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Visit READ320 to view three compelling digital stories created by students in Tammy Oberg De La Garza’s READ 320 class.

  Read 320 - Kevin Janus
   Kevin Janus

  Read 320 - Megan Arkin
  Megan Arkin

  Read 320 - Bradley Allen
   Bradley Allen

Through THeir Eyes

Through Their Eyes

Posted: 05/23/2012

By Laura Janota | From the Spring 2012 issue of Roosevelt Review

The collection of photographs portraying literacy in Chicago includes images of business and street signs, TV remote controls, T-shirt logos and graffiti. Shot by Latino grade-school children in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, these views and others are providing a Roosevelt University professor with clues for what must be done if the reading and writing skills of Latino youths are to improve.

“To me, it’s obvious,” said Tammy Oberg De La Garza, assistant professor of elementary education and a 2011-12 American Association of University Women (AAUW) fellow. “These kids may understand what literacy is all about in the school setting, but they don’t get the kind of access they need to real literacy in their homes and in their neighborhood.”

A former fourth grade teacher in Chicago and a literacy consultant in some of the city’s toughest public schools, Oberg De La Garza long has been troubled by U.S. data ranking Latinos behind both blacks and whites in reading levels as well as in bachelor’s degree completions.

In an attempt to find the problem’s causes and solutions, she started a dynamic, new literacy project in partnership with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in 2010.

“What we need to realize is that Latinos are our fastest growing group in the nation,” said Oberg De La Garza. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau is predicting that one-fourth of all U.S. students will be Latino by 2021. The census also is reporting that education levels of Latinos are lower than the levels achieved by any other ethnic groups.

Illinois standardized test scores show that eighth-grade Latino students are reading at levels that white students achieved in fourth grade. These results also point to a reading achievement gap between Latinos and whites that has not significantly improved in 15 years.

“If Latinos are our lowest achieving group educationally, where does that leave us as a nation?” Oberg De La Garza asked. For answers, the Roosevelt professor began research with a grant from the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation and later as an AAUW fellow using Photovoice, a unique approach that allows the researcher to gain candid insights from photos taken on a specific topic or theme by the subjects the researcher is studying.

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It was first developed and used in 1992 by Caroline Wang at the University of Michigan and Mary Ann Burris at the University of London as a means to learn what women in rural China really thought about their lives and their community.

Since then, Photovoice has become a tool of choice for researchers who are seeking the views of those who have no say in the policymaking that affects them. Appalachian coalminers, patients with mental illness and people diagnosed with HIV/ AIDS are just a few of the marginalized groups that have been able to express their views through the research photography.

“It is a creative way to encourage our young people to express their thoughts and feelings,” said Holly Stadler, dean of the College of Education. “We are committed to empowering under-represented communities and we see this project as a way to support their hopes and dreams.” Oberg De La Garza became interested in the methodology after seeing the Oscar-winning documentary film, Born into Brothels, which features photos taken by children of prostitutes living in Calcutta’s redlight district. “The movie really opened my eyes to seeing things through children’s eyes,” she said. “I began to think it would be a helpful way to look at literacy. That is, through the eyes of a child rather than through the lens of teachers or administrators.”

In the fall of 2010, the professor asked 17 undergraduates in her READ 320-23 class to take photos of literacy in their communities. They came back with shots most would expect: photos of home library collections, texting on hand-held devices, home computers, bookstores and public libraries. The students also gave disposable cameras to 36 grade-school students they were tutoring in Logan Square. About half of the children returned completed rolls of film.

The photos taken at school by the children were rich with literacy and included: written student work, posters, books, students reading or writing, computers and libraries. However, the majority of shots taken by the students in their homes and communities didn’t contain the same type of literacy images found in schools. These views included: business and street signs, single books in the home, TV remote controls, written homework, household bills, clothing logos, graffiti and gang signs, calendars and food packaging.

“There is a gap between what teachers define as literacy, and the types of literacy experiences that are accessible to Latino kids at home or in their communities,” said Oberg De La Garza. “My goal is to prepare teachers to bridge the cultural gap so that they can make literacy a part of these kids’ lives not only in school but also in the environs where they spend the better part of 16 hours a day.”

Her research study, titled “The Cultural and Economic Divides of Literacy Access: Addressing Barriers and Advocating Change,” was published in the International Journal of Diversity in Organizations, Communities and Nations in December 2011. Her next article, “Using Photovoice Methodology to Explore Latinos’ Access to Literacy” will be published later this year in The Journal of Higher Education and Community Engagement.

With hopes of expanding the project into other Chicago neighborhoods, she recently gave cameras to a group of sixth graders from Chicago’s largely Latino Hermosa Park neighborhood with the assignment to shoot literacy. While the photos taken by the second group appear to be similar in content, Oberg De La Garza still is reviewing them for more findings.

In the meantime, the Roosevelt professor has been actively working to improve literacy with parents at the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), a 50-year-old community organization that has worked in partnership with schools in Logan Square for more than 20 years. “We have always had the need for one-on-one work with our students,” said Lisette Moreno Kuri, president of the association that has set up community learning centers for parents and students at five Logan Square grade schools.

Yazmin Martinez helps kids from Chicago’s Logan Square grasp the fine points of a children’s story

“We are ecstatic that Tammy (Oberg De La Garza) has been working on literacy training with our community,” added Moreno Kuri. “She has helped us to make a connection with higher education and that is important for our children’s future.”

In fact, the tutoring program that Oberg De La Garza started as a service-learning opportunity for Roosevelt students at McAuliffe School in Logan Square is becoming so popular that children had to be turned away last fall.

“We can see that the Roosevelt students are making strong connections with the kids,” added Silvia Gonzalez, director of Community Learning Centers for LSNA. “We want to see this program ongoing,” she said. “And we’d like to see it expanded into other schools in the Logan Square area.

Laura Beson is one of the Roosevelt students who has been tutoring kids at McAuliffe. She also lives in Chicago’s gentrifying Logan Square. “When I first saw the kinds of photos that the kids were taking of literacy in their community and in their home, I realized there were no bookstores nearby and that it was hard for them to get to the library. It’s two buses and a distant walk from where they live.”

That realization has helped Beson, who will graduate in May, with her tutoring. “It made me realize that teachers are really the main source of literacy for these kids,” she said. “We need to be passionate, we need to reach out to the parents, perhaps babysit or tutor these kids at home or at least make books from our own libraries available to them.”

For her part, Oberg De La Garza is leading another class of student teachers at McAuliffe School this semester. She is also planning a community forum in Logan Square where her research findings will be presented to parents and interested residents.

“We need to try and politically attack the things that are hindering Latinos’ access to literacy,” said Oberg De La Garza. “These kids need better access to things like books, libraries and computers. We will need to work together as a community to make this happen.”

Tammy Oberg De La Garza

Tammy Oberg De La Garza, assistant professor of elementary education, is an expert on social justice in urban education, educational equity and literacy access for all. She joined Roosevelt in 2009 following appointments at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Concordia University.

Oberg De La Garza earned a PhD from UIC in curriculum and instruction and a master’s in education from Northeastern Illinois University. She began her career as an elementary teacher in the Chicago Public Schools.

Last May, she was awarded a prestigious 2011-12 American Fellowship from the American Association of University Women. The eight-week fellowship included a $6,000 grant to complete a Latina literacy study that began as a service-learning project in her Teaching Reading in Elementary Schools class.

You can contact her at