Sonia Nieto

SONIA NIETO is Professor Emerita of Language, Literacy, and Culture in the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Amherst. Having regularly visited the Brooklyn Public Library as a child growing up in New York City, Nieto felt inspired to become a teacher, earning her bachelor’s degree in education with a minor in Spanish from St. John’s University (Brooklyn) and graduate degrees from New York University and UMass Amherst. In her early career, she served primarily Puerto Rican students as a bilingual/English Second Language teacher, and later a curriculum specialist at the first fully bilingual school in the Northeast.

Her experiences reaffirmed her belief that multicultural education must transcend the curriculum and address the structure of inequality in schools for students of color. As a faculty member, educational researcher, and scholar, Nieto has dedicated more than 35 years to promoting equality and equity in educational opportunities through multicultural education that includes all types of differences. Lecturing widely in the United States and abroad, Nieto has received numbers awards and honors for teaching including recognition as the Multicultural Educator of the Year (1997, National Association for Multicultural Education) and Outstanding Language Arts Educator of the Year (2005, National Council of Teachers of English) as well as scholarship as a fellow of the Annenberg Institute (1998-2000), the American Educational Research Association (AERA; 2011), and the Learning Policy Institute (2015). Also honored for her advocacy and commitment to social justice issues as a recipient of the AERA Social Justice in Education Award (2008) and six honorary degrees, Nieto has authored or edited ten books and numerous other scholarly publications. Her book, Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education (now in its 6th edition), is among her most influential works and widely used in teacher preparation and in-service courses nationwide. Her other books include: The Light in Their Eyes: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities (1999/2010); Language, Culture, and Teaching (2002-2010); What Keeps Teachers Going? (2003); Finding Joy in Teaching Students of Diverse Backgrounds (2013); and Brooklyn Dreams: My Life in Public Education (2015). In her retirement, Nieto continues her work as an advocate for multicultural education, teacher preparation, and the education of Latinos/as and other culturally and linguistically diverse student populations.

For more information, visit Sonia Nieto’s Website. To learn more about Sonia Nieto from her family and friends, visit her Reflections. To view photographs from Sonia Nieto’s personal collection, visit her Photo Gallery.

Video Interviews with Sonia Nieto:

See all five of the full interviews with Sonia Nieto below.

Born and raised with her siblings in Brooklyn, New York, Dr. Sonia Nieto recalls how hard her parents worked as immigrants from Puerto Rico to buy and successfully run their own bodega (a small grocery store). Learning Spanish as her native language, Nieto notes that she “does not remember much about that first year [in school] except not having the words.” Noting that she attended public schools throughout her childhood, Nieto describes her excitement at the purchase of the family’s first home in a middle class neighborhood, adding that “her life changed because her family changed zip codes.” Nieto, a very good student who always liked school, had long known that she wanted to be a teacher, perhaps in part she explains because teachers were “the only professionals” she knew. Watch this clip to hear more from Dr. Nieto about why she decided at age ten that she would attend college and begin her career as a bilingual teacher given her commitment to equal and equitable opportunities for all students.

Having joined her older sister, Lydia, as a student at St. John’s University in Brooklyn, Dr. Sonia Nieto seized an opportunity to study in Spain after graduating with an undergraduate degree in education (and a minor in Spanish). Having met her husband Angel while aboard, Nieto explains that they married after a whirlwind courtship of only a few months. As a first-year teacher, she also poignantly describes feeling overwhelmed and doubtful that she would ever return to the classroom. However, her later experiences as a bilingual/English Second Language teacher, first for adults at the Spanish American Institute and then for 4th grade students at the first fully bilingual school in the Northeast, inspired her to apply for a position as an instructor in the Puerto Rican Studies Department at Brooklyn College. In this clip, learn more from Dr. Nieto about her experiences as one of very few female, Puerto Rican doctoral students, and the profound impact of her first course in multicultural education on her future work as a scholar.

Cherishing the opportunity to travel across the state and work with parents, Dr. Sonia Nieto recalls her invaluable experience at the Bureau of Equal Educational Opportunity in the Massachusetts Department of Education. The opportunity to join the faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst further enabled Nieto to share her passion for teaching with future educators. Explaining that reforms intended to support traditionally under-served students are very often beneficial for all students, Nieto describes her initial surprise at the widespread popularity and profound influence of her first book, Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education. Watch this clip to also learn from Dr. Nieto about her impressions on the impact of standardized testing on student learning and the critical loss of teachers who leave the profession too soon.

As the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, Dr. Sonia Nieto describes her passion for writing about the experiences of Puerto Rican students in American schools. At a time when there were few Puerto Rican scholars in the academy, she explains her commitment to providing resources to teachers that she wished had been available when she taught in the classroom. Recalling a long-ago conversation with a student who had not previously encountered her work, Nieto adds that she continued to write in part “to prove that Puerto Ricans can write books.” Although she has been retired for nearly a decade, Nieto remains excited and motivated to engage in the field. In this clip, share with Dr. Nieto her dedication to preparing teachers “for the kids who will be in their classrooms today.”

When asked to reflect on her research and scholarship, Dr. Sonia Nieto describes her accomplishments with humility, explaining that she hopes she has “led teachers and students to think about education differently.” Adding that there is still more work to do, whereas Nieto firmly believes in the profound opportunities teachers have to impact their students—after all, there is “nothing like a really great teacher.” Influenced in her own life by her husband Angel and family, she also credits teachers, colleagues, and scholars who have helped shape her work over the years. As a self-ascribed learning junkie, she remains inspired by the highest-needs students and their teachers. In this clip, hear more from Dr. Nieto about her hope for the future and advice for graduate students and young scholars who (also) want to make a difference.