PICO RIVERA — Jose Rodriguez was working the fields in Fresno when his wife called from Los Angeles with the good news: He had been offered a teaching job in the El Rancho Unified School District.
For five years, Rodriguez was a migrant agricultural worker, moving with the crops from Indio to Fresno to Northern California. He learned English, earned his high school diploma and went to college to become a teacher.
But after graduating in 1975 he could not find a teaching position. So back to the fields he went for three months, because somebody had to support his wife and three children.
That was 13 years ago. Last month, Rodriguez was named one of California's two migrant-education master teachers, in recognition of his pioneering work in creating Spanish-language computer software.
As a master teacher, Rodriguez will spend some of the next year training other teachers around the country in the use of bilingual software.
"I noticed how our limited-English speakers were being deprived of access to technology," said Rodriguez, 38, who was born in Mexico and came to the United States in 1965.
"I understand these kids, having lived through their own experiences, having gone through a different language and knowing what a challenge it is to understand the concepts in a different language."
So after spending three years as a first-grade teacher, Rodriguez began designing the software.
Spanish-speaking children in kindergarten and first grade begin by spelling simple words in Spanish on the computer after the word is briefly flashed on the screen. If the word is spelled correctly, the child advances to the next word. If it is wrong, incorrecto flashes in capital letters and the word is repeated.
Older children punctuate sentences in Spanish and complete reading lessons on the computer.
Rodriguez, who has been a full-time computer resource teacher for the district, says the goal is to teach the children English without depriving them of their ability to speak Spanish. So Spanish-speaking children work with Spanish software until about third grade, when the transition to English begins.
"I tell them languages are just a game," Rodriguez said. "Words are parallel in English and Spanish."
Rodriguez estimates that he has designed close to 1,000 bilingual programs for kindergarten through seventh grade that are in use in all the schools of the El Rancho district. He said he has not sought copyrights on the software because he wants it to become part of a Spanish language data bank available nationwide.
He said that he fears if the software were sold commercially, school districts would not be able to afford the programs, which he can duplicate for about 50 cents apiece.
Word of his software has spread, and he has distributed copies of his programs at migrant-education conferences in Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego and other cities.
"These migrant kids are very special," Rodriguez said. "Give them a little confidence and they'll manage."