An Open Book

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A passion for reading and a turbulent childhood lead Professor Belinda Louie to create Project TELL which supports English language learners and their families.

UW Professor Belinda Louie has been to nineteenth-century England. She has also visited Ancient Greece and spent a few days and “One Thousand and One Nights” in the Middle East. Louie has a time machine of sorts, one that can take her into the distant past, alternative versions of the present and the shapeless future.

“I think books should be a deep part of a person’s life,” said Louie. If you have been to her office, you know it’s lined with an assortment of academic texts, fiction, historical non-fiction and children’s books. Now, an academic with a shelf full of the written word isn’t all the revelatory. Reading is a big part of the job. What is interesting here is the story of how words on a page shaped Louie’s world.

Finding Stability in Books

Louie’s first chapter opens in the late 1950s. “I was born in Macau which at the time was a Portuguese colony,” she said. Portugal transferred control of Macau to China in 1999. The islands are officially the “Macau Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.”

Louie’s parents owned a winery. The family’s livelihood depended on making sure the business turned a profit. Doing so required a lot of time and energy. “I think maybe I was left alone too much,” said Louie. “So, my father bought me books because there was no library.”

Reading did more than just give Louie something to do while her parents were busy running the winery. These stories pried open an eager mind and showed her the possibilities. Louie became a voracious reader with an appetite for learning.

In any story, just as in any life, there are moments which change the established narrative and challenge the protagonist. One of those moments for Louie was in 1966, when the Chairman of the Communist Party of China, Mao Zedong, launched the Cultural Revolution. The revolution’s aim was to solidify Communism within China while eliminating or limiting the influence of other forces like capitalism and traditional elements of Chinese society. “Macau became very unstable,” said Louie.

Louie’s parents decided to send their daughter to Hong Kong (at the time a British colony) to live with a relative. “My mom basically told me ‘You’re not going to school tomorrow, you’re going to Hong Kong,’” said Louie.

The then-10-year-old spent the next year away from her immediate family. Chinese was the language of instruction in Macau but not in Hong Kong. “Everything was in English, but I didn’t speak the language,” said Louie. “The teacher would shame me in front of the class and tell everyone I was lazy.”

Louie did learn English, partially by visiting the local library and checking out books. “I actually lived in the books,” she said. “There was an emotional burden of being away from my family that I needed to find a way to deal with, so I found a family in books.”

Louie stayed in Hong Kong for a decade before once again being uprooted. “My mother’s parents had a very successful business in China,” said Louie. “They suffered a lot when the government purged landlords and others from ‘undesirable’ social classes. My mother fled with her parents and from then on had a tremendous fear of living under Communist rule.” Louie’s mother grew anxious about China’s relationship with Hong Kong and sent Louie to the United States.  “My mother knew someone who lived in Seattle, so that’s where I went.”

Supporting English Language Learners

There are multiple subplots within the larger narrative arc of Louie’s story. Perhaps one of the most prominent is her relationship with the University of Washington. Louie came to the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1970s. She attended Seattle University for a year before transferring to UW in 1978. Louie has been with the UW ever since, minus the one year she spent as a faculty member at Seattle Pacific University.

Louie holds five degrees from the UW including a bachelor’s in history, English and education as well as a master’s in teaching English as a second language and a Ph.D. in education. She finished her doctorate in 1991 and came to UW Tacoma a year later. “I was hired to help establish an education program,” she said.

It is unsurprising to learn that someone so committed to reading would spend her early career focused on literacy. “I really want people to use literacy as a tool not just for functional purposes, but for the enrichment of life,” said Louie. To this end Louie developed a philosophy that she tries to instill in her students, many of whom are current or prospective teachers. “I sincerely believe that you cannot just use a tool, especially books, if you don’t love them,” she said. “If you don’t appreciate and interact with the books then your lesson will not come alive.”

Louie received her full professorship in 2005 and decided to change her research focus. “I decided I would use the rest of my time in academia to support English language learners,” she said. Louie wanted to develop a program that would provide training to teachers who work with English language learners. “I didn’t have a lot of experience with grant writing but thankfully my colleagues were very supportive and agreed to help.”

Louie’s original idea morphed into Project TELL (Teaching English Language Learners). Since its inception in 2010, TELL has been awarded multiple grants include two from the Department of Education (DOE) with a combined total of more than five million dollars.

The funding allowed what is now the School of Education to expand its teacher certification program into one that is dual-track. “This is important because a student will get their elementary ed teaching certificate but within a year of graduation they will also get an ELL endorsement,” said Louie. The grants also made possible professional development for teachers in the field who help train student teachers.

Louie originally teamed with school districts in Federal Way, Auburn and Tacoma but has since narrowed her work to focus on Tacoma. “At the time when the first DOE grant came in, Tacoma had about 1,800 teachers and only 5.2% of them were trained in ELL,” said Louie.

For this second DOE grant, Louie has decided to work not just with teachers but also with school administrators and parents. “We recruit parents who are low-income, are immigrants and refugees, and who do not speak English as their first language,” she said. “We then provide them with professional development, mentoring and support to be strong, engaged leaders in their school community.”

Louie has received three other grants for Project Tell. This funding allowed Louie to develop a model that can be used statewide to train teachers in ELL. “My heart really goes out to the smaller school districts in Central and Eastern Washington,” she said. “I called one superintendent and said that UW Tacoma would provide trainings and stipends and he cried because he was so impressed that we cared.”

The pandemic has delayed some of this work and force the rest to happen remotely. Even so, Louie has stepped in and teamed with Stanford University’s d. School (formally the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design) to help ELL students at Boze Elementary in Tacoma. The team started out by interviewing five families to find out how best to assist them academically during the pandemic. The researchers then expanded to 21 families and are now processing that data to determine a set of best practices to employ going forward.

This is the end of this article, but not Louie’s story. Indeed, she is busy writing the next chapter. Or maybe she is reading the next chapter? Chances are it’s both. After all, Louie does possess a time machine, of sorts, and so do you. Just think of where and when you have visited in a span of a little more than 1,300 words.

Section: 
Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / November 5, 2020
Photos by: 
Ryan Moriarty
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu