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Sharing Knowledge in Bilingual and Transdisciplinary Education

“Once in a while you’ll see a car pass by,” says Dr. Emiliano Gonzalez. He’s on his remote ranch in Encino, Texas, with his two horses, six dogs, and “a lot of chickens.” It’s where he has spent the past year sheltering from the COVID-19 pandemic. And now, as a newly-hired core faculty member in the Doctor of Education in Educational and Professional Practice program at Antioch Online, it’s where he leads his classes, reaching students from around the country.

In some sense, the ranch is perfectly suited to Gonzalez’s educational practice. As a teacher, he has long been a proponent of online education, even setting up the first fully online master’s-level courses at the University of St. Thomas over 10 years ago when online wasn’t popular. Gonzalez believes online classes are an important option for students with varying needs, including family responsibilities, financial precarity, and the need to keep working in their jobs.

There’s another advantage of online instruction, though: it allows students and their teachers to engage in the educational project without leaving their community and cultural contexts. That’s certainly true for Gonzalez. “I like [the ranch] because it gives me time to think, write, reflect, and do a lot of academic work,” he says. “Kind of in the middle of nowhere. But I grew up in this area.”

An Education From His Community

Gonzalez grew up a twenty-minute drive north of Encino, in Falfurrias, Texas. The youngest of twelve children, he was expected to work to help support his family. “As you’re growing up, you do have to work out in the fields,” says Gonzalez, “picking watermelons, cucumbers, tomatoes to name a few. And in this heat as a young kid you get used to it.”

Eventually, though, he realized that he had different career aspirations than to work as an agricultural picker. By the time he got to high school, he says, “I decided I’m not gonna do this for the rest of my life. I need to go to school.”

Now as a teacher himself, immigrant students are of particular interest to Gonzalez. “I lived close to the border,” says Gonzalez. “I was 45 minutes away. I worked with students like that all my life. It’s something I like. And I’m an offshoot of that culture as well.”

Today he sees how growing up in Falfurrias gave him an instinct for understanding and empathy. “Hispanic culture is like, you don’t have a mom and dad, you have lots of moms and dads,” says Gonzalez, “and a lot of uncles and aunts, not really related.” He’s carried this background and cultural grounding with him ever since. As he says, “The community where I grew up helped me become who I was, who I wanted to be.”

Bridging Gaps to Meet the Needs of Students

Gonzalez is passionate about shaping curriculum to the needs of students, particularly those who are under-served. After graduating college, his first teaching job was at a middle school in Donna, Texas, a suburb of McAllen just a few miles from the Rio Grande River, which is also the border with Mexico. Many of the students at the school were immigrants or the children of immigrants, and often had faced the challenges of switching between languages, missing years of education, and dealing with the effects of poverty. But these challenges were precisely what Gonzalez wanted to engage with. “I told the principal I wanted what they would call the bad kids,” he explains. “He kind of just looked at me like I had horns on my head.” But after some nervous disbelief, the principal gave him a class of twenty-two students.

Gonzalez’s teaching was an almost immediate success. As he explains, “After about three or four weeks they were doing everything I would ask of them.” How did this work? “When it came to math, I made it contextualized.” He would ask them, “How do you translate this from dollars to pesos?” He knew that many of the students went to the border often, crossing back and forth—so he asked them to apply the math they were studying to their real lives.

One year, he had to teach concepts for a standardized state test. For Language Arts, for every day and every lesson, there was a script provided by the state. Instead, Gonzalez used articles about local events that the students could relate to, that also covered the same concepts.

Says Gonzalez, “I infuse a lot of trying to meet the students’ needs where they’re at and trying to understand their cultural being.

For years Gonzalez was a Bilingual and English as a Second Language public school teacher. It was the type of work he liked to do, and it concretized in him an empathetic philosophy of education. “Whenever I teach,” he says, “I want the students to be able to connect somehow so they can see how it’s relevant to the real world for them.” He always asks himself a few key questions: “Who are these students? What don’t they know? How can I bridge that gap?”

Maintaining Ambiguity and the Possibility for Change

After years of teaching in public school classrooms, he went back to school at the University of Texas, where he earned a Masters in Education. Then he went on to Indiana University, where he studied towards a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction. While studying for his PhD, Gonzalez noticed certain absences of inclusion. “One of the things I never saw was ethnic studies or people like me in curriculum,” says Gonzalez. “That’s when I said, ‘This is an area I’d like to explore.’”

He dove deeply into his studies and worked to understand not just how teachers are best trained by also why teachers are trained certain ways. It was during these studies that Gonzalez discovered the value of ambiguity in education—the importance of helping students keep an open mind, not becoming set in their understanding of things.

Later, as a professor, Gonzalez applied this idea to his students. “I taught a lot of social justice and multicultural courses,” says Gonzalez. “People would get very angry in these courses. I had a lot of homophobia, when it came to the multicultural class.” But he worked hard to maintain a space that was open for students to change their minds without being judged. As he explains, “sometimes people shared things that I was not ready for. But it was an open space for them and we valued them.”

Student engagement depended on respect and mutual recognition, so any rigid or limiting habits of thought could be challenged. These habits included biases inherited from the educational system itself. As Gonzalez always told them, “Ambiguity is a healthy thing.” Students would be surprised to be encouraged to think this way, in part because our educational system so often does teach to tests, where the one right answer is “either A, B, C, or D,” he says. But “in life that’s not the way it is.” Gonzalez came to believe in the power of teaching not for the test but for and from real life.

Bringing Interdisciplinary Education to Future Teachers

Now, Gonzalez is working to help establish the Doctor of Education in Educational and Professional Practice program at Antioch Online. This is an exciting task, as he will be able to reach whole new groups of experienced educators, helping them grow in their skills and reflect on their practice. In many ways, Antioch is a natural fit for Gonzalez, as he shares the university’s commitment to social justice and action. The doctoral program is intended to help its graduates to create more just and inclusive schools, organizations, and communities.

Furthermore, Gonzalez is a natural fit with the program’s transdisciplinary curriculum. As an academic, he enjoys interdisciplinary collaboration. “I try to work across disciplines but also with different colleagues at different universities,” says Gonzalez, “I think the knowledge we create from one discipline or the other, just bringing it together, just adds to the literature that’s out there.”

Collaboration, like teaching, is empathetic work that enriches the edifice of knowledge. Gonzalez has worked on articles with mental health counselors, bi-literacy experts and others, on subjects ranging from reading strategies for English readers, to cultural forms of meaning-making. He’s even worked on comparisons between premodernism, modernism, postmodernism, and transmodernism.

“Transmodernism is just way out there for some people,” says Gonzalez. “It’s just accepting peoples’ views and how they are and why they think. It ties into meaning-making. Their meaning-making systems may be different but that doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just means it’s different.”

At Antioch, Gonzalez will be leading seminars, helping to organize the EdD’s four-day in-person residencies, and helping advise students’ dissertation projects. He is confident that he will be able to bring his skills as a longtime public educator, a transdisciplinary thinker, and a devoted teacher to help foster growth and reflection in the EdD students’ practices.

Teaching the World From Amidst the Mesquite Trees

And he’ll do all of this (except the in-person residencies) from his ranch in Encino. The property is unofficially named “87 Ranch” after the year he graduated from college.

When he’s not teaching online, you’re likely to find Gonzalez on horseback. “One of what I call my therapeutic sessions is I like to go horseback riding,” says Gonzalez, “So Fridays or Saturdays I just saddle up my horse and go for a long ride. It gives me time to think. There’s nothing out there. Just plains. Mesquite trees. Cows everywhere.”

Where the ranch offers an experience of solitude and distance, Encino is a community of meaning-making familiar to Gonzalez. “Everybody is Hispanic here,” says Gonzalez. “Everybody knows everybody.”

It’s also an ideal stage for his work, where, between his physical neighbors and his online friends, working alongside students and colleagues, he helps other teachers to reach out towards the unfamiliar and imagine a way to lessen the distance.