A Whole New World View: Summer spent speaking and presenting on global topics gives COE faculty member new perspective

International travel and research is nothing new to Dina Castro, the Velma E. Schmidt Endowed Chair on Early Childhood Education at UNT. A native of Peru, Castro has made cultural and linguistic diversity in early education the focus of her work. But this summer, a conference with scholars and policymakers from the U.S. and the European Union, as well as several collaborative visits to her homeland, helped her gain a new global perspective on the characteristics and needs of young children from culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

Now, back at UNT, she's weaving what she learned into her research and teaching, and looking into opportunities for students to travel with her back to Peru.

From the Amazon to the European Union

Dr. Dina Castro at podium

Dina Castro speaks at the International Congress on Early Childhood Education in Lima, Peru

In June, Castro was invited by colleagues at the Pontifícia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP) to participate in a professional development opportunity for teachers from the Awajun and Wampis indigenous communities in the Amazon region of Peru. The event, organized by a Peruvian congressman, drew more than 270 teachers as well as experts from the Peruvian government and UNICEF. After traveling by military plane and by boat on the Marañon River, she arrived to find teachers who were eager to expand their knowledge.

"I was making connections, talking about my area of interest, and finding out how we could collaborate and what issues they were facing in multilingualism and interculturalism," she said.

Castro, whose research focus is quality and equity in the early care and education of bilingual and culturally diverse children, went from that meeting in the Amazon to the Transatlantic Forum on Inclusive Early Years in Washington, D.C., where she was a featured speaker. The forum focused on meeting the needs of multilingual children living in diverse communities and providing these children equal opportunities from the earliest stages of learning.

"To go from the Amazon to sitting with education professionals and policymakers from the European Union – that made me think about how global this phenomenon is," Castro said. "It was not only inspirational, but the information I received got me thinking about expanding the way I was conceptualizing my work, and now I'm seeing it more from this global perspective."

Castro said her European counterparts at the forum were facing the challenges posed by migrants from the Middle East and Africa. Drawing on her experience researching similar immigration challenges in the United States, Castro presented on the importance of strength-based interventions in early childhood education.

"It's about moving away from a deficit view, in which you see children coming from multilingual or immigrant status as 'lacking,' focusing only on what they do not have," she said. "For example, a large family may mean a child is living in a crowded household, and that is seen as a bad thing. But you also can look at it as a positive thing – these children are exposed to a lot of language, people talking to them, and social support."

Back to Peru

From Washington, D.C., in July, Castro went back to Peru in August, to participate in various events as part of the efforts to establish a collaborative agreement between the PUCP and UNT.  First she presented about her findings on intercultural and bilingual perspectives in early childhood education at the II International Congress on Early Childhood Education organized by the PUCP in Lima.

"At that congress I also shared what I had learned during my first trip to Peru and my experience meeting educators from the EU. My thinking was changing," she said.

Castro said her experiences have helped shape her viewpoints on teaching diversity in early childhood learning environments.

"Having books in different languages in the classroom is great, but we need to go deeper. We need to look at what happens in the classroom – we need to go on a larger scale with our conversation about diversity as a society. As educators in the classroom, we tell children we're all friends here, we respect each other, we celebrate diversity. But then children go back home to see racial profiling and violence. Our society is sending the wrong messages to children."

Castro said discussing diversity with children is not always easy, but it is critical. Helping teachers and parents reflect on their own diversity and backgrounds in relation to today's children may make those conversations easier.

"Diversity is a fact of life, not just a moment," she said.

Following that congress, Castro spoke at two additional meetings organized by the PUCP in Lima. At the Symposium on Bilingualism and Bilingual Education in Latin America, she chaired a panel on early education for indigenous and immigrant children and was joined by fellow UNT College of Education faculty member Rossana Boyd.

Going Up

As her second trip to Peru drew to a close, Castro met with officials from Universidad Nacional Santiago Antunez de Mayolo (UNASAM), a public university in Huaraz, Peru, to discuss establishing an academic collaboration with UNT. The group traveled to a remote community in the Andes at an altitude of more than 10,000 feet (for reference, Denton's altitude is 642 feet) to interact with children in an indigenous Quechua-speaking school.

"Some of the children traveled a very long way to get there. The teacher walked one hour each way every day to get to the school," she said. "The teacher didn't have enough materials beyond a few books. That's something that we could maybe help with."

Castro thinks a partnership with UNASAM could lead to a study abroad opportunity for UNT students. She hopes to bring a group to the village 

"We need to approach them with the perspective of, 'What are the good things happening here?'," she said. "We have a tendency to look at what they're lacking, which comes from our own framework. But maybe that's not what these children need. I saw happy children – running around, breathing pure air and feeling safe with people who love them."

Next Steps

Castro said her experiences this summer helped her gain new viewpoints, particularly on how government policymakers and community members affect children's development. Castro said she wants to be a voice for culturally diverse children, especially as standardization becomes the norm worldwide.

"Contrasting my experience in Washington, D.C., with the ones I had in Peru with indigenous teachers and policymakers really made me see the whole issue of diversity in early education on a more global scale," she said. "Decisions governments make will put these children in a track for life – either to succeed or fail."

In addition to working toward bringing student researchers to Peru, in the coming year Castro plans to present at the National Association for Bilingual Education conference in March and put together an international panel at a world summit on early childhood education.

"I've done a lot of work in the U.S. and understand where we stand here. I want to continue trying to contribute to communities here addressing issues we have related to diverse populations, but I would like to also contribute to the global discussion on these issues," she said. "I want to continue generating knowledge that will inform policymaking so we can do the right thing for young children based on what we know about their characteristics and needs, away from the development of one size fits all educational interventions."