An Interview with Sonia Nieto


The following interview comes to us from a research project by Isaac Graves that looks at community, education, and the relationship between community and education through the eyes of educators and community stakeholders. The words ‘community’ and ‘education’ are often invoked with the assumption of a shared definition, but even educators within the same community can have different definitions and views on what these words mean. This research projects seeks to understand the complexity of these words and the relationship between them by identifying both commonly held and divergent views on community and education through in-depth interviews. Most interviews follow an identical pattern of eleven questions, though some questions are occasionally omitted, modified, or added. The following interview is shared with you by both Sonia Nieto and Isaac Graves. The content is copyrighted and republication is not allowed without written permission. To inquire about rights and permissions associated with this interview, as well as citation information, please contact Isaac Graves. To find out more about Sonia Nieto and her work, click here.

Sonia Nieto

Sonia NietoIsaac Graves:  What does community mean to you?

Sonia Nieto: It depends on the context.  I live in a particular community so my community are my neighbors and my friends and other people who live in this town, for example.  I am a member of the education community and that is a professional group of associates.  I am Puerto Rican so I’m also a member of the Puerto Rican community in the United States which is pretty far flung at this point. I am a knitter so I am a member of a knitting community.  It depends on the context so it can be really small or really big.

IG: What do you find most meaningful about community?

SN: I guess what I find most meaningful about my communities, the communities in which I interact, is the engagement with them, is learning from the communities. I think of every community as a learning community.  I belong to a neighborhood reading group; that’s another community. You know, I learn in every community so maybe I always see things as an educator. I see that their biggest impact on me is what I can learn from them and what I can understand that I haven’t understood before.

IG:  What’s missing in community?

SN: You know, a long time ago I learned that community doesn’t mean consensus but on the contrary what it means is struggling through things to learn together, to argue about things, maybe not be in complete agreement but to have some basic respect for one another in spite of those differences.  So, what I am missing from my general U.S. community is now a sense of respect.  You know I don’t expect consensus because there are so many divergent views, but a civil discourse would be nice.  From my education community, I miss a sense of commitment, I guess, or of action on behalf of those who need help the most. Rather than Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind and all these so-called accountability, so called higher standards, what I would like is a real commitment to students who need us the most and equitable ways of getting there,  ways of getting there that nurture students and that honor the commitment of teachers while recognizing that some teachers will not step up. I don’t idealize teachers; I’m just saying that teachers are so disrespected nowadays that it’s very challenging to be a teacher.  I’m a teacher, my husband’s a teacher, our daughter’s a teacher, so I have a great respect for the community of teachers.  So that’s what I’m missing from my educational community.

IG: What is an ideal community to you?

SN: An ideal community would be a group of people or organizations (but especially people – let’s keep it at the people level) that engage in dialog and are respectful of one another.  That’s in general for every community. I guess in terms of my ideal community for education, I’ve already given some answers to that

IG: What does a democratic education mean to you?

SN: Democratic education means practicing what we preach.  It means putting into effect all of those noble ideals of equality and fair play.  Democratic education in terms of what educators can do is to really look seriously at the policies and practices we have in place and ask how those further – or not – a democratic vision.  So do high stakes tests, for example, further the ideals of democracy?  The way that they are being implemented now, I don’t think so.  What about the curriculum?  Does the curriculum promote the ideals of a democracy?  I don’t think so because curriculum many times is so one sided and has left so much out.  What about pedagogy? I don’t think pedagogy is very democratic because it generally focuses on the way only some people learn and not on how other people learn. I think it’s important as educators to look at those policies and practices.  Now in terms of students, what I think it means is having more of a voice in what happens in classrooms and schools and being able to practice it and not just read about it. To be able to practice democracy.  And not only through student councils which a lot of times are just meaningless because they’re rubber stamps for the school administration, but taking action and being able to learn the tools of democracy  like writing a letter or doing a petition, or starting a boycott.  These are the tools of democracy that are sometimes seen as dangerous and that we shouldn’t teach these to kids, and yet how are they going to learn about democracy if not through these tools that we teach them in school?

IG:  How does education play out in your life? 

SN: Well you know, I’m retired (supposedly).  I am retired from the University of Massachusetts but not from life as I tell everybody. So when I called you I was just writing a forward for a book and I’ve been writing and traveling and so on. So education in my life personally plays out in the kinds of activities I’m engaged in, whether writing or giving talks or serving on committees, and commissions and on advisory boards, and so on, where I hope I can bring my experience to bear.  And it can be a part of the conversation in all of those venues. Also I think of everything as education so as I said before, I’m learning every day so education is always a big part of my life and I’d like to keep it like that..I expect to be fully engaged professionally for a long time, but even if I’m not at some point, I still expect to be a learner.  So that’s how it plays out in my life.

IG: What do you find most meaningful about education?

SN: I guess what I find most meaningful is that it’s always exciting, you know? Education is always exciting or can be always exciting. Now if you are talking about the institution of education, what I find most meaningful are the values that we purport to have about education  Doesn’t mean that we live them out, but I think those values of equality and fair play and of education being the way out of poverty and helplessness and hopelessness are important ones to have. I find that really meaningful and something to strive for, although we certainly haven’t achieved it.

IG:  What is missing in education?

SN: I think what’s missing is some clear-headedness. If we’re talking about public education, I think somehow we have lost sight of the students who we’re trying to serve.  So who’s profiting – I don’t mean to just harp on high stakes testing but I think that’s an example.  I mean, who’s profiting from the high stakes tests? Is it the kids?  The dropout rates of the most vulnerable kids are actually higher and these are the kids these tests were supposed to be helping, but who’s benefiting?  Big companies, testing companies are benefiting. And there’s a whole cottage industry – I won’t even say just cottage industry – there’s a whole huge industry that has developed because of these tests and they’re making billions but what are students getting out of them what are teachers getting out of them?  So I would like some more clear-headedness about going back to what the purpose of education is, and some respect for teachers and some real understanding of students and what they need: for example, having really high expectations of all students, but that doesn’t mean having standards that lead to standardization.  It doesn’t mean narrowing the curriculum. I was just reading something about the fact that science in the PISA test, U.S. students came out very low in science and they say that part of that is because so much focus has been on math and literacy, because of these high-stakes tests in some schools they don’t have science anymore.  I know that the science standards are being put into place and the tests are being given or starting to be given.  But will that take care of the problem?  I don’t think so. In other societies they don’t have these kinds of tests and the students have done quite well.  What can we learn from other societies? I think these are important questions to ask.

IG: What is an ideal education to you?

SN: An ideal education would be an education where we actually tried to reach the vision and the ideal that we have that we have talked about for a long time about education being the great equalizer (it isn’t, but it should be), about education being fair for everybody; about everybody having an equal chance; about each child getting what he or she needs rather than a one-size fits-all kind of approach.  It would mean exceptionally high standards, especially for those students who’ve been marginalized and for whom we haven’t had very high standards or high expectations. That’s what I would like to see in public education.

IG: What do you think people should know about the relationship between community and education?

SN:  I think it’s important for educators to understand that communities have a great deal to bring to the education table, and often that’s not what happens.  What happens is that educators has come in and imposed what they think everybody should learn and some of that is very valuable.  Of course we all need to have some common culture and I understand that, but every community also has a lot of richness and a lot of assets that they can bring to their education, so building on those I think is really important.  Whether that’s kids who come to school speaking a language other than English and rather than seeing them as having a deficit in English, to see them as having assets in another language and to think how we can use it to promote their education.  I would say the same about social class. Rather than seeing poverty as always a deficit (although of course it has tremendously negative consequences for people and I have to start out as saying that), but also people who live poverty also have strengths we can build on and not just seeing them as having bad habits and bad morals and so on and so forth.  But what do families living in poverty bring to education?  Everybody has something.  I think we need to start with that view rather than always “fixing” kids or “fixing” people who don’t happen to come from the mainstream.


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