As part of my summer reading, I selected a memoir by Sonia Nieto—Brooklyn Dreams: My Life in Public Education (2015). I’ve had the opportunity to meet Dr. Nieto a few times in the past and we’ve exchanged emails from time to time. As a course instructor, I’ve used her book Affirming Diversity to teach undergraduate students and have heard her deliver keynotes at conferences. The book includes twelve chapters and is divided into three parts. Her conversational, reflective style led me to think critically about my own experiences as a Black educator. Reading her autobiography was enlightening, insightful, clarifying, and even humorous at times—so much so that I sent her an email to let her know how much I was enjoying the book. This edition of Pass the Mic is dedicated to Dr. Sonia Nieto for her dedication to public education, linguistic diversity, and multicultural education.
Sonia Nieto is a Puerto Rican American and Brooklyn native. She’s multilingual, fluent in English, French, and Spanish, her first language. She described learning English in school as something she had to do de golpe, meaning “fast and furiously” (Nieto, p. 41). Her classmates were a diverse mixture of first- and second-generation European immigrants, African Americans, and a growing population of Puerto Ricans. Her teachers, all White, young, and inexperienced, encouraged English only in school: “Sonia, here we speak only English. It’s rude to speak Spanish” (p. 41). There were no bilingual or English as a second language (ESL) programs at that time. Although bilingualism was not encouraged in school, Sonia served as an unofficial interpreter for family, and school officials, when needed.
Negative comments and attitudes about school language, English, and her home language, Spanish, were considered normal. It took Sonia years to unlearn those myths. She also describes instances in school when her teachers had lower expectations for some students. The theme of being a navigator is consistent throughout the book. Sonia affirms, “How I learned to navigate these differences has been the subject of the rest of my life. How I learned to regain a sense of my own cultural identity and be confident and happy with myself is also part of my story” (Nieto, p. 75). Luckily for Sonia, she genuinely enjoyed learning and had a few teachers who recognized her dedication and commitment to school.
Becoming an Educator
This section was a joy to read since Sonia talks about her multiple roles as an educator and working mother. Her first year of teaching was like most new teachers’ first years—classroom management or lack thereof, lesson plans that did not go as planned, and the numerous other responsibilities that teachers have. Her descriptions of situations while she was slowly building a rapport with her students were both heartfelt and comical at times. I found myself thinking back to my own experiences as a classroom teacher. Sonia simply states, “Like all teachers, I needed to find ways to help my students tap into their better selves. This was probably the most important lesson I learned that year, one that stayed with me throughout my teaching and teacher education career” (Nieto, p. 139).
Research and Writing
This section describes how her book Affirming Diversity came into existence. This came at a time in her career when family obligations were a priority, so writing a textbook added to those demands. Through it all, she was able to write her groundbreaking book, the book that changed the trajectory of her career, the book that the field needed and still relies on today. What stood out to me were the words, phrases, and language she uses to describe the salient characteristics of multicultural education: antiracist, important for all students, and social justice (Nieto, p. 224). Affirming Diversity is a best seller, an award winner that has been translated into multiple languages. What resonates most is that this book, published over two decades ago, has provided a road map for educators with the goal of validating themselves and the experiences of their culturally and linguistically diverse students—something many of us still strive to do today.
My Favorite Parts of the Book
I enjoyed reading about Sonia’s experiences in school, her career, and her family. Some of my favorite parts of the book include:
Her experiences as the middle child
How her identity and personality were shaped
How she dealt with bullies in school
How she built positive relationships with her students, especially challenging ones
How she met, fell in love with, and married her husband, Angel, of over 40 years
How she participated in protests (radical Sonia!)
How she got to know Paulo Freire
How she balanced motherhood, grandmotherhood, and her career
How and why she wrote Affirming Diversity and the publications that followed
My take-aways from reading this book are grounded in the need for more patience and faith—not just in our students but in ourselves. Sonia describes how different opportunities presented themselves throughout her life that have contributed to her becoming the educator and advocate that she is. Although she aspired to become a teacher, she could not have imagined the impact of her work. Her words ring true, especially now, teaching during a pandemic: “Maintaining your hope in the face of incredibly difficult conditions is what makes teaching so hard” (Nieto, p. 150). Her career as an educator and advocate is an example of grace, patience, and authenticity in action.
For ideas on how to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, visit the following websites:
National Hispanic Heritage Month
Smithsonian: Heritage and History Month Events
Spanish Mama: The Ultimate Guide to Hispanic Heritage Month Activities
Teach for America: Latinx Heritage Month Resources
Nieto, S. (2015). Brooklyn Dreams: My Life in Public Education. Harvard Education Press.
Ayanna Cooper, EdD, is an advocate and writer and the owner of A. Cooper Consulting. She is author of And Justice for ELs: A Leader’s Guide to Creating and Sustaining Equitable Schools (Corwin). She is the editor of the Pass the Mic series.