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Project fosters critical literacy in Puerto Rico by making education culturally relevant

Feb 23, 2024

Students pose with Latin American instruments Thanks to support from IU's Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, pre-service and early-career elementary teachers in Puerto Rico are acquiring essential tools to bring cultural relevancy to their curricula. Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Lugar School

Puerto Rico is home to 3.3 million residents, making it the most populated of the United States’ 14 territories. For over a century, Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens by birth, required to abide by most U.S. laws. However, they have limited representation in federal government, with no U.S. senators, and only one non-voting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Puerto Rico is an archipelago of islands situated 1,000 miles southwest of Florida, between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The primary language is Spanish. In many cultural aspects, Puerto Ricans identify more with their Caribbean and Latin American neighbors than with other U.S. citizens. Despite this, Puerto Rican schools have traditionally used children’s literature from the U.S. or Europe, and teachers must implement U.S. federal education mandates even if they are not culturally relevant.

Thanks to support from the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies in the Indiana University Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, pre-service and early-career elementary teachers in Puerto Rico are acquiring essential tools to bring cultural relevancy to their curricula and foster critical literacy. The center works with students at the University of Puerto Rico Bayamón during their last year taking literacy methods courses, during their student teaching year and as first-year teachers to develop their skills and knowledge in critical literacy.

The Puerto Rico Critical Literacy Project is one of many ways in which the Hamilton Lugar School’s centers serve the nation by supporting world language and cultural education programs through a Department of Education Title VI grant.

The project, which began in 2019, is led by Carmen Medina, an IU School of Education professor of literacy, culture and language education, and María del Rocío Costa, a professor in the Department of Pedagogy at the University of Puerto Rico Bayamón. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Medina and Costa reaffirmed the need to decolonize literacy education in Puerto Rico.

“The bulk of the children’s literature that comes to Puerto Rico is translated from English, French or German,” Costa said. “Although we are a Caribbean nation, because of our political relation with the United States, we don’t have a strong corpus of books written by and in Latin America.”

The historical strategies for literacy education don’t seem to be working. According to a 2023 Opportunity Project report, only 11% of first-graders, 6% of second-graders and 1% of third-graders in Puerto Rico could read at grade level. The use of imported media is also impacting the children’s understanding of the world.

“When you ask a child to draw a house, they will draw it with a peaked roof and a chimney with smoke coming from the chimney, which is not what we have,” Costa said. “If you ask them during Christmastime to draw something for Christmas, they draw a snowman and snow. When you have literature where you’re not represented, you think that what is legitimate is what the others — the outsiders — know.”

For these reasons, Medina said, it is important to resituate literacy and literature knowledge in Puerto Rican schools as coming from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Equipping educators

As Medina and Costa explored ways to equip Puerto Rican educators with the tools needed to develop critical literacy, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies learned about the project and invited them to be part of the center’s U.S. Department of Education Title VI 2018-22 grant application. The Puerto Rico Critical Literacy Project, which was also written into the 2022-26 grant proposal, fulfills a major grant priority because it is a collaboration with a minority-serving institution, the University of Puerto Rico-Bayamón.

María del Rocío Costa teaches a course María del Rocío Costa, a professor in the Department of Pedagogy at the University of Puerto Rico Bayamón, is a key partner in the project. Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Lugar School

“Puerto Rico many times does not qualify for funding that is just meant for U.S. states,” Medina said. “Other times we don’t qualify because we’re not international. Thankfully, CLACS understood the uniqueness of the position of Puerto Rico.

“This was like a dream come true. Not only have they provided funding, but they also helped me conceptualize the project to be what it is right now. Their support has been really, really important.”

The 17 primary participants in the project include elementary pre-service teachers enrolled in the Department of Pedagogy at the University of Puerto Rico-Bayamón, as well as recent graduates who are now early-career teachers. By the end of the program, grant funding will provide approximately $800 in culturally relevant books for each participant’s classroom library.

In addition, Costa used grant funding to enhance the book collection she uses to teach literacy methods courses to all of her students, which has already benefitted more than 900 pre-service teachers enrolled in her courses. Furthermore, more than 1,000 people have engaged with the project through webinars and Facebook Live events.

“I think one of the most important parts of the project is helping teachers make their own libraries, but making it a library with a purpose,” said Priscila Pérez Mercado, program coordinator for the critical literacy project. “Schools in Puerto Rico are not funded correctly, so there’s not enough money to buy books.”

Although schools in other parts of the United States may also require teachers to provide their own classroom libraries, Medina said Puerto Rico is in a more challenging economic situation, and the school system is quite deprived. There are also very few libraries accessible to students outside schools, and even those lack books from Latin America, according to Pérez Mercado.

Teachers taking part in the project also develop skills to engage in critical literacy with their students. Medina said this skill helps educators teach students to look at texts through a socially conscious lens and to be aware that books are not neutral.

“When you engage with kids and teachers in this more complex conversation, there’s a lot of engagement and passion and energy that you generate because you can really look beyond the surface,” Medina said.

Unpacking the past

At the start of the program, Medina and Costa offer the teachers a variety of culturally relevant books to choose from. After reflecting on their identities and experiences, the teachers select more books that they find personally meaningful. Through this process, one of the pre-service teachers began identifying as an Afro-Puerto Rican in a more intentional way than she had done before.

Students hold Spanish children's books The program offers pre-service teachers a variety of culturally relevant books to aid in critical literacy. Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Lugar School

“This brought up issues of colorism, including the very traditional racial discourse in Puerto Rico that you have to ‘mejorar la raza’ (improve the race) by becoming more white,” Medina said.

As this pre-service teacher began to situate herself as a Black Puerto Rican, she thought about her childhood and how she was raised. Medina said this participant used the book “Mejorar la Raza” to talk about herself, saying her parents told her that she needed to “mejorar la raza,” but she is realizing that “mejorar la raza” does not require her to claim a whiter identity.

This experience is just one example of how teachers in the program gain experience with difficult conversations about issues including race, gender and identity. Medina said this is another aspect that sets their program apart.

“Through one of the books, we did a workshop on what it means to not know the story and the history of the people that we belong to,” Medina said. “We are from South America, from Latin America, from the Caribbean context. So in examining these books and the stories, the participants began to say ‘I know nothing. I know very little about the history of all these brothers and sisters in South America and the Caribbean. Why was I not allowed to know this? And why was I asked to learn something else?’”

As the teachers in the project reflect on how colonialism has affected their own education, they can envision a different future for their students — one enriched by the diverse and vibrant Puerto Rican culture.


Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies

Linda Bollivar

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