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Heritage Learners’ Champion

Submitted by Casey Colvin on June 4, 2015 - 10:53am


By Irene Panke Hopkins

Thanks to María Gillman, Principal Lecturer, Third-Year Language Coordinator and Department Director of Service Learning, SPS boasts the premier program for Heritage Learners in the state of Washington.

By 1996, six years after joining the SPS faculty, Gillman began to notice students who spoke Spanish fluently but essentially had no formal education in their mother language. “Many of them were children of Mexican immigrants from the Yakima Valley,” noted Gillman.

“They were quiet and insecure in class,” she recalled, “and while their oral and listening language skills were very high, when it came to reading, writing and grammar, they were completely lost.”

Gillman contacted the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) in Washington, DC, and joined an emerging field of teachers who wanted to learn more about this type of language learner. “Trained to teach language as a second language but not as a heritage language, the question then and still for many instructors is what to teach to this type of student and how to teach it,” said Gillman. “Through my investigation, I became self-educated, and gained understanding of what it meant to be bilingual as a heritage learner,” said Gillman.

In 2000, Gillman started teaching one class for Heritage Speakers: Spanish 314. She attended conferences, learned techniques, and tried them with the students. To paraphrase another professor, Kim Potowski, “My students are like apples. Most are from the Yakima Valley where there are many varieties of apples: different textures, different colors and different flavors. All my students come with different skills, which is both the beauty and the challenge of this field.”

Gillman is proud of her work. “After fifteen years working in the field,” she said, “I am the one who broke ground, at least in my department. I became a mentor for high school and middle school teachers who had heard about my program. They observed my classes and consulted with me about program implementation, textbooks, techniques and methodology.”

The now well-established program enrolls students, mostly of Mexican origin, but also from Spain, Central America and South America. When asked about program faculty, Gillman laughed and said, “I’m it!” Gillman is quick, however, to express gratitude to all the Chairs she has worked under for their support and enthusiasm. “Ana Fernandez Dobao, our Language Program Director, is a linguist and is very interested in the Heritage Speakers Program,” said Gillman. “She understands the importance of having a track for heritage speakers and supports me in continuing research and development of the program.”

Gillman is grooming other instructors to teach writing classes and is developing a 200-level class for Heritage Speakers. “We hope to offer it to high school students for college credit,” she said. “We can validate these students’ skills and enable them to enter UW at the 300 level.”

Gillman’s enthusiasm and passion are clear. “This is my motor!” she said. “It is what propels me and makes me love coming to work.” By far, her greatest reward comes when a student relates having read a novel in Spanish, which for many was a stigmatized language growing up, and discussing it with their parents who, prior to this time, could not help them with their schoolwork due to the language barrier. “The seed that was planted has flourished not just with the students, but with their entire family,” she said. “I feel emotional just talking about it. It is then that my job feels so important!” Gillman’s main priority is clear. “For me, it is most important that my students reach a high proficiency level in their heritage language. I want them to feel confident when they speak and, especially, when they write.”

Gillman came to UW in 1990 through the New Entry Level Initiative, designed to improve first year programs. When a faculty member left the department, Gillman was asked to coordinate the 300 level classes, teaching nine of the eleven courses offered. She received her education from the Escuela Normal de Jalisco (B.A.); The University of Guadalajara (B.A.); and Oregon State University (M.A.).

In 2005, Gillman’s dedication and exceptional work resulted in her receipt of the UW’s Distinguished Contributions to Lifelong Learning Award. “I don’t like to be in the spotlight,” she said, “but I am very proud of this award!” As well she should be.

For more about Gillman’s work with Heritage Learners, see the article on Heritage Learners' Exploration Seminars.

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