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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Ask an Alum: Melissa Navarro Martell ’18

Dr. Melissa Navarro Martell graphic

Dr. Melissa Navarro Martell (’18) began her career as a dual-language educator, inspired by passions to help others and speak out against injustice. These passions were the result of her lived experience — born in Tijuana, Mexico, Navarro Martell was 11 when she moved to Chula Vista, where she said she was “constantly swimming against the current of education” as an English language learner. But as a dual-language teacher, she soon became frustrated with schools’ limited resources available to teach content in Spanish — especially critical science. A desire to find solutions led her to pursue her Ph.D. in the Joint Doctoral Program in Education between San Diego State University and Claremont Graduate University.

Today, she’s an assistant professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills where she is in charge of teaching science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) to undergraduates as well as teaching the science methods class in Spanish for bilingual, multiple subject credential students and teaching students in the Dual Language Masters’ program. Recently, Navarro Martell chatted with us about how she spreads the love of science to students who, like her, come from underserved backgrounds.

“SDSU has one of the top programs in the nation to prepare dual-language educators and I was fortunate to have one of my mentors provide me with the opportunity to teach the science methods course for elementary school teachers, in Spanish.”
—Dr. Melissa Navarro Martell

Can you describe the work you’re doing around bilingual and Spanish language STEAM education?

“First, I have to get my students comfortable with doing science and using their Spanish language. I need to help them visit their relationship with science and Spanish in their own K-12 education, so we can figure out how they feel about the subject and language as they begin taking my class. In the six years I have been teaching this similar course, most students realize that they have not had pleasant experiences with learning science, but most can name at least one great science teacher. That’s what we focus on the first day of class. What makes someone a great science teacher? I also ask them to share their experiences with their Spanish; are they comfortable speaking Spanish? Why? Why not? What is a fear they have as they enter my class? And I share my experiences with them in K-12 and in using Spanish scientific vocabulary. We’re all learning together after all!

“Next, I share the urgency of having prepared bilingual STEM teachers along with the bilingual teacher shortage in California and the nation. I present data that demonstrates the lack of diversity in STEM fields and the current K-12 teacher demographics from the California Department of Education. Once I set this stage, I share with students how much fun we will have in class. I create a safer space where students can learn together, mispronounce words together, build and create together, and engage in engineering and the arts! This all takes place the first day of class and the second week we dive in! We start learning about the Next Generation Science Standards, about what they do, how to read them and how to plan lessons. Once we get that taken care of, we start discussing science as a Western concept of the privileged; we have conversations about who can be a scientist and who gets to be represented in textbooks and who isn’t. This is where I introduce the lens of decolonizing STEM/Science education towards a liberatory/social justice science.”

How much does your personal experience inspire your work? 

“Being an adolescent who had to learn a second language and content at the same time was difficult. I remember using a dictionary to translate homework, like long calculus word problems. I wanted to be the kind of teacher I wish I had — one that celebrated or at least acknowledged my home language, one that didn’t try to strip me from my culture and one who was able to identify and work with my assets. My first opportunity to prove to a teacher that I knew something was in seventh grade with both my math and science teacher after I requested to be placed in the honors track. Those two teachers were able to see that I had something to offer and they built from what I brought to the classroom. Once I understood a math problem, I would draw diagrams and solve the problems with what my peers and teacher thought were shortcuts, but it’s what I had been taught in elementary school in Tijuana.

“As a teacher myself, with a background in teaching fourth and eighth grade math/science/Spanish, I realized how limited teacher preparation programs could be in preparing K-8 teachers to teach science or to teach in dual-language/bilingual settings. That is the reason I went back to school to obtain a Ph.D., with a focus on teaching in the areas of STEM education, teacher preparation and dual-language education. SDSU has one of the top programs in the nation to prepare dual-language educators and I was fortunate to have one of my mentors provide me with the opportunity to teach the science methods course for elementary school teachers, in Spanish. I now get to prepare future elementary teachers on how to access their students’ assets and how to make science and engineering engaging and meaningful.”

What’s the most gratifying part of your job? 

“As a teacher, the most gratifying part of my job is witnessing and learning about my students’ successes. Seeing my former fourth graders graduate from high school. Seeing my former eighth graders be happy with the lives they have. Now. it’s seeing my university students obtain teaching positions where they continue to learn and grow with their own students. In terms of research, the most gratifying part is contributing to the field of K-8, dual language, critically conscious teachers — a field that is still growing. I look forward to learning and growing more, and to do more work in decolonizing science education and creating equitable science learning spaces where all students can thrive.”

How did your experience in the Joint Doctoral Program at SDSU impact you? 

“I had a great experience in the Joint Doctoral Program in Education. I really enjoyed the fact that my program had a focus on social/racial justice. It helped me redefine who I was as an educator/researcher/advocate and I found my voice. I learned about the importance of speaking out against injustice and the power of community. I had many mentors, both peers and professors. I met so many great folks in the program that I consider family now; friends that challenged me to think beyond what I thought was possible. I am eternally grateful for the preparation I received from my program and it is the people who were around me while I was there who made that difference. Also, being able to take advanced methodology courses was great. For example, I can now pick up a journal article and look at the reported quantitative data and make my own conclusions and interpretations.”

Did you have any mentors in your program here who impacted you? 

“I had many mentors who inspired me. As an eighth grade teacher, I attended a conference where Dr. Cristina Alfaro delivered an amazing keynote speech. Months later, the school where I taught asked her to deliver professional development and I couldn’t let the opportunity go. I approached her and told her I was interested in applying to the Ph.D. program. After speaking for an unplanned 40 minutes, she invited me to her class and offered to get to know me better and wrote me a letter of recommendation. I was admitted to the program where she mentored me and provided me with infinite opportunities that I believe have been a great reason of who I am today as a scholar. I won the first of many awards with her support, I delivered my first state conference presentation along with her, I taught my first graduate class and I coordinated and conducted the research for Project CORE, a $1.5 million project, that prepared new and practicing teachers to deliver the Common Core State Standards.

“Former Ph.D. Director and quantitative statistics professor Dr. Rafaela Santa Cruz helped me realize I was good with numbers and supported and encouraged my continuation of quantitative statistics. Dr. Felisha Herrera Villarreal exposed me to National Science Foundation grants and took me to my first science-related conference. Dr. Alberto Ochoa would always check in to see how my progress was going. I learned a lot from Dr. Luke Wood just by being around him and seeing his dedication and commitment to his work on racial justice. Dr. Marva Cappello was — and continues to be — a great supporter to me and many others. “What was powerful about being at SDSU was that mentorship and support not only came from professors, but also from my peers, the office staff both in JDP office and in the Department of Dual Language and English Learner Education (DLE); Nerissa Ramos, the cleaning lady who would clean the JDP office close to 10:30 p.m. and would ask how I was doing with my writing! I am grateful to all the official and unofficial mentors that continue to support my journey.”

Do you have any advice for students currently in COE programs? 

“I believe the greatest piece of advice I can give is that you are not alone in the process. It is OK to ask for help or to accept offered help. I think this is a lesson that took me a while to understand because I felt bad taking people’s time. Now that I have completed my programs, I get to give back and help others. The other piece of advice is that you cannot help others if you don’t help yourself. Find your community or create one, think about your why, give it all you’ve got and take care of yourself.”