Where We Started ... Where We Are NOW
Where We Started
Books del Sur's story's began with my story. I am Heather Robertson-Devine, the founder of Books del Sur.
And Books del Sur began with my relationship with my Chilean exchange brother, Nacho. He studied in my high school in 1993 when we were both Juniors. He was my first introduction to a Spanish speaking country that was not Puerto Rico or Mexico. Other than that, I didn’t really think too deeply about it. The U.S. was in the middle of fighting the AIDS epidemic and I was busy educating my peers about a preventable lethal disease. Then in 1997 when I was selecting my study abroad program for my Junior year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I remembered Nacho and mailed him a letter letting him know I was going to attend La Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile. I studied in Santiago, Chile at the University for a semester in 1998. I learned more about academic Spanish and Chilean slang than I ever expected. I also interned at the U.S. Embassy only to realize that falling in love with Chilean peoples, their culture, and their land was not a part of our U. S. international relations policy. I learned that Chilean history had been deeply affected by our U.S. policies and had left scars on their country that will take many generations to heal.
I then entered the Milwaukee Teacher Education Center in 2001 to earn my bilingual teaching license and worked with some of the most incredible people. Working in a Milwaukee inner-city school was my first real experience with U.S. poverty. I had studied poverty and seen it on my international travels, but there is something about it that deeply tears you apart when it happens in a place you consider home. I did my best to understand the community and am grateful to have taught a language arts unit with my teaching partner on Latinos Unidos: Understanding Mexican and Puerto Rican Identity. My experience left me with a deep desire to make public schools work for all students, but I realized I was incredibly ill-equipped to do that. I didn’t have the teaching skills I needed nor the did I feel like the system I was working in was the best fit for me.I returned home knowing the greatest gift I could give to my loved ones abroad was to promote understanding, knowledge, and empathy for their culture with U.S. citizens. I spent the year after I graduated from college working for an immigration lawyer in Portland, Oregon. That experience helped me realize the best career fit for me was in the public school system where my parents had spent their careers.
After earning my bilingual teaching license, I was offered a job teaching in Los Angeles, California and I took it. I worked for four years in the Glendale Unified School District as a teacher and instructional leader. I was matched with the most incredible mentor teacher and teammate. My teammate and I earned our Masters Degrees in Educational Policy & Leadership from California State University at Northridge. We learned from our district leaders how to run healthy and diverse public schools. It was in California I learned that multiculturalism was not a “thing”, but simply who we are. I learned that teachers are the facilitators of learning, not the center of learning. I learned that collectively working on professional learning goals improves school and district culture. Finally, I also realized that California was really far away from home and it was time for me to go home and invest in my community.
So, I returned home to Madison, Wisconsin and took a teaching job in an elementary school, which was a huge change after teaching for 6 years in a middle school. I knew I had the classroom management skills to make it work, but I was lacking in my understanding of child development which was needed to facilitate the learning gains necessary for student success. So, I again put my nose to the ground, was placed on an amazing team of teachers and sought out guidance from two excellent instructional coaches. Together with my team and I flexibly grouped two classes of third and fourth-grade transitional bilingual classrooms. My instructional coaches shared the pedological and educational theory knowledge that I missed out on during my undergraduate studies and I soaked it all in. I learned how to listen to students, identify literacy learning targets, and the gentle craft of cognitively guided instruction. I did not perfect any of it, and I am confident nobody does. But the greatest lesson I learned was that learning never stops and it certainly isn’t linear.
I then became a district instructional coach to support the bilingual program and to support the principal’s push for a dual language program. This was when I was asked to purchase materials for the book room and I was struck by the inequities between the Spanish and English materials beyond our schools, in the market. As a teacher, I felt it but did not have the whole school nor district-wide perspective to completely understand it. It was in my second year as an instructional coach that I started Books del Sur. I was an alternate for a group of teachers who studied abroad in Chile on a Fulbright Scholarship to learn about Latin American childrens’ literature. As an alternative, I got book lists from their travels and pressure to buy the books for our bookrooms and classrooms. I discovered it was not possible to purchase these books because the titles were not available through U.S. distributors. So, the following summer of 2009, I traveled to Chile, 11 years after my college exchange year. My Chilean exchange brother, Nacho and I met with several publishers and established our first Books del Sur collection.
I shared these books with Madison teachers and the following year shared them with other Wisconsin teachers at the Wisconsin Educators Association Conference.
I will not forget it was Butch Beetle of Evanston, Wisconsin (where my dad graduated high school) that purchased the first book from me. He purchased Cuentos Mapuches del Lago Escondido. He purchased it with a $10 bill that I still have in my office.
At that time, we had five books from the Papelucho series, three books from the Amadeo series, a few books about Ema my favorite Chilean immigrant to the Dominican Republic, three other books from the same publisher, a translated series of fairies, and a transitional level series. Literally, we started with 16 maybe 17 titles.
In 2010, I was interviewed by the Wisconsin Education Association and featured in their monthly newsletter’s Teacher Spotlight. The following is the published interview. Even though I now have a different last name and a different address these responses are still the heart of Books del Sur.
(It is no longer online :( I will INSERT PHOTO & INTERVIEW TEXT soon.)
It wasn’t until 2015 that I was ready to leave the public schools as a teacher and support them as an educational consultant and publisher with Books del Sur. I spent that year juggling time with my newborn and learning how to be an independent consultant. It was in 2016 that Books del Sur’s collection nearly tripled and we added three guided reading sets to support Spanish language arts. We also launched the Books del Sur online store and connect with social media.
This may seem like a very long-winded version of where we started and quite frankly it is, but I see that all of these steps along the way have without a doubt impacted the birth and growth of Books del Sur. I have learned from everyone along the way. Taken their experiences to heart, and tried to incorporate them into the experiences of other teachers that interact with Books del Sur. I do not want to do anything to further contribute to the de-professionalization of teachers and the oppression of students. Therefore, I deeply value our community and am always open to hearing from you!
Where We Are Now, 9 years later in August of 2018
As you have learned from my story, I am a learner and for that reason, Books del Sur will continue to be agile and adapt to the needs of our dual language community. We have identified the need for schools to develop their Spanish book collection and have a professional development series available to do just that. We have articulated that Spanish books published outside of the U.S. provide mirrors for our students that have entered dual language programs after being educated outside of the United States. We also have articulated that they provide rich language, sentence structures, and content to Spanish language arts that meet the multi-cultural mission of so many dual language programs.
Our goal for the future is to further articulate the non-linear dialogue of our books to support narrative writing and to further articulate how to use our books to expand student’s vocabulary and internal Spanish language knowledge.
Books del Sur is no longer a party of one and a variety of consultants. Colleen Farmakis has joined me to manage our accounts, run our social media, and ensure our systems are working. We hope to expand our warehouse so that we can fill more orders and do this efficiently. Currently our warehouse or as we lovingly call it “bodega” can hold 10,000 books, which is a long way from the 100 books I used to store in the few plastic bins in our house!
However, we know that we have yet to reach the vast number of dual language teachers and programs growing every year in the United States. Therefore, we have also expanded to work with high-quality educational consultants and independent educational sales representatives. Together we will bring the books you need for your schools and classrooms. Watch for the announcements of the Independent Sales Consultants as they commit to sharing our resources with you at your schools and conferences!