In this interview, I spoke with Dr. Rafael Lara-Alecio, Regents Professor and Center for Research & Development in Dual Language & Literacy Acquisition (CRDLLA) director, to learn more about his grant work over the course of his career. He has served as the director and principal investigator on several large research projects.
Kara Sutton-Jones: Dr. Lara-Alecio, can you tell us how you became involved in grant writing?
Dr. Lara-Alecio: My interest in grants started when I was a graduate student at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City. Quite often, I talked to my advisor Dr. Gabriel Della-Piana. We talked about my plans for after I completed my studies, and always grants came into the conversation. He recommended that I start looking for a private business that engaged in grants. I followed his recommendation, and my first opportunity was when I came to Beaverton, Ore., to work for a private business. I learned the grant process in one year. I learned the social and technical aspects of grants, as well as the importance to communicate with state and federal agencies and other potential sponsoring entities. It was a very nice experience. My goal was to move back into academia again, and I was blessed when I came to Texas A&M University (TAMU) in 1991 as a visiting assistant professor. My teaching load was heavy. I taught four courses per semester—graduate and undergraduate courses—including summertime. I worked with doctoral and master students as well. In addition, I was asked to write some proposals to secure grant opportunities. For me, everything that I received looked like a great opportunity. It was this first year that launched my grant work at TAMU. We received a parent engagement grant (Student and Family Literacy Tutoring Program) from the U.S. Department of Education for $50,000 to work with Bryan ISD’s parents and families. The following year, I was also blessed to be selected for a tenure-track position, and in addition to teaching and services, I started my research agenda. To date, we have been awarded approximately $80 million in federal, state, and private business funding for grant work, including $6.65 million for Texas schools.
Sutton-Jones: What are the most important steps you have to take to be successful garnering external research grants for TAMU?
Lara-Alecio: I think first of all, you have to assess your strengths. Prior coming to TAMU in 1991, I was a faculty member and administrator for the National University in Guatemala (Universidad de San Carlos, Facultad de Humanidades) and president of one of the branches for the National Universities in Guatemala (Universidad de San Carlos, Centro Universitario de Oriente, Chiquimula). I had also been a bilingual math teacher for a normal school for indigenous Guatemalan citizens who spoke indigenous Mayan languages and Spanish. In that position, I learned that bilingual students face developing their academic language in the target language of the country. In addition to learning Spanish (the target language in Guatemala) as a second language, they also had to learn the scientific language that characterizes the content areas of math and science. They had to learn symbolic and idiomatic language registers. With that background in mind, I started my research agenda, and I visited school districts in Houston.
I spent a good portion of my time observing bilingual classrooms and meeting with bilingual and regular education teachers as well as administrators and parents/families. I spent many hours doing classroom observations. I noticed at that time, the observational instruments for classroom observations were not related to bilingual theories that could assist language and content-area teachers to exemplify their work with English language learners (ELLs). That situation motivated me to collaborate with another colleague to develop the first four-dimensional bilingual pedagogical theory and model. Through multiple research grants, we have spent countless hours validating our protocol, not only in transitional classrooms, but also in full English immersion with ESL instruction and in dual language classrooms. We were very satisfied with the support that we received from the federal government to validate the theory and resulting instrument, not to mention the opportunities to present the theory with the protocol at state, national, and international meetings and schools. Today, it is the most widely supported and most remarkably funded bilingual classroom pedagogical instrument around. We started with a pencil-and-paper instrument in 1991; today, we have our bilingual classroom observation instrument on the web and also being implemented via virtual observations in classrooms in different school districts across Texas where our research is taking place. We also have tested our protocol in other countries around the world with high fidelity. We have set up cameras in the classroom—wherever they are—and from there we receive the different interactions from teachers. We have a team of graduate students who spend hours calibrating the different interactions that we expect to assess with a high level of inter-rater reliability. We code responses, and then the statistical team proceeds with analysis and interpretation of data.
Assisting school districts has been one of the most remarkable experiences in my entire professional life. We continue doing the same through the different research and training grants that we have from the federal and state governments. Receiving strong letters of support and commitment from superintendents and teachers has allowed us to conduct formal research in their school districts, not just in Houston, but across the entire state of Texas. Letters of support are the sine qua non condition for getting large research grants. But again, my first step was to understand what was going on in schools today and to keep abreast of changes. It is critical to understand the subject matter, the socioeconomic conditions of students, and the academic background of teachers working with ELLs. So putting this together, we have been able to develop, implement, and evaluate our curriculum; conduct research; and publish our results in top refereed journals.
Sutton-Jones: Do you have any specific advice or recommendations for new junior faculty and graduate students who would like to be successful getting research grants?
Lara-Alecio: Being highly familiar with what is going on in the school districts today is critical. Read research that is implemented in natural settings. Spend time observing classrooms, students, and teachers, as well as talking to administrators and parents/families. They can tell you in a few minutes what are the major challenges that schools are facing today. Be well prepared to conduct your research. Working with a team is a great resource. It is too much to try to do everything alone. Last but not least, federal agencies like to see interdisciplinary team work.
This interview with Dr. Lara-Alecio will be continued in the next newsletter.