in my own family had their history in their dad's mother having left when he was eight – forced to do so for economic reasons - and his having grown up under a military dictatorship in Guatemala.  In that context you don't talk about things. Then in our own lives, moving and adjusting from me being a teacher to being a professor, and cultural upheavals, and physical health issues – these all affect children.

I wonder about these things for Maya too.  Her family moved here.  Under what conditions, we don't know.  How are they living now? What precarity is there in their lives?  Insecurities, worries, fears about the future?  And how does that show up emotionally in kids' bodies, and their happiness, and their health? 

So I think about these things all the time. 

I want both Andrés and Maya to be happy, healthy, and whole, to pursue their passions, to have something to contribute to the world. 

My son is a musician.  In sixth grade he found music, and jazz specifically, as his passion.  Jazz really worked for him in a way that the piano lessons I sent him to in elementary school did not, because the piano teacher wanted him to read music, and he wanted to work by ear.  And he has a very good ear.  When he finally found a teacher that encouraged him to work from his strength, and follow his ear and follow his passion, he began to express himself musically in ways that he would never had if he had only had the traditional classical training.  He would never have found music, I'm quite convinced.  So now he's a musician.  He's at a music school.


This is a great segue, because the next question is imagining both of these children in their 30s, out of school, into adult life, whatever path they take through schooling. 


What do you hope for them when they grown up? What would make it a good or a successful life for each of them?

 That’s hard.  For Andrés, that's ten years from now, more or less, and for Maya it's twenty, more or less.  And I wonder about what is going happen in the world in the next ten to twenty years.

Until I went through my cancer experience and the “falling apart” of much of my life, I was probably thought more like this:  "Oh, kids, you know, we've got to provide them the best possible educational experiences.  They've got be able to compete in an unfair world." 

I've really shifted on that.  I see all these parents at my son's high school who think that way, and I see what toll it can take, what stress kids live under - and parents as well.  Especially when we're preparing kids for a future we don't know how to prepare them for.

What I want is for these kids to be ready to adapt and embrace whatever happens.  To be able to respond to it thoughtfully and with kindness and compassion for themselves and others, and collaboratively figure out, "How are we going to work together to make this planet, this world, this nation a better place?" 

I think, sure, we need kids with skills they can put to use in the world, but hopefully those skills are things they're actually passionate and excited about, not just, "Well, I'm going to learn this because I have to learn this and do something that's soul-crushing."  Yeah, that's what I wish for both Andrés and Maya: to be able to pursue their passions in ways that also contribute to a better community and world.

That's beautiful.  That's very Dewey too.  I just finished reading Democracy and Education again. 


In your ideal world, what would be the role of school in helping them create this kind of life? 

Some of this I’ve written about in my book: Immigrant Children in Transcultural Spaces: Language, Learning, and Love, as well as in other publications.

Ideally schools would a place where we find where kids light up: where they get excited about things.

And we would follow those, and we support them, and we help them to stretch and grow from there. Of course, we wouldn’t just blindly follow where kids want to go - we would also offer other options to them, ones they might not be aware of.

But we would start from what they're excited about, and what they know and can do, rather than focusing on what they don't know or can't do. 

Then, starting with what they can do, schools should be encouraging, helping them in expanding repertoires, taking on new possibilities, imagining what could be, playing with ideas, playing with possibilities, and finding the power in that.


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In helping kids to expand their repertoires and take on new possibilities, schools can also play an important role in fostering cultural or transcultural understanding: understanding that other people think differently; other people have had other experiences. 


We can learn by listening to how other people see, hear, and understand the world.  And, we can do this in ways that help us to grow, that may give us pause and make us want to question some of our own ideas. Or, perhaps it will strengthen our own ideas and we can just say, "Well, isn't that interesting?  They think differently." Too often, we are threatened by differences and think we have to bring people around to our view, instead of, "Well, isn't that interesting?"

Ideally, then, school would be a place that fosters curiosity, imagination, trying on other perspectives, playing with ideas, and building capacities to listen and hear each other.


I like this description!  


Do/did schools play this ideal role for Andres and Maya - in what ways yes and no?

That's a good question, because in some ways — you know, we started with the contrast with the kids, but in some ways they're both getting or have had pretty good public school experiences.  My son went through a dual-language program, one of the oldest in the nation.  He went all the way through 12th grade and received that California “State Seal of Biliteracy.”  The school district he was in prides itself on having “rigorous” curriculum, and Andrés had an amazing jazz band experience, and good musical experience.  So in some ways he got all that in a public school education.

Maya is in an experimental pilot school that is also a pretty unique public school, and it offers a dual-language program as well. It's set in a community that still struggles with a lot of resource issues, and it's part of the L.A. Unified Public Schools, so it faces real challenges, but the school has more resources than many, and a lot of pride. They’re trying to create a college-going culture, and supporting all kids in going to school, and it is also very much about trying to create self-directed learners.  So both Andrés and Maya have had pretty decent public school educations.

At the same time, both of these schools still get caught up in the politics and policies.  In trying to create a “rigorous” curriculum, they send home a lot of homework and a lot of busy to-do stuff.

I remember when my son was in dual-language school, sometimes the “benefits” of dual-language meant that he got to (or had to) copy his spelling words in Spanish five times, and then his spelling words in English five times.

I still see schools trapped in the mindset of old antiquated ways we taught 100 years go, and somehow thinking that this is what rigor is.  Like, if we don't give kids a lot of homework, we're not being “rigorous”.

It often creates this kind of high-pressure, high-stress experience, sending kids the message: "If you don't do this, you won't get into college, and you won't have a good life.”

I think that's particularly problematic when you're giving that message to kids who don't know if their families will even be able to be in this country in five years, and if they will be able to stay, or if they'll have to go back and adapt to a whole different school system in Mexico or somewhere else.

I think it's the part of the larger culture.  I don't think it's easy – I think schools and teachers feel trapped. You know, any one person can't opt for a different approach. We would do a disservice to Maya if we didn't make sure she's getting what she needs in order to apply to college and get into college.  But how do we shift the larger cultural values?  Why are we so fixated on, "These are the things one needs to do to be college prepared"? And are we really so sure that those things will lead to happiness and health in life, and well-being for the world?

Yeah, I’ve been wondering the same thing.  This is a lot of what my dissertation is on, so I'm excited to talk to you about it at some point.  I'm asking the exact same questions. 


Do you have any theories about it, about why it is the way it is?

Well, I think some of it is the history of schools and the way they were established. We still haven't moved out of turn-of-the-century Taylorism. And there are political reasons and cultural reasons.  We could take a critical perspective, as Paolo Freire did, and say schools are succeeding at exactly what they're intended to do within a capitalistic economy, which is to stratify the population, to ensure that some succeed and others do not.  This whole mindset of, "Oh, you need to have these gatekeeping classes," really is about gatekeeping: ensuring some kids will not get in.

What would we do if we actually had a fully educated and critically minded populace within the existing economic order?

What are we going to do with all these people we're educating if we don't have jobs they can plug into because the jobs have all been automated? 

Don’t we need to redefine what it means to have a valuable productive life? 

I mean, what if we actually paid artists to be artists?  What if everybody got to work a four-hour workday in the jobs that we need, and then everybody got to spend time exercising, and pursuing the arts, and building community, and making connections with others?


I can go idealistic there. Obviously this would require a huge cultural, political and economic shift; but maybe the contradictions that are all coming to a head right now in terms of the existing system are showing us the way.  The hopeful part of me says maybe we can bring forth other possibilities.  I try to remember that the school ssytem that we think of as so fixed and unchangeable is really little more than 100 years old.  Schools - and cultures, societies - have changed over time, and will keep changing.  The question is how we can facilitate the kinds of shifts we hope to see.

I love that, obviously, since that's our whole mission as an organization at RE-ENVISIONED.  I love that. 


Do you think that other people agree with you on what a good life is?

Oh.  No.  Well, I don't know how many people would articulate it in the ways I articulate it.  I certainly have a set of friends and people I connect with that do question these things about the values of the larger society — but I think a lot of people are pretty caught in the everyday struggles of life.  Often this means that people are just focused on achieving a bit of security.

I don't mean to dismiss that.  That was my father's message to me.  He had eight children and all he wanted was for us to have college degrees and economic security.  For the girls, he just wanted us to have husbands who provided the job security. He came out of the Depression, and his father died when he was young…So I don't dismiss security.  I understand why people long for it.

At the same time, we do kids a disservice if we lead them to think, "If you just do this, you can have a secure life." Because life is not secure.  There's so much that's volatile and unpredictable, that we simply cannot control.  I learned that by facing a cancer diagnosis. 

You know, from one day to the next you learn, "Oh, you actually don't have control.” So the question becomes, how do you adapt?  That's on the personal level in terms of your own health, but it also happens at community level, and it happens in terms of environmental impact.  So I think a lot of people would emphasize security, and financial success, and maybe happiness, but not really pursuit of passions.  I also think a lot of people would consider me idealistic - rightfully so.  Though I don't think I'm as naive as I was when I was 21.


Yeah.  I've gone through kind of a loss of the naiveté relatively recently.  I feel like grad school will do that to you, too, as well as real life and loss experiences. 


Do you think that people generally agree with you on what they would like the role of schooling to be in helping children create good lives?

It depends how you frame it. 

My ideas about playfulness, and creativity, and crossing borders meet with a lot of resistance from people who think schools should be teaching kids the rules, and how to follow them, and how to do things right. 

Most people assume that we adults know what kids need, and we need to make sure they get those things. 

So I do feel like I'm a little bit out of sync with a lot of people in that. 

The other thing I really try to clarify is that I’m NOT saying, "Anything goes, and whatever kids want." But people sometimes think I am.  Even in our afterschool work that's what teachers, pre-service teachers struggle with.  Many think it's either they tell kids what to do, or anything goes, with boundaries at all. I try to distinguish between authoritative and authoritarian, but it's not an easy distinction.  Authoritative is to really own and hold our authority — but that can still involve respect for the dignity and knowledge and skills of young people who know other things.  Even if we’re authoritative, we can learn from kids, from everyone. 

Learning from young people and respecting their dignity doesn't mean we give up our vision.  We know some things from having spent more time on the planet, and done a few more things, and it's our responsibility to share that with them. 

I struggle with how to get across what I'm saying and not be misheard.  I have found that people hear me as saying things that are not what I think I'm trying to say.  This is why we need dialogue - and the transcultural disposition to try to hear what others are saying; to listen with our hearts, not just our heads.  And perhaps to find points of commonality that can be built upon, rather than fixating on the many differences that could divide us.

Yeah, I think that's hard.  I would love to talk with you about that more.  I'm thinking about that a lot now, too, because I think we hold some very similar hopes on what we'd like to see.  This was a lovely and heartening conversation.  I’ve loved each time I’ve gotten to discuss with you and I hope we can continue the conversation on some of these points!

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