Feature Stories

Outstanding Community-Engaged Teaching Award Recipient Dr. Maria Brea-Spahn Finds Inspiration Working with Students and Families Developing Literacy in Bilingual Learners

By Bonnie Silvestri, Director of Strategic Communications

A young mom rode her bicycle with her two children, one on the front and one in the back, for an hour each way in a torrential downpour to attend one of Dr. Maria Brea-Spahn's highly successful family literacy nights developed as part of her service-learning courses. Little wonder that Brea-Spahn was one of two USF faculty to receive the 2015 Outstanding Engaged Teaching Award for her literacy outreach work in the community.

Dr. Maria Brea-Spahn, joined by her family, received the Outstanding Community-Engaged Teaching Award

Dr. Maria Brea-Spahn, joined by her family, received the Outstanding Community-Engaged Teaching Award

The USF Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships (OCEP) developed the Provost's Outstanding Community Engaged Teaching Award in 2014 and evaluates applicants whose work exemplifies the value and significance of community engaged teaching, which the office supports with grants, workshops, and educational programming.

Brea-Spahn has developed the first service-learning course in her department, Communications Sciences and Disorders (CSD), with the help of two OCEP service-learning mini grants. Forty pre-service speech-language pathology master's students enrolled in two sections of her Bilingual Assessment and Intervention class, taught in the spring and summer semesters in 2015. In each class, the literacy nights required 20 student service hours. "I like going on these service-learning opportunities with the students, so I can see and feel the impact," said Brea-Spahn.

She moved to Tampa from Santo Domingo at the age of 17, barely able to speak essential phrases in English and enrolled in English as a Second Language courses as a high school senior in a local public school. She can therefore relate to the struggles of parents who move to the United States often seeking more opportunities for their children.

Literacy Night

A sample of literacy night books given to families purchased with USF Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships mini-grant funding.

Brea-Spahn's CSD courses develop the students' required bilingual/biliterate intervention skills and, as Brea-Spahn stated, "serve as a journey through cultural self-awareness for these pre-service practitioners, some of whom had never previously worked with families for whom English was their second language." She further stated, "beyond providing a life-changing educational enrichment opportunity for her students, these programs also filled an important need to nurture literacy development in Spanish-speaking families."

Brea-Spahn used the OCEP funding to purchase bilingual and culturally-appropriate children's books, therapy resources for students, and gift cards for participating families. Throughout the semester, she guided her students in developing lesson plans that focused on the needs identified by her community partners, Learn Tampa Bay and the Lena Bolesta Center. The class focused primarily on helping parents develop language skills to promote literacy and on nurturing in families a "joy for reading" by introducing evidence-based instructional strategies so that parents could continue to communicate in the language in which they feel most comfortable.

Evidence shows that the development of oral language skills in the home promotes academic success. However, Brea-Spahn has found that many schools have not yet adjusted their policies to meet the needs of Latino families.

Usf comm students

USF Communication Sciences and Disorders students planning for literacy nights.

The family literacy nights were so successful that attendance grew each week, as more families learned about the outreach programs. In total, over fifty families participated in the literacy nights, and this is only the beginning. Word has also spread on campus and many students who were not enrolled in the classes signed on to participate as interpreters, schedulers, organizers, and to develop art activities tied to the lesson plans.

Given that the first two service-learning courses sparked so much interest, Brea-Spahn and her CSD colleague Dr. Kyna Betancourt founded the Bilingual Language and Literacy Investigative and Networking Group, Incorporated, (BLLING, Inc), a soon-to-be designated not-for-profit organization through which students and faculty can work to further research in bilingualism, conduct fund-raising activities to support biliteracy instruction in the community, and provide educational options to improve service delivery for emerging bilinguals. BLLING, Inc members help support the literacy nights by participating as interpreters or as classroom facilitators.

Brea-Spahn depends upon her relationships with community partner organizations, because internal support for programming is crucial to encourage parents to make the effort to participate even when doing so involves spending perhaps their most precious resource – time.

At the Lena Bolesta Center, the children had recently received either hearing aids or cochlear implantation, and, as a result, the literacy nights were among their first exposure to the sounds of speech and language. Brea-Spahn is well aware of the challenges in serving families who are already stretched thin, often caring for more than one child and/or frequently holding down more than one job. As Brea-Spahn said: "Dealing with a disability teaches you to be an advocate for your child." If parents band together to get the support they need, they can potentially be more effective in advocating as a group.

She continued, "There is a great deal of pressure on families to learn English or face exclusion both socially and financially. What we aim to support is that 'yes,' English is essential to survive in the United States, but that learning it, and using it should not result in abandonment or neglect of their linguistic and cultural roots. It involves developing a different cultural and linguistic identity integrating beliefs and skills, and using what is known as a building block for what lies unknown."

One evening, Brea-Spahn confirmed that indeed her efforts were making a difference when a teary-eyed mother came up to her and said, "We use the skills we learned at home. Prior to being here, I did not think I could help my child because he spoke a language that was different than the only language I know. For the first time, I realized that I was useful" in helping him learn.

Brea-Spahn said, "That night, there was not a dry eye in the room." She continued, "Students recalled that moment in their final course self-assessments, in which they identified with that mother at a human level. In fact, that is a theme throughout the project itself: the students learn that they are not as different from these families they are serving and that sense of belonging comes with great responsibility."

"It's an incredible experience from a teaching perspective to use service-learning pedagogy. You have to learn to relinquish control and trust your students," said Brea-Spahn. She tells students, "You are going to learn as much as you want to learn, but you must dig deep and ask yourself, 'Why do you feel a certain way during the night? Why did you opt for a specific approach? Why did you learn what you learned? Don't be afraid of the why?'"

USF Com students

USF Communications Sciences and Disorders students participating in a healthy speech and hearing day

"We focus so much on cognitive retention that we forget that we are supposed to enjoy learning," said Brea-Spahn. "I don't care about the students memorizing the information, I care about observing how they creatively identify ways for applying their knowledge." She adds that she has learned to "sit back in awe as her students display exponential growth in self-awareness and self-confidence." She also believes that "The deepest lesson one can aspire to instill using the service-learning pedagogy is advocacy-action." She wants her students to leave her classroom with a desire to do more on behalf of the families in our community. She is serving as the adviser for one of her students, who is planning to conduct a study of the long-term impact of the family literacy nights on the community, and she hopes further study of this program will prompt other faculty to develop projects like this in their own communities.

Brea-Spahn is an exemplary community engaged teacher and scholar. In addition to her work as an Instructor, she has a photography business called Photography through Your Eyes and is in the process of collecting data for an artistic research project called Strength is Beauty, to document how women of all ages and cultural heritages define strength and beauty, culminating in a gallery show and a book of photographs and narratives to be published late in 2016.

"If I do my service-learning, if I am allowed to engage with the community through my teaching, and if I can carve out time to do my photography, that makes me happy," confided Brea-Spahn wistfully.

CSD Chair Dr. Jennifer Lister stated: "Dr. Maria Brea-Spahn's innovative implementation of service learning in the master's program in speech-language pathology has effectively addressed two of our primary missions at once – providing clinical services to underserved populations and providing excellent graduate education. The resulting improvement in the critical thinking of our graduate students has been remarkable."