Penn Student’s Serendipitous Snapshot Develops Into Award-Winning Image

For one University of Pennsylvania doctoral student, promoting increased access to education around the globe led to an unanticipated title: award-winning photographer.

Nathan Castillo, who is enrolled in the Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Development program in Penn’s Graduate School of Education, works with developing nations to enhance their education delivery systems. 

Originally from Dallas, Castillo has always been interested in international travel and learning from different cultures. 

Before coming to Penn GSE, he spent more than two years in the Peace Corps in the western highlands of Guatemala, an experience that showed him he could have a fulfilling career in international development while making positive contributions to developing education systems.

Castillo wanted to work in a premier research setting that had a strong commitment to international education. That’s why he chose Penn.

“I was particularly interested in working with my advisor, Daniel A. Wagner, out of the International Literacy Institute for his long-standing contributions to the field of educational development around the world,” he says.

Part of Castillo’s research examines the complexities of early literacy in settings with multiple languages.   

Currently, he is analyzing data from his recent research project on early literacy in South Africa.  This past summer, as part of the Bridges to the Future Initiative, an All Children Reading project administered by South Africa’s Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy, Castillo traveled to there for two weeks to study the appropriateness of a reading assessment for first- through third-graders in a complex multi-lingual context, including three indigenous languages and English. 

One morning, as the youngsters were lining up at Greenside Elementary, two girls from the second-grade class were waiting for their turn to try out the reading game Castillo and others brought to the school that day.  It was at this moment that he captured his award-winning photograph, “Ready to Learn.”

The simple black-and-white image, that Castillo says he snapped “by chance,” took the grand prize for the inaugural Penn GSE Summer Photo Contest.

“The students were all being lined up by grade and it was a bit chaotic at first,” says Castillo.  “I snapped the picture of these second grade learners because they were one of the first groups to compose themselves while the rest of the group was getting settled.”

Looking back at his photograph, Castillo appreciates the image’s overall composition and what it means to permanently freeze a moment in time.

“I really liked how the lines from the brick wall played into the shot and especially how the emotion in the girls’ faces comes out as they analyze the scene with curiosity about the activities we were bringing for them that morning,” adds Castillo.  “I think it captured their anticipation perfectly.”

Castillo says preliminary observations from the research are positive, especially when incorporating the electronic version of the measurement instrument. 

“Ultimately, the assessment will be used to compare initial learning outcomes after a seven-month implementation of a multi-media based literacy curriculum that is being developed locally by the Molteno Institute,” he explains.

Penn GSE has provided Castillo with the opportunity to analyze education both abroad and in the United States.

In addition to his international research, he was a part of a team of researchers who co-authored “Succeeding in the City,” a report investigating black and Latino male achievement in New York City’s public high schools.

Led by Shaun Harper, a professor in GSE and the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, Castillo and other members of the research team spoke with 415 study participants during the course of the semester, resulting in more than of 600 hours of interview data about minority student success.

Castillo says being involved with the study was an excellent way to launch his doctoral studies because it provided a practical application of what he was learning in the classroom.

“This project gave me the opportunity to take methods courses on one end, while directly participating in the full-scale research process,” Castillo adds.  “With the team, I formulated research questions, developed instruments and helped collect and analyze data for a high-profile policy report for national circulation.”

He says “Succeeding in the City” has the potential to make a larger, more substantial impact if replicated.

“With the kind of momentum the report is receiving, there is a real opportunity to affect change about how young men, their parents, teachers and school administrators promote persistence and success in urban settings,” Castillo says.  “Dr. Harper is looking to build on the early success of the project to expand the research to every major city across the country.”

Castillo will graduate in 2016 with a Ph.D. in human development, with a focus on program evaluation and appropriate uses of technology for improving learning outcomes among marginalized populations.

Castillo plans to continue his applied research in international education development as a professor.  But, he says, he doesn’t think he will completely remove himself from the field work that has played such a big role in his professional development.

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