Marjorie Faulstich Orellana: Making the Most of the Middle

Orellana draws from activism and teaching in urban settings to bring inclusiveness, literacy to English learners.

From teaching second grade in Los Angeles schools to being actively involved in the Guatemalan Solidarity Movement of the 1980s, Marjorie Faulstich Orellana’s work has maintained a focus on transcultural understanding. She hopes to bring this understanding to students at UCLA and UCLA Community School, where she leads Bruin Club, an afterschool activity that focuses on multi-language literacy and creative play.

A professor of education in the Urban Schooling Division and Teacher Education Program in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies (GSE&IS), Orellana has done studies on children’s lives outside of the classroom in the Pico Union community that she had previously taught in, and on language brokering and translation by youth in Chicago’s immigrant communities.

“I think I have an interest in translating and perspective-taking because I am the sixth of eight children – I’m always in the middle,” Orellana laughs.  “It isn’t always easy, seeing things from different sides. But I think the world would be a better place if everyone at least tried to understand other people’s points of view.”

Orellana says that Bruin Club brings together the best of her research worlds in and out of the classroom, particularly in tandem with UCLA Community School’s emphasis on dual language learning in Spanish-English or Korean-English.

“I’m looking at how kids negotiate language, play with language, how they leverage their knowledge of one language for the other,” she says. “We have kids who come from homes where English, Spanish, Tagalog, Korean, and Bengali are spoken, and they’re all participating in a dual language program at school, so they’re living in a multilingual context. We do a lot of explorations of language and probe how kids are making sense of languages, literacies, and their own identities.”

Orellana and Patricia Greenfield, Distinguished Professor of Developmental Psychology, recently supervised Angie Guan, a graduate student in UCLA’s psychology department, in surveying UCLA undergraduates with a transcultural perspective-taking task. Orellana says that the results revealed a heightened understanding of other cultures and more empathy among those students who had experience translating across languages.

“The task required that they read a scenario, make a choice of what they would do, and then say why they would imagine someone else making another choice,” Orellana says. “They were culturally nuanced scenarios, where you could imagine both choices being appropriate in different cultural contexts.

“We found that people who had a lot of experience brokering language for other people had higher transcultural perspective taking scores. We believe that the act of negotiating for other people, being in the position of having to explain things to them, can facilitate the ability to see things from different perspectives – a competency that we could surely use more of in this world.”

Professor Orellana brought Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Hector Tobar to Moore Hall this quarter to speak on his latest book, “The Barbarian Nurseries.”

Orellana says that Bruin Club provides opportunities for kids, undergraduates, and GSE&IS graduate students to learn, build relationships, and learn about learning. UCLA undergraduates minoring in education and GSE&IS students gain intimate knowledge of the urban K-12 environment from UCLA Community School students, who in turn are mentored by college students that they hope to someday emulate. She says that games such as receiving letters from a mysterious character simply known as “X” provides opportunities for cross-cultural sharing of knowledge and language, sometimes with surprising results.

“X likes to play with language, and is genderless,” Orellana says. “X writes to the kids, playfully, and the kids write back. We use the exchanges to see how kids understand their world, as well as to cultivate literacy in playful ways.”

“X wrote a letter to one girl in English, Spanish, Korean, and Tagalog, as well as sprinklings of other languages. She picked it up and read it without hesitation. This was a Filipina girl who speaks Tagalog at home and is in the Korean program at school. She must have picked up some Spanish by osmosis. She read the whole thing smoothly.”

Orellana’s academic and career trajectory was influenced by her interest in culture and languages. After earning her undergraduate degree in psychology at Brown University, she moved to Los Angeles from her native New England to become an elementary school teacher.

“I had studied Spanish in college and had gotten involved with Central American solidarity work back east,” she says. “I moved out to California, and began working as a teacher on an ‘emergency credential,’ that is, credentials that were given to people with minimal qualifications during a time of teacher shortage.  Now, as the Director of Faculty for the Teacher Education Program, I look back and wonder at my naivete.  I certainly don’t think this is the best route into teaching, and I wish I could have had the training that our TEP students get!”

Orellana secured her regular credential by taking classes at night, and taught second and third grade for ten years at Hoover Elementary School in the Pico Union area of Los Angeles. At that time, Orellana’s extracurricular activities included working at the Guatemalan Information Center in Los Angeles, which was dedicated to building local awareness of political unrest and human rights violations in Guatemala and Central America, and with the Human Rights Committee of United Teachers Los Angeles. She and other members of the organization spoke at house meetings, rallies, and other events including a walkathon through Los Angeles where participants carried posters printed with thousands of names of Guatemalans who had “disappeared.”

Orellana traveled as part of a human rights delegation to the Ixil region of Guatemala, where “model villages” had been constructed by the military over actual villages that had been torched and destroyed. She also worked with other teachers to form the Teachers Committee on Central America, which designed a curriculum for working with Central American students, taught about Central America, and traveled with a group of teachers from Southern California to participate in a school-building brigade in Tipitapa, Nicaragua, where a school was built from the ground up.

After teaching for seven years, Orellana decided to earn her doctorate in education, on a Title VII bilingual education fellowship at USC. She continued teaching by day while taking classes at night.  She then worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, conducting an ethnographic study of the out-of-school experiences of kids in the community where she had taught.  Her first academic position was at Northwestern University, in the School of Education and Social Policy, where she taught before arriving at UCLA in 2003.

Last March, Orellana brought Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Hector Tobar to campus as part of a seminar series organized by the International Program on Migration, which she co-directs, along with sociologists Roger Waldinger and Rubén Hernández-Leon.  Tobar spoke about his latest book, “The Barbarian Nurseries.” She says that works like Tobar’s multiculturally complex novel that “allow people to step into other people’s shoes and see things in different ways [which] builds both a better understanding of other people and also a better understanding of the social fabric that we live in. These are the same skills that are demanded of child language brokers, and ethnographic researchers.”

Orellana says that her choice to understand and teach the issues of immigrant children in urban schools was a result of her own long process of crossing cultural, linguistic, and social class borders.

“I grew up in Waltham, Massachusetts, a very homogenous, white, working class town,” she recalls.  “My father didn’t go to college, and I was the first in my family of eight kids to live away from home.  My move from Waltham to Brown University was a huge social class leap, and it was very unsettling. I didn’t feel at home with the privilege of that institution. So I looked for belonging, and I found it with people who had crossed even bigger borders. That’s why I learned Spanish, and how I got into Central American Solidarity work, which led me to teaching, which led me to here.”

Orellana thinks all students can benefit from cultivating an ethnographic eye, and a translator’s stance.

“Many GSE&IS students bring a good and critical eye to social analyses,” she says. “I think that can be coupled with a deeply empathic understanding of people’s perspectives. This, in turn, can better inform our analyses of social processes. It doesn’t mean you give up your own stance of what is right or wrong, good or bad. But if we understand better why people do the things they do – especially when we don’t agree with them – we may be more able to advocate for the changes we believe in.”

Visit these links to read recent op-eds by Orellana for The Huffington Post on the current trial of General Efrain Rios Mont and on empathy for the suffering of others.