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Faculty Interview: Lorena Guillén

By John McDonald
Lorena Guillen

Lorena Guillén is an assistant professor of education at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. A native of Los Angeles, she splits her time between teaching in the UCLA Teacher Education Program and working with colleagues and students in the Urban Education Program.  Her research and teaching interests are focused on partnerships between teacher education programs and the students, families and communities they serve. 

Guillén is working to model more democratic, less hierarchical teacher education programs with the potential to further transformative, culturally relevant, responsive and sustaining pedagogies in K-12 classrooms and teacher education programs. She also plays the violin and is passionate about a particular type of music popular here in Los Angeles, in Latin America and across the globe. We talk with her here. 

John McDonald - UCLA

Okay. Let’s start here. Rumor has it that you are a mariachi musician. Can you tell us about that? How does being a mariachi shape who you are and what you do? 

Lorena Guillén:

I'd love to, being a mariachi musician makes me very happy. It’s definitely been a very big part of my personal life.  I think a lot of my community-oriented way of thinking about schools and education comes from that.  

I started playing mariachi when I was in college. There weren't many college mariachi groups when I first joined Stanford's group in 1997. Before that, I was playing more classical music. I picked up the violin when I was 10. But it wasn't until I started playing mariachi that I made this connection with musicians and the way, at least in the mariachi world, they have a very particular role. 

I think the role of the musician is different, but as a mariachi, I was performing at weddings and at funerals and at birthday parties and serenading mothers on Mother's Day. Those kinds of experiences really helped me in the classroom. They got me honestly outside of centering myself in the classroom to instead, center community. So yeah, mariachi is very much a part of who I am and how I understand the role of each member of a community.

I haven't had the time yet, but I've always wanted to join the mariachi group here at UCLA, Mariachi UCLAtlan  in The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. They are one of the oldest college based mariachi groups in the country. I would love for UCLAtlan to play at an event at UCLASEIS. I could teach a whole class about mariachi.

Beyond mariachi, can you tell us a little bit about what your research and teaching is focused on this year? 

Guillén: Sure. I am currently involved with a collective group looking at “lands and waters” pedagogies in the UCLA Teacher Education Program. That's the main project right now. It is an indigenous-based approach to thinking about teaching and learning in education and schools on Tongva lands that we - the lands and waters collective consists of Tongva and teacher education communities, faculty and students - are piloting within our ethnic studies cohort in the Teacher Education Program.  

The idea is to base it on thinking about the natural world around us, and using that when you first start to plan your curriculum, when you think about learning outcomes, when you think about how you understand the way that we human beings exist in this world. This work also begins in reflecting upon what it means to be teaching specifically on Tongva lands. It's been a cool challenge to think about what that means in different disciplines, besides what most people think about it in terms of science or biology or something. I’m teaching the lands and waters class in the TEP program this quarter. The course is EDUC 406b Social Foundations and Cultural Diversity in American Education: Ethnic Studies Emphasis. The lands and waters approach is being taught in both my 406B class and Ananda Marin's 407 Psychological Foundations of Education.

That’s interesting. What is the ethnic studies cohort and what's your involvement with It?

Guillén: The cohort is part of a larger project deeply exploring ethnic studies. Darlene Lee, who is one of the advisors in the UCLA Teacher Education Program and the advisor and co-creator of the Ethnic Studies pathway in our Teacher Ed program, and Emma Hipolito, now the director of the Teacher Education Program, started it together with a group of students about a year or so before I started at UCLA. 

The first group of students really were demanding to have some sort of preparation for teaching ethnic studies. That demand was driven by the push in schools in Los Angeles and across California and the nation by students wanting ethnic studies offered as part of their K-12 schooling. The students in our pre-service program, they wanted to rise to that occasion, so they were pushing the program to prepare teachers to teach ethnic studies.

Let’s talk a little more about teaching.  Now that most instruction is back on campus, can you tell us a little bit about what it's like to be teaching in front of a live class again and what you're doing this quarter

Guillén: Oh, goodness, especially with this new focus on lands and waters, it's just such a difference from being online. In our last class, we were outside and the students were doing an activity -- based on an idea I got from my colleague Ananda Marin -- where they were looking for and finding plant relatives. They were able to go out onto campus and locate a plant that they are going to be developing a relationship with this quarter and hopefully beyond. 

It was just super exciting to see them come back with pictures of their plant relative. And they had done preliminary research looking into the name of that plant and what kinds of leaves it has, what kind of water it needs, and how it's able to survive in this climate, that kind of thing. It’s the kind of thing we could talk about when we were online but we couldn't really go do it together and then come back together. It’s such an important piece of the way we are thinking about ourselves in the natural world, and in particular, the way we think about our role as teachers on Tongva land. 

Do you teach outside of the Teacher Education Program at UCLA or just within the program?

Guillén: Yes, the other half of me is assigned to the Urban Schooling Division. Right now, I have a Research Apprenticeship Course (RAC). Next quarter I’ll be  teaching the second half of our Introduction to Urban Schooling Core series. 

What is a RAC exactly? Can you tell me a little bit about yours and what you do in it? I hear different things about them from different people.

Guillén: I think it's because different people run them in different ways. For this one, I decided to gear it towards those who are practitioners going into their doctoral studies. In  particular, we are focusing on looking at ethnic studies: what that is, how that's rolling out, and how we think about that in the K-12 school setting.

It's a small group of doctoral students, but actually, I just opened it up to folks who are not in our doctoral program. Darlene has joined the space. And I'm hoping to have other teacher practitioners, alumni and others join.  A lot of that idea came from Danny Solórzano. He has a lot of that kind of bigger community involved in his research space. The other piece I've added is we meet at different places around the city. I think that helps a lot of our students who are not from Los Angeles ground themselves and kind of get a feel or an understanding for what K-12 schooling is here, what the community is here.  Sometimes we just can't get that when we're on campus on the Westside.

What are you trying to make happen with your RAC? How are you trying to help students? 

Guillén: I think, as you pointed out, people, faculty and groups have used RACs differently. Some folks use it as a lab space to do particular research and students help with that research. And I think there are benefits to that model. But I think what I've been hearing from students since I've been at UCLA is that they really are hoping and looking for a place where they can also develop some of the professional skills, or just a space to talk about what does it mean to be working in academia and what does that look like. Just practical stuff. 

I think sometimes we miss that in our coursework.  How do you write a CV?  Or how do you navigate the big AERA educational conference? It’s just a space to informally learn from those who are elders in the program or from an advisor or a faculty mentor. It's informal, but it's also sort of structured in that you're meeting on a regular basis.

I've really tried to make this invisible or hidden curriculum of what it is to be working in academia part of our space. And particularly for a lot of our students who like me, identify as some sort of Black, Indigenous person of color, what does it mean for us to be in these spaces. For a lot of us, we really think about ourselves as academic scholars but also as community activists. So, there's a place for community scholarship or public scholarship in our RAC, and I'm trying to help our group think that through.  

After the disruption of COVID, how are feeling about being back on campus and in the classroom?

Guillén: Like many others, I am not completely comfortable teaching in person. I still mask in the classroom and I still provide the option for students to use a Zoom link to join class or to record a lecture. That said, in terms of the teaching, there's just nothing like being on campus and having a back and forth with students. 

 Lots of times I tell students that the online place is just another tool in our toolbox.  In the end, what matters is what you're doing and how you're using these tools. So sometimes, I just have the students turn the computer off. The other day we did a mapping activity. We just had handouts. It was a map, and they were color coding with their pens, the river and where villages or settlers have decided to build a school. That kind of activity, it helps students really focus, it helps them ask questions or take the time to think things through. I am doing my best to figure out which tool fits the learning goal. 

Being outside to create a mini-ecosystem, being physically together to discuss a reading, assigning asynchronous community-based activities, these are all tools in our teaching toolkit. This  is something for us all to consider when we think about teaching. When are outdoor spaces good for our learning as well as our mental and physical wellbeing? There are also good pedagogical reasons to be in a classroom, sometimes for direct instruction or to puzzle through a projected image.  

You work with people who are trying to become teachers. As we move to hopefully a brighter side of the COVID pandemic and students are returning to campus, what's your sense of how your students are doing?

Guillén: They are grappling. They are struggling with the job [of teaching] itself. And I think, honestly, and people have said this before, the pandemic just highlighted a lot of the problems with the profession. And it, the job itself has been a problem. It demands a lot of hours, it requires a lot of thinking time. We need a lot more teachers, more people to spread the work around, more educators, I should say, school-based educators. I feel like these are problems that people just kind of put up with before. 

Things were so rough during the pandemic. And taking care of young people while taking care of your family or yourself is really, really taxing. That has to change. The job itself has to change. It's never been sustainable. 

As an English teacher, you have maybe 150 students. You do the numbers. You can't plan and teach five classes with only one prep period to plan cool projects,  grade all of their papers, provide feedback to students and communicate with  parents. Let alone collaborate with colleagues, complete paperwork – there is so much paperwork – and keep up your own professional reading and learning  It's just not sustainable. So, all that to say is yeah, the teachers are struggling. Pre-service teachers have a lot of excitement, and I think they would be able to stay in the profession longer if we really re-thought the way that we structure time for young people, but also for teachers.

So, the teacher as superhero model is not sustainable?

Lorena Guillén: No, it’s not.