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La Sopa de la Abuela: Using the telenovela as a tool to navigate special education

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

The telenovela team from left to right: Kathleen Donovan, Gina Argotti, Isabel Messmore, Monica Lozano Caldera, Cristina Yacobucci, and Dr. Rosa Briceno

Update: Since this blog was first posted, Arlington Public Schools made all episodes available for free online!

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the 2019 National Family and Community Engagement Conference in Reno, Nevada. This annual conference is put on by the Institute for Educational Leadership and as usual, it was fabulous!

My favorite session was “La Sopa de la Abuela: Using the telenovela as a tool to navigate special education” that was presented by staff and parents from Arlington Public Schools (APS) on July 11, 2019. It was about their culturally-responsive educational telenovela that they jointly produced with families and staff from a number of departments in APS. The purpose of their telenovela is to help orient, prepare, and support Spanish-speaking families to effectively participate in the special education process. (For anyone who doesn’t know, telenovelas are soap operas in Latin America and they are very popular.)

The presenters began by telling us a bit about their school district of 28,000 students that’s just outside of Washington, DC in Virginia. APS’ students hail from 146 nations and speak 107 languages and over a quarter are Latino. Dr. Rosa Briceno just retired as APS’ Family and Community Engagement Specialist, but came to the conference to present as a final “hurrah.” She talked about how important it is to do things with parents, not for parents, and I wanted to jump up and cheer. She talked about the impact of popular education and Paulo Freire on her work.

This telenovela project came about directly as the result of needs expressed by Latino parents in APS. Dr. Briceno and her colleagues knew that the special education process can be very intimating for Spanish-speaking parents (and all parents!) and wanted to get some direct feedback from parents on this subject. So, they held focus groups for Latino families with children in special education to share their point of view.

Two of these parents, Gina Argotti and Cristina Yacobucci, came to the conference and told us about what they shared at those focus group meetings. Ms. Argotti spoke about how scary and intimidating the special education process was for her initially as well as for many other parents. To see so many people gathered around a table and not really understand the role that each of them play was very overwhelming. She explained that so many parents like her have no idea what we educators are talking about in these meetings! Interestingly, Ms. Argotti is bilingual, yet even she did not initially understand the language being used in IEP meetings. It might as well have been a third language!

Gina Argotti (parent) speaks about her experience
Gina Argotti (parent) speaks about her experience. I love when parents train educators!

Furthermore, both parents spoke about the stigma that exists in their culture related to individuals with disabilities. Many Latino parents do want anyone to know their kids have special needs. In much of Latin America, when you hear the words “special education” (“educación especial” in Spanish), one may automatically assume their child will be sent to another school and won’t have much of a future.

As a result of these focus groups, it was decided that creating a telenovela would be a great tool to help Latino parents better understand the process of special education and explore related emotions. The parent leaders wanted a way to give other parents tools and information about what would be happening. They wanted to give them a heads up that they would be hearing strange words and would likely feel some strong emotions.

Next, they put together a small design team that included Dr. Briceno, Isabel Messmore (Office of English Learners, but now replacing Dr. Briceno as the new Family and Community Engagement Specialist), Kathleen Donovan (Special Education Coordinator), Monica Lozano Caldera (Office of Equity), Gina Argotti (parent), Cristina Yacobucci (parent), staff from Arlington Educational Television (AETV), and a number of other parents and staff.

The team worked on scriptwriting, casting, and editing. They had professional video producers from AETV, but they debated how to handle the acting. They decided to have try-outs and pulled together a cast of local staff and parents. Ms. Argotti got a role, as well as her husband and daughter!

Ultimately, they created a telenovela that’s quite impressive! It’s five episodes (each about ten minutes long) and they debuted episode one for us at the conference. I was very impressed with how well they captured the anxiety and other difficult emotions parents go through when they first receive a letter from the special education department at school. Between the music, lighting, and acting, I was honestly on the edge of my seat even though I knew exactly what happens in the special education process!

Furthermore, even though I’ve worked with the Latino community and have a general understanding of the misconceptions and fears surrounding special education, even I was a bit shocked at how traumatic it was for the mother in the video to receive a letter from the school related to special education. It felt like a “life or death” kind of moment, complete with family tension over how to handle it. Though this telenovela was created primarily for Latino parents, I think it will be an incredible professional development tool for educators. I don’t think most educators realize how anxiety-provoking the whole process is for families, and in this case, Latino families.

Arlington Public Schools is finishing up editing the videos this summer and are hoping to make all five episodes available for free streaming online. They have also created facilitator guides to go with each of the episodes. Kudos to Arlington Public Schools!

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