Meet Dr. Espinosa!

Plotting Plots in a Biliteracy Course

Building on the strengths of bi/multilingual learners through critical inquiry of texts and data

By Sara Vogel and Meg Ray

Note: Quotes from interviews edited for length and clarity.


Dr. Cecilia Espinosa is a Professor in the Early Childhood/Childhood Department at Lehman College, CUNY.

She was a bilingual multi-grade level classroom teacher-researcher for over a decade before she completed her doctorate and transitioned to higher education.

“I’ve always thought critically about things. Like whenever I’m sitting somewhere, I’m thinking. Hm, where are the people of color? What is happening here in the readings, or in the books that I see teachers having in the classroom, or that I’m offering students to read.”

Her current research focuses on building on the strengths of bi/multilingual students in literacy instruction. She is interested in supporting her teacher candidates – most of whom will go off to teach bi/multilingual, often immigrant, children of color – in using children’s literature to affirm their students’ identities and cultivate their development as critical readers, composers, and agents in the world. She co-authored a book for educators about leveraging students’ dynamic translanguaging practices in literacy development. 

Dr. Espinosa’s “Why” for CITE

Dr. Espinosa shared many reasons for engaging in CITE. Chief among these was an interest in taking a co-learning journey with her students. She shared that doing this work would thrust her and her students into “a state of disequilibrium,” which they could work through together.

“I’m a learner, like I love to learn. I’ve been looking for professional development… I am not what people would say, like, born into technology… [Its’] been okay not knowing it and just knowing what I know at the moment. [I want the] students to be OK saying ‘I don’t understand it yet.”

She also found value in learning how to support her teacher candidates’ efforts to create with digital tools. While she felt comfortable using collaboration tools like Google Jamboard before beginning the program she remarked that her teacher candidates didn’t often have opportunities to get creative and compose meaningful projects using digital  tools. 

She is particularly interested in projects that will support her values around language and multilingualism

“I really would love to see spaces where the CUNY students’ bilingualism and multilingualism becomes the norm… I think that there exists the idea that they’re not going to be quite right until they transition to English… How can that be a norm? How does technology afford us the opportunity to [change that status quo]?”

Dr. Espinosa’s Context

Dr. Espinosa teaches Learning and Teaching Literacy in Bilingual/Bicultural Childhood Settings: Grade 1 to 6, which focuses on how multilingual students develop biliteracy and language. The course description includes language around integrating media and technology, which made it a good fit for Dr. E’s aspirations. Dr. E’s students are bilingual pre-service and in-service graduate-level teachers.

“It’s a class on biliteracy. It’s a place where we look carefully at reading, writing, multimodalities from a translanguaging perspective, from a biliteracy perspective. The students are all bilingual; some of them are reclaiming their Spanish. I create opportunities to have them use Spanish a little more. We always go back and forth between languages. It always feels very natural.”

Dr. Espinosa’s Learning and Design Journey

Dr. Espinosa had a bumpy start at her first CITE workshops in 2022. She attended some related to the Scratch tool and programming environment, but they didn’t yet feel relevant to her context. When Dr. E attended summer workshops led by educator and researcher Dr. Tom Lynch, something clicked for her.

“Tom’s work asks us what happens when computing methods are integrated in English language arts. His argument is that computational methods can deepen how literature is taught from little kids all the way to adults. He says ‘digital refers to software and software refers to language, human and computational. Even the simplest line graphs can help us spark ideas about the books we read.. and support construction of meaning.’ ”

To design her artifact, Dr. Espinosa remixed an activity that she had experienced during Lynch’s workshop – modifying it for her context and purposes. She sought to crystallize some of her values around creativity, multilingualism, reading and critical thinking, as meaning-making for teacher candidates and their future learners.

She piloted her artifact in the fall and iterated on it during the Spring. 

Dr. Espinosa’s artifact

Dr. Espinosa designed a series of in-class activities and homework assignments for her Childhood Biliteracy course that guided teacher candidates to explore the intersection of computing and language arts. Students interpreted data visualizations related to racial and cultural representation in children’s literature then used a data visualization tool to make meaning of a bilingual novel, reflecting on the tool’s affordances for their own meaning-making and biliteracy teaching. 

Activities In A Nutshell

Free write and conversations ABOUT computing in literacy education

Teacher candidates bilingually discussed their prior knowledge about computing and technology in education.

Learning WITH data visualizations

Teacher candidates interpreted charts and graphs to understand issues related to representation of people of color and linguistic diversity in children’s literature. They got hands-on practice with a data visualization approach called Plotting Plots,” which allowed them to analyze the frequency with which characters’ names appeared in different chapters of the Spanish and English versions of the novel they had been reading together, La tierra de las grullas.

Conducting and sharing inquiries THROUGH creating data visualizations

Dr. Espinosa prompted students to use a Plotting Plots tool to conduct inquiries into words they selected in the same novel. Teacher candidates shared their discoveries.

Ending reflections ABOUT and AGAINST computing approaches in literacy

Dr. Espinosa asked students to write a letter to a character as another way of making personal connections to the text. She engaged them in discussion about how quantitative data and qualitative approaches can be in dialogue with each other and add new layers of meaning to a reading experience. Teacher candidates brainstormed ways to use this approach in their own classrooms and discussed related limitations and challenges. They also talked about the monolingual bias that tools like Plotting Plots can have (for example, in the fall semester, the text of La tierra de las grullas was available for analysis in English only).

Dr. Espinosa’s Reflections and Next Steps

Dr. Espinosa shared that while some teacher candidates were comfortable working with data and graphs, others were hesitant. Dr. Espinosa noted that she “didn’t have time to teach them how to do a graph on the computer. There were additional technology skills that were needed to be able to do it with more ease and to be able to see more complicated patterns.” 

She also noted she would like to incorporate activities related to the critical analysis of algorithms and their impact on society, particularly their ability to amplify bias and inequity. She knows algorithms, data, literacy, and language are connected in ways she hasn’t yet explored:

“I’m still learning about algorithms… [Technology is] created by humans and we bring our own biases to these algorithms or this decision-making. It is super important for the students to understand that biases happen. Students need to know the technologies so that they are part of that conversation. My role is in creating those spaces for them to think about it.  I can’t do business as usual anymore.”

During a professional development session at the end of the school year, Dr. Espinosa was asked to reflect on any tensions created by integrating computing into her course. While she noted her appreciation of the experience as a process of discovery for students and educators, she acknowledged that it was limited by her own lack of expertise around technology and its intersections with her discipline. She hopes to continue learning so she may support her students in new and different ways in the future. Some questions she continues to ponder on this front include:

“How to continue to grow? How to know WHERE I need to grow (in what area) when I just know a little bit and the field is so huge? How to keep fine-tuning my teacher’s knowledge, while deepening and expanding it, so I can REALLY be knowledgeable enough to help the students see more possibilities?”

Activity Highlights

Below, learn more about the different components of Dr. Espinosa’s teaching artifact.

Free write and conversations ABOUT Computing Literacy in Education

Dr. Espinosa set the stage for integrating computing into language arts by facilitating independent free-writes and conversations about computing and its connections to teacher candidates’ lives.

Writing and Discussion prompts included:

  • ¿Cuando piensan en la ciencia de las computadoras y la era digital, qué les viene a la mente? (When you think of computer science and the digital era, what comes to mind?)
  • Reflect about how you use graphs and charts and any emotions you experience when looking at graphs and charts.

She recognized that her students would have a variety of experiences around graphs, charts, and computing – ranging from traumatic to empowered. She hoped to affirm those experiences with math and technology and prepare them to be open to trying new things together. Having an explicit conversation about these issues could also help teacher candidates empathize with future students.

She purposefully asked these questions using Spanish to encourage students to engage their full language repertoires. This move affirmed students’ language practices as resources for learning and promoted the Spanish practice they would need as bilingual teachers.

Throughout these conversations, Dr Espinosa underscored her own position as a learner and shared the “inquiry questions” she’s exploring as a CITE participant. She was captivated by examples shared by the CITE team of how technologies can embed biases, for example soap dispensers and oxygen meters that do not function properly for users with darker skin tones. During one class she told students:

I’m concerned about how tech is integrated into schools. What I see is that [K-12] students are just clicking on laptops – click, click, click for math, social studies and literacies. They are not critically engaging. This summer, I learned a lot about what is happening with BIPOC people and tech. I learned how little / small part of the conversation we are. Everything is digital in this world… But we’re more on the receiving end. Big questions arose for me about what happens when not all voices are present.

Drawing on the work of Tom Lynch, she shared a rationale for integrating computing into language arts: that computational methods might be used to help people make meaning of texts.

“Even the simplest line graphs can help us spark ideas about the books we read. These graphs can help us support construction of meaning” (Lynch, 2019, p. 25).”

She emphasized that computing artifacts (like data visualizations) are things people read and write. Like the novels the students read in class, they may have impacts in the world.

Learning WITH a Data Visualization – Part 1

To begin the class’ foray into data visualization, Dr. Espinosa asked teacher candidates to interpret a chart she had found on the internet which showed the percentages of children’s books by and about People of Color over time.

“I wanted to create some common ground and talk about something the class cares about. I invited them to take a stance of staying open to asking new questions.”

She asked them to respond to open-ended reflection questions on a shared document, including: What do you see? What do you think? What do you wonder?

Teacher candidates asked questions about the trends they saw. One noticed that at times when the number of books about people of color seemed to be on the rise, the number of authors of color didn’t necessarily rise at the same rate. She asked her peers: who wrote those books, and were the books truly authentic representations of those characters’ experiences?

Learning WITH Data Visualization – Part 2

Dr. Espinosa introduced students to a chart she co-created with PD provider Tom Lynch using the Plotting Plots philosophy and the Flourish Studio tool. It depicted the frequency that particular characters’ names appeared in different chapters of a novel. Dr. Espinosa did not specify the novel, which was the class text, La tierra de las grullas, nor did she tell students which data corresponded to which characters.

The students once again shared noticings and wonderings and had rich conversations about the trends they observed. Dr. Espinosa called students’ engagements with the graph “truly fascinating.” 

“The small groups worked so intently on figuring out what was happening in each character’s plot line and among the characters. Conversations were rich and filled with discoveries. Some groups had figured out it was La tierra de las grullas. “

Conducting and Sharing Inquiries THROUGH Creating Data Visualizations

Next, she prompted students to use the Plotting Plots tool to conduct their own inquiries about words in the text. She referred them to a webpage Tom Lynch created for her class: Land of Cranes.

On this site, teacher candidates could select words from the English and/or Spanish versions of the novel and chart the frequency with which their chosen words showed up in the text.

Dr. Espinosa asked students to test out words in Spanish and English in both novels, and to engage in their own inquiries about the trends and patterns they saw. She asked students to type their observations, new insights, and wonderings into a shared document.

Many of the students attempted to confirm hunches they had during the previous activity. Dr. Espinosa plans to have teacher candidates complete a final project that employs Plotting Plots to support their exploration of an inquiry topic related to La tierra de las grullas.

Ending Reflections ABOUT and AGAINST Computing Approaches in Literacy

Throughout the activity, Dr. Espinosa shared the ideas of literacy scholar Louise Rosenblatt: “What matters is what teachers and students do AFTER they read the text.”

In that spirit, she led her teacher candidates to reflect on their engagement with Plotting Plots and data visualizations. Teacher candidates shared some of their takeaways:

  • Plotting Plots provided one student with another way to understand characters and their roles in the story’s events. 
  • Another shared that she had to revise some of her initial understandings – for example, at first she thought that the charts represented characters’ closeness, or the intensity of their emotions. It helped that Dr. E and visiting CITE researcher, Sara Vogel, called students’ attention to different points on the X and Y axes to help them check their understandings.
  • A few teacher candidates made connections to their own classroom practice. They brainstormed ways that a similar approach to textual anallysis might help them reveal patterns in their students’ writing during revision stages of a writing piece.
  • Dr. E observed that students continually returned to the text as they tinkered with the tool – they were not using technology to distract from the novel, but to enhance their experience of it.

Dr. Espinosa and her teacher candidates also questioned the value of computational methods for making sense of text. They compared their experiences using Plotting Plots with the more traditional exercise of writing a letter to a character, weighing the opportunities and limitations of each method.

The first time Dr. Espinosa facilitated the Plotting Plots activity, students could only visualize word frequency in the English translation of the book. This prompted some critiques of tools like Plotting Plots from Dr. Espinosa:

“It reminded me that this can be a monolingual world and how hard it is to change it. So, the examination of the words [the first semester] was not as rich or engaging.”

Dr. Espinosa’s participation in CITE left a lasting legacy. With her encouragement, Lynch added the Spanish version of the text to his data corpus.