Although she has taught two basic tenets of education for nearly 40 years, Sally Nathenson-Mejia, PhD, of CU Denver’s Responsive Literacy Education Program considers her life’s work anything but basic. In her mind, reading and writing open the door to the world for children, and no better tool exists to help crack that door open than a good book.
Nathenson-Mejia’s passion for her work has shone through so much during her 30-plus years at the University of Colorado Denver that she was chosen for the 2018 Lynn K. Rhodes Endowed Faculty Award. With recipients selected by former Dean Rhodes and current Dean Rebecca Kantor, the annual endowment recognizes School of Education & Human Development (SEHD) faculty members who contribute significantly to the school and community.
Hired by Rhodes in 1987, Nathenson-Mejia said she admired the former dean’s writings in graduate school and values her years of mentorship. “So, yes, the award is a big deal. Lynn brought me here and taught me how to teach adults. It means a lot.”
CU Denver’s Responsive Literacy Education Program offers popular on-campus and online master’s degree options for individuals who wish to advance their knowledge and training to work with diverse student populations as they develop reading, writing and oral language skills.
Growing young imaginations
A lifelong lover of books, Nathenson-Mejia’s belief in them as a teaching tool was cemented in graduate school, where she learned their effect on improving language and cognitive skills, among other things.
“I know how powerful it is to be able to sit with a child and read a good book,” said Nathenson-Mejia, noting the captivating force of the enchanting art and animated words of quality children’s literature.
“When we read to kids, we’re also helping them to learn to use their imaginations, to visualize things in their heads, to think about what might come next or what maybe came before,” said Nathenson-Mejia, an associate professor of language, literacy and culturally responsive teaching. “There’s just so much good thinking that goes on when you are engaged with a child and a book.”
Teaching her linguistic passion
Nathenson-Mejia focused her career on dual-language teaching after falling in love with the emphasis during clinical training in Puebla, Mexico.
“I was just fascinated,” she said of watching children mastering two languages congruently at the school. “That really made it very clear to me that this is what I wanted to do.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree, she returned and worked for four years at the Puebla school, marrying fellow teacher and now CU Denver alumnus Enrique Mejia (MA ’08), who teaches Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages. The couple raised two daughters in a bilingual environment.
“When you grow up with one language, you learn one set of words and one way of looking at the world. But when you are learning two languages, you usually are also learning two cultures, so there are two lenses that you are looking through. And kids are amazing at how they are able to do that,” Nathenson-Mejia said.
Embracing diversity in the classroom
Embracing diversity became an important cornerstone for Nathenson-Mejia, who encourages teachers to take advantage of the shared learning potential that varied languages and cultures present.
One of her research projects was aimed at bridging cultural barriers that can sabotage teacher-student relationships in diverse classrooms. She and colleagues armed preservice students with culturally diverse versions of her favorite tool ̶ books.
After teaching the students techniques for using the books in the classroom, the teachers sent them out in the field. “It helped them understand their students more and feel like they could create relationships,” Nathenson-Mejia said. “They were astounded at how much the children responded.”
Making a difference in community
Nathenson-Mejia recently translated a children’s book written by SEHD colleague Maria Uribe, senior instructor of literacy and urban community teacher education, after Uribe witnessed a profound example of how cultural differences can affect a classroom.
A normally happy little girl showed up to the kindergarten class Uribe had been working with quiet and distraught. Her parents, Uribe learned, had just been deported, leaving the child to live with relatives. Uribe quickly wrote “Todos Vamos Estar Bien” or “We’re Going to be Alright” to depict the girl’s experience.
“Teachers can use the book to help the kids talk about what’s going on in their lives,” Nathenson-Mejia said. “It’s not changing the situation, but it’s giving kids a way to see their own lives reflected and to see that they are not alone.”
Proud of her work with SEHD, Nathenson-Mejia said encouraging culturally responsive literacy enriches everyone. “We all care about our kids. We are all human and alike in so many ways, but we are also all different in so many wonderful ways.”