Category: public schooling

Immersion and the bilingual “every-child-USA” narrative

Students who are first-language speakers of a language other than English are, in America, categorized as English Language Learners, or ELLs, and our country’s history of working with these learners has been complicated and politically fraught. Oftentimes, references to federal decisions such the landmark Supreme Court case Lau v. Nichols in 1974 or state-level legislation such as California’s Proposition 227 in 1998 come into the conversation as markers of the pendulum that swings between conservative and progressive viewpoints. The former view tends to advocate for an assimilation-minded view favoring transitioning students into the mainstream classroom as quickly as possible, in which ELLs’ home language is seen as a barrier to academic, social, and economic opportunity (and, in earlier times, a form of deviance deserving of shaming and punishment). The latter, in contrast, asserts that ELLs’ home language is a cultural resource and a dimension of their identities which must be incorporated as a necessary dimension of equitable and ethical education.

Sometimes, through all of these important and lofty ideas, the actual local experience of a learner can get lost. We in academia argue passionately about what Paulo Freire would say, how Gloria Anzaldúa expressed this struggle to self-identify as a linguistic being in the face of intersecting, possessing forces, what Ofelia García argues is the politically committed way of thinking about the education of linguistically non-dominant learners…yet the imagination can get bound up with constructs and move away from lived experience.

I found a short movie today that brings this lived experience, different for every learner, into focus for overthinkers in the ivory tower. The movie, called “Immersion,” tells the story of Moises, a young Spanish-speaking boy who struggles to navigate education in an English-only classroom, in modest yet potent tones. The 12-odd minutes are worth the reconnection to the complex and fragile,”every-child-USA” narrative told through his eyes. (For more information on the movie and how to get involved, check out the website at http://www.immersionfilm.com/.)

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Undocumented immigrants and schooling: a class discussion

I’m teaching a grad course on Bilingualism and tonight we discussed the important but under-explored issues related to working with students who are undocumented/unprotected. Students in my class come from all backgrounds, some of which include being children of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, and some have even been undocumented at some point in their own lives. Rather than parse the complex and deeply emotional and personal space our class created once again as we worked together on topics drawn from a paper by Suárez-Orozco, Yoshikawa, Teranishi and Suárez-Orozco entitled Growing Up in the Shadows: The Developmental Implications of Unauthorized Status, I’ll share what I posted, humbled and deeply grateful, to my students tonight after class.

Hi everyone,

The “I don’t know” of student data collection

I mentioned a podcast I listened to recently called Clearing the FOG, a left-leaning independent radio station that explores a variety of issues that revolve around corporate avarice, inequality, and the ways in which democracy as we know it is being bent to the will of the few. In this podcast, entitled “Education Under Attack, Teachers Fight Back,” the invited guests talked about a number of topics relating to misinformation about public schooling and how this is being used to control classrooms, teachers, and school districts while servicing the rich and the powerful. I was reminded tonight of a comment made by the participants that a report had come out in 2013 revealing that researchers had been collecting data on 3rd and 4th graders’ test scores to determine the number of beds in a youth detention center that should be built in Seattle.

Hard to believe, isn’t it?

Luckily, it’s not true (see the Politifact page that debunks this claim.) The purpose of my rug-pulling is to articulate the issue of data-driven decision-making, or DDDM, which has gained popularity at various levels of society over the last couple of decades, including in the medical and financial fields as well as in education. (For a liberal discussion, read this; for a conservative view, read this.) Motivating the increased collection and use of student data in academic assessment and the administration of resources is the slashing of budgets in public schools and the search for cheaper, more quantifiable means of monitoring students’ progress, tracking their behavior, even collecting information on what they buy for lunch using a student ID card. I was inspired by PBS Newshour’s story entitled “Why digital education could be a double-edged sword” and I think a privacy expert’s comment really caught my attention:

“We can envision a day, for example, that a health insurance company wants to see what they ate when they were third graders to decide how they’re going to underwrite insurance. Is it farfetched? Could be. We don’t know.”

It’s the I don’t know that scares me (and many parents, including an upset mother whose son’s social security number was stolen by an deviant employee). The ability to predict the future, especially when it involves profit, is a dangerously tempting prospect for many privatizing interests in public schooling. These interests are promoting the use of data-driven decision-making to justify teacher layoffs, develop curriculum that is cheaper to deliver and involves fewer teachers (the term “personalized” is a misnomer), and create charter schools (which are not proven to be any better than their non-charter counterparts) to replace public schools and soak up scarce government funds. I’m not a number-fearful liberal; rather, I’m a grad student who’s learning about quantitative information that can be shifted and dolloped and shaped to serve certain interests. And it’s the not knowing what the consequences of broad and unsubstantiated student data use yet are – combined with the fact that people on the ground level who are teaching and learning in schools are the objects of such flawed and self-serving decision-making – that makes this a threat we must address for all of our futures.

A call to action: adult immigrants as heterogeneous learners (too)

Tonight, Ofelia Garcia and Jim Cummins, two of the world’s most well-respected linguists and educators, spoke at the Graduate Center of CUNY where I am doing my PhD. I work with Ofelia and tonight, my graduate students got a chance to tune in with me to watch the discussion, which dealt with multiliteracies and multilingualism in North American public education. Garcia, a Cuban immigrant who started her teaching career as a public school teacher in the 1970s in the United States, has seen and written about the tectonic shifts in American public discourse about education, particularly the practice of bilingual education in its various manifestations. Garcia’s work has inspired a paradigm shift in how language is used in the education of language minority students, especially through her popularization of Cen Williams’ concept of translanguaging, which she articulates as both a theory and a pedagogy that accesses and values students’ diverse linguistic repertoires. Doing so, she reasons, constitutes a political act as well as a strategic commitment for a better and more just education for all learners, including immigrant children.

Garcia spoke of his this conversation has changed since she was a public school teacher, as immigrant students who are “linguistic minority” are now the speakers of Chinese, Urdu, and Romanian, rather than Spanish. “Teacher education has to address this larger heterogeneity,” she affirmed, a point I was heartened to hear. Ethnolinguistic identity is central to learning that is inclusive and to moving in a politically and ethically honest direction. I hope such a comment comes through the voice of a trendsetter signaling a coming sea change, rather than as a drop in the bucket. If I, her epigone (one of hundreds), could add a quieter second call to action, I’d add to this challenge that teacher education must open up its own repertoires to include adult immigrant learners whose languages are diverse and who they themselves are ontologically, culturally, and sociopolitically different than children, even those from their own families. This is a blind spot and an unsung place of heterogeneity that has been conveniently avoided in teacher education for too long.

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Fear and the voice of silence in American education

Every week I try to listen to Clearing the FOG, a podcast created by Washington, DC activists Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese which challenges the status quo of corporate greed that has resulted from the rising preeminence of the neoliberal worldview in the United States. Flowers and Zeese welcome weekly guests to discuss the prison-industrial complex, global warming, geopolitics and international trade, and many other topics that bring in local voices and efforts in what seems to be a hope-sapping time.

On March 7th, Clearing the FOG invited Stephen Krashen and Timothy Skelar, internationally known education scholars, to discuss the state of American schooling in a segment entitled “Clearing the FOG and the Attack on Education.” Krashen says much of what we already know as progressive thinkers in the arena of schooling. He articulates salient and continuing issues including the demonization of teachers — who he argues are doing just fine and should, because of their expertise, be sources of insight in educational policy-making, rather than the targets of value-added measurements — and the fallacious conviction that testing is the means by which we should “save our schools” (in quotes because American public schools are some of the best in the world, once you control for issues relating to poverty and its significant impact on the academic and social behaviors of children). Krashen avers that educators, teacher education programs and education research all have been characterized as “broken,” a shift in public discourse which justifies the movement of millions of dollars of federal aid into the pockets of venture funders and other private interests who fund charter schools, teacher academies (which put new practitioners into the classroom after 5 weeks of training), and other “innovative” solutions. It is these private interests, corporations like Microsoft and ExxonMobil with little or no experience with educational theory, practice, or research, who most stand to benefit from the trope that public schools in America don’t work, contributing to what Henry Giroux calls a neoliberal drive to change public education into a private good.

There is so much to say, so much to lament…and yet possibly so much to take heart for. Krashen derides colleagues of his who he says have sold out and conduct research that is funded by big corporate interests like the Gates Foundation that seek to continue the justification for privatization of public schools. No one is protesting except for a few, he says, though some are writing about this. I agree and often feel sadness and resentment in cataloguing those whose voices of resistance are getting out there, including Noam Chomsky, Henry Giroux, Diane Ravitch, Alfie Kohn, Krashen himself, and others. Most of those who speak boldly — and just about all of those whose voices come out loudest — are those who are already established, whose careers cannot be destroyed by a passionate tweet or a fiery blog post.

I am left with a thought. Who else in academia has both relative amounts of safety as well as access to resources to do the research that is not being shared and get the word out that is not being heard besides tenured professors? Graduate students. It is true that we must pass our classes, build our committees, develop relationships with faculty and make connections with other programs and departments where we hope we’ll be hired in the future. Yet we can experiment, explore, push boundaries, and challenge status quo in conferences, graduate workshops, student publications, and local organizing. Of course we worry about what all of these actions might mean to our future prospects. But not committing our efforts, even in a small and collaborative way, might mean a darker, colder future for all of us, including not only our students but also our colleagues and ourselves. Without the political commitments we study in the abstract, without consistent ethical reflection and revision, our work will remain self-serving, a means of competing for jobs rather than taking up one of many waiting torches.

What will this look like? I’m not sure. I have friends who say we all have different skills, different voices to lend to the cry for change, and some are better behind the scenes. This is true. But I also know that silence can act as a voice when no words are spoken.

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