Spotlight on Alumna Tatyana Kleyn ☆

Tatyana received her Ed.D. in Bilingual/Bicultural Education.  She earned her BA and MA at Ohio State University and was a primary school teacher in Honduras and in Atlanta, Georgia. She is an Assistant Professor at The City College of New York, an associate at RISLUS (Research Institute for the Study of Language in Urban Society) and has co-guest edited the journal, The New Educator.  Kleyn is the author of a recent book for teens, “Immigration:  The Ultimate Teen Guide (It Happened To Me)”.

How did your family wind their way from the former Soviet Union to Columbus, Ohio?

I was born in what is now Latvia but was then the Soviet Union and came to the U.S. at the age of five and a half. We came to Columbus, Ohio as political refugees because of the anti-Semitism that my family was facing.  In Columbus, Ohio there was actually a huge Russian Jewish community.

Tell us about your experience in the schools—both as a student and as a teacher yourself.

I was never a good student so I didn’t have high aspirations for going to college.  I went to community college in Poughkeepsie, New York and then I went to Ohio State University because my dad lived in Columbus and I got in-state tuition.  I did my Bachelor’s and Master’s there, as Ohio State participated in a program where you had to have your Master’s to get certified as a teacher.  It was a part of an initiative to create more qualified teachers, and I think it was a good idea.

My first teaching job was in a private school in Honduras and I felt so prepared because I had done a lot of student teaching and fieldwork.  It was a bilingual school, but I hadn’t studied bilingual education yet.  I wondered why it was so easy there:  the kids were from pre-K to 12, becoming bilingual–why aren’t we doing this in the U.S.?

I came back to the U.S. and taught elementary school in Atlanta for a couple of years.  I was getting frustrated with being just a “doer” and not a thinker.  I felt like a robot, and like I was never able to think through what I was doing.  It was just, do, do, do and follow directions, and I felt like my creativity and professionalism was being taken away from me.  I was looking for an outlet to think through some of these issues that as a teacher I just didn’t have the time.

Somehow, I got into Teachers College, which was wonderful because I had no background in bilingual education.  I couldn’t have named even one theorist in bilingual ed!   Something inside of me just knew it was the right thing to do.

I’m thinking there was something in your personal experience that both directed you to Bilingual Education and perhaps helped you get into TC…

Absolutely.  When I came to the United States I very quickly started speaking English right away.  I wouldn’t even speak Russian.  I went from being Tatyana to calling myself “Tanya” because it sounded more American.  And I don’t have a “foreign” accent.  So I was able to fit in to this very specific mold of what it means to be “American.”  It wasn’t until after college that I thought, “oh wait, this is interesting…” and I started to study the Russian language and realized that I should have known this all along.  My acceptance to TC probably had to do with my own background and my wondering about why we push these differences out of people, when we can instead enrich and develop them.  That’s what we want in this country and we are doing just the opposite.

Also, I traveled every year with my high school gymnastics team. One year we went to Italy, and we were the first high school team to compete in China.  I think that traveling and that experience, plus my time teaching in Honduras and my own personal experience is what drove me to bilingual education.

You worked on some meaningful projects with TC faculty.  Can you please share some highlights?

Maria Torres-Guzman was my advisor and mentor.  She did a read-aloud study that I worked on in a dual-language bilingual setting.  I also worked with Maria in schools:  We worked on a Russian dual-language program in Brooklyn, and some Spanish programs in the Bronx and Manhattan.  I was able to co-author a paper with Maria, as well.  It was great for me to see how that process goes. I am still very connected with my TC program today.  We stay in close contact and depend on each other for resources, support and editing.  Even now I’m working with Maria:  We are co-authoring a chapter for a book about the benefits of bilingual education.  Even though I graduated, we continue to work together in a lot of different ways.  I still call her my professor!

And you yourself are a professor now.

I’ve been at City College for six years and am coming up for tenure this year.  I work in the Bilingual Education and TESOL program, where we prepare bilingual, TESOL and bilingual special education teachers.  We have an undergraduate and graduate program.  I teach classes in multicultural education, which is the area I did my dissertation in.  I teach classes in theories and practices of bilingual education, and I also supervise and do a seminar for the bilingual student teachers, which is really fun because it is connected to the schools.

Your research examines the issues surrounding youth and immigration.  Can you talk about that, please?

In the past two years I’ve been pushed in the direction of immigration, which wasn’t an agenda I had, but it just kept evolving.  I’ve looked at undocumented students and also more broadly youth issues around immigration.  I look at student experiences and also their perspectives, such as how they feel about things like the border and security.  The undocumented piece has become the anchor for me because right now it is just so urgent.

We have students at City College who are undocumented.  They’re in our programs and they’re amazing students.  They are bilingual, bicultural, they are getting their credentials and it breaks my heart that when they graduate they have to go back to doing the same thing they were doing before they arrived at City College:  being a nanny, working in construction, working in a restaurant.  Under the table, off-the-books jobs where they can’t use their skills.  And we need them!  New York City is going to be opening 125 bilingual programs in the next three years.  Here we have these amazing people who came here as children, and this is home.  And we can’t see that they are a resource for us to use for the nation?  That’s what I’ve been looking at and advocating for.

Also as an immigrant myself, I question why I was able to come here and have all these advantages, while some of my students suffer more than my family and I did, yet they can’t have the privileges I have.  I see how wrong that is.  I’ve been doing a lot of panels and I bring undocumented students with me to speak.  It’s amazing to see how people are impacted by their words.  They speak in such powerful and compelling ways.  You can’t find one argument why they shouldn’t be granted citizenship.

I understand a recent study you conducted had surprising results.

I compared U.S.-born students with immigrant students and their views on immigration.  For example, the U.S.-born students I spoke to felt that we should have quotas differently than the immigrant students do.  What I found was so interesting is that the U.S.-born students (they were mostly second or third generation black and Latino students) were more in favor of greater leniency in immigration reform than some of the immigrant students themselves.  What I realized is that it’s not the students’ background that is so important, but rather how they were taught.  The U.S.-born students I studied were in a school with a lot of critical thinking where they explored different perspectives.  It is actually the type of pedagogy and the way you are allowed to learn that informs opinions about these complicated issues.

This study will become an academic article that I may try to get into a special issue on immigration.  Also, I think I’d like to present it to a more mainstream audience, because I think that’s the problem with the bilingual field:  we are too insular.  These issues affect everyone, regardless of program.  There isn’t anyone teaching in U.S. schools who is not affected by immigration.  The goal is to expose a wider audience to these issues.

How did you get your book, “Immigration:  The Ultimate Teen Guide (It Happened To Me)” published?

There’s a series called “The Ultimate Teen Guide (It Happened to Me)” which started out with health issues, then became focused on more social issues.  They were looking for someone to cover immigration, and my former City College student knew someone and gave the series editor my name.  She contacted me and asked if I wanted to write a book about immigration for teens, and I thought, “wonderful!”   I like to have my work make a difference and I want to stay connected to people.  Plus, to do something just for youth is powerful:  so often, in terms of immigration, all they learn about is Ellis Island and our history, but not our future or even our present, which impacts so many of them directly.  I know it’s not going to be a nationwide bestseller with all the anti-immigration sentiments and policies throughout many parts of our nation, but I’m hoping this book gets out there.