Learning from Immigrant Perspectives

“What preoccupies me is immediate: the separation I endure with my parents in loss. This is what matters to me: the story of the scholarship boy who returns home one summer from college to discover bewildering silence, facing his parents. This is my story. An American story.”

~Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory, 1982

 

When my grandmother arrived to New York City from Puerto Rico in 1939, New York was one of the main recipients of immigrants from Puerto Rico. At that time, expectations for Puerto Rican achievement were dismal. In 1935, the New York State Chamber of Commerce’s Special Committee on Immigration and Naturalization commissioned a study on the IQ of 240 Puerto Rican schoolchildren in East Harlem. The poor results stigmatized Puerto Ricans as being intellectually deficient. Puerto Rican advocates argued that the children lacked English skills, but it didn’t matter. Reactions to Puerto Rican immigration became toxic.

We have made great progress since then. Still, contemporary public schools struggle with how to engage and effectively teach Latino students who come to the classroom with a wide range of academic, social and emotional needs—not to mention varying English language proficiency levels. Latinos represent over 27% of the nation’s 50.4 million K-12 public school students (NCES, 2016) and there is a growing number of vulnerable Latinos systematically failing academically.[1] In spite of this data, there are numerous success stories we can learn from. My grandmother, for example, managed to provide four children with access to a good education even though she hardly spoke English and had little money or social currency. What was her secret ingredient?

indigenouswisdom pullout

Her secret ingredient was a mindset or a set of beliefs shared by many successful immigrant parents. I call it indigenous wisdom. Indigenous wisdom is the totality of insight and understanding gleaned from life experience and knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Not surprisingly, indigenous wisdom often corroborates with research on how we should approach student engagement, especially for students learning English and academic content.

The following are three insights taken from indigenous wisdom that we can apply to how we build inclusive learning environments:

  • Faith- Faith is about trusting a student’s potential and endless possibilities. Faith is not blind. Rather, it comes from a deep awareness of the power of the human spirit to evolve and learn even in the face of adversity. Faith opens our mind to see past the material world, to transcend dominant narratives, popular opinion or daunting statistics that undermine human agency and spirit. One way effective teachers and school leaders demonstrate faith is by providing students with numerous opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and skill with low-stakes, formative assessments. Informal, low-stakes assessments show progress over time and communicate learning is a process with ebb and flow. Detachment from outcome is a common theme in indigenous wisdom. Educators who have faith detach themselves from outcomes and pour themselves fully into the student-teacher experience.
  • Language as Relationship- Language is how we communicate. It connects our private, inner world to the public domain. Language is the tool by which we build trusting, loving relationships. Indigenous wisdom recognizes love as the most powerful force available to human beings (Arrien, 1993). Similarly, research in learning theory, cognitive sciences, collaborative learning, and engagement all agree that people learn best in community.[2] Immigrant students who are learning English are learning to negotiate new relationships and new terms for community engagement. Teachers need to demonstrate that the classroom is safe and that each student belongs. The safety students experience at home in their native language does not have to conflict with school as long as they know that both have equal value. Teachers can create friendly learning spaces by paying attention to norms for group work and supporting strategic partnerships. ELL students often benefit from working with one partner before moving into larger groups. Language stems for interaction goes a long way in supporting oral language development but also, consider providing students with the choice to remain quiet at times to take a breather, observe, listen and communicate in non-verbal ways.
  • School as Civic Engagement- Indigenous wisdom traditions teach that everything has a purpose. In the Hunger of Memory (1982), Richard Rodriguez recalled how his Mexican born parents taught him that schooling was key to job advancement and a way to ‘ease the path.’ In the school setting, this means explicitly making connections between learning and real world application. Ask, how is this content relevant to the lives of my students? or What life skills are embedded in the activity? The best teachers and school leaders find clever ways to help students and families see how school is a preparation for civic engagement and a pathway to becoming an influential citizen. One way to do this is to teach language and content within a broader, real world context, anchoring units and lessons to universal themes, life situations or social issues. Science and biology, for example, live in a unit on medicine and what to expect when you visit the hospital. Mathematics is taught within a unit on banking and how to open an account.

As we continue to evolve and innovate our school practices to be more responsive to the academic, social and emotional needs of ELL students, it makes perfect sense to tap into the indigenous wisdom of immigrant parents.  By doing so, we not only create inclusive classrooms but we also legitimize the insights of generations immigrants who continue to enrich our lives.

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References 

[1] Issues in Latino Education: Race, School Culture, and the Politics of Academic Success, by Mariella Espinoza-Herold, Ricardo González-Carriedo,

[2] Classroom Community, The Ecology for Learning, Research. Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning, Missouri State, https://www.missouristate.edu/fctl/193962.htm

How do you know if you’re making a difference that matters?

This is the year that everything seems to matter— and yet no one knows if what they do day-to-day matters very much at all. It’s certainly the paradox of our time and especially for teachers. I think it’s important to reflect on our everyday practice and put into question our views about the purpose of education and how we engage young people.

Jacob Needleman writes about an all too typical experience:

“There they were, about fifteen boys and girls, there I was—talking, talking, talking. I couldn’t stop talking. Hands started waving in the air and I finally called on one of the students. But no sooner did she start to bring her question out that I steamrolled over it with an answer that left her absolutely no room for further questioning. I went on talking, amusingly, animatedly bringing in Plato’s cave here, the Upanishads there… Time flew by. The bell rang and suddenly the class was over. That was it, that was all. As the students cheerfully filed past me and I smiled to each of them, exchanging a few informal remarks, I began to realize in my gut what had happened. To be precise: nothing.”

This fiasco, as Needleman called it, propelled him to engage in deep reflection and eventually to take on a high school class in San Francisco after years of teaching at the college level. Later he writes, “My task is to engage that part of them that needs to achieve while calling gently to the part that dreams of Truth.”

Needleman designs his philosophy class around enduring questions that he categorizes as “real, gut-level questions of life that often students are not free to address in educational institutions.” Questions such as:

Why are we here?

Why are we given more advanced brains than other animals?

Is taking another human life ever justified?

What is a human being?

What can we hope for?

Who am I?

What is love?

While I read Needleman’s words in a thin book I found on a cluttered shelf at Strand bookstore (Schools with Spirit: Nurturing the Inner Lives of Children and Teachers, edited by Linda Lantieri) I inhale and exhale deeply. I am inspired and reassured. It is so easy to question.

This is a message to all my fellow writers, philosophers and teachers out there who feel deeply about the quality and character of life. What matters is your willingness to inquire within and to find the magic that transforms the outer world through honest, everyday practice. It is keeping humanity at the center of all things.

Sometimes we are stuck in a place where we have to ask: How do I break through this robotic stance? How do I metamorphose this lifeless, sterile, empty space, this institutionalized public space into a personalized, soul-searching, heartbreaking, life-altering space where the spark of curiosity dances through us continuously?

It is easy to get bullied or brow beaten especially considering the real challenges of teaching and learning. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that examining, exploring, honoring, nurturing the quality of our character, our souls, the core of our human existence is somehow someone else’s job or not so important.

Mathematics, science, ELA and technology are important, but not so much if we do not have the capacity to use knowledge in an ethical and mindful way so that we better our world, ensure we are working for peace. Without an investment in the soul work of teaching every day, in nurturing a sense of belonging, purpose, meaning, and value for all life– we may be accidentally contributing to the self-destructive, violent, and hateful behavior we see tormenting our nation.

Thoughts on Writing: A Blog Hop

After a wonderfully relaxing vacation in Southern Spain, I came home to find an email from Maria Maldonado inviting me to participate in The Writing Blog Tour. As you can imagine, changing the scenery from rustic beaches, majestic mountains spotted with lazy bulls and sunflower valleys to the urban landscape of New York City was not easy. So getting invited to a ‘blog hop’ was exactly what I needed. I’ve known Maria Maldonado for a life time. Not only is she a clinical associate professor of medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and the program director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program at Stamford Hospital, she is also an integral part of my family. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, the “Narrative Matters” section of Health Affairs, and the Journal of the American Medical Association.  She blogs on medical education, health equity, and other matters pertaining to medicine at http://mmaldonadomd.tumblr.com/. You should visit her site. She’s a wonderfully, deep feeling writer.
            The purpose of this blog tour is to talk about writing so we can learn from one another and connect ourselves with other intellectuals who share in this uniquely personal art form. To me, writing has always been a dance with solitude. Although the audience is always out there, the act itself is an intimate and complex tango with all the demons and angels that make up my identity. Yes, I suppose anyone can write. But few have the tenacity and courage to make a life of it. It requires surrender; an acceptance of success and failure as equals and the recognition that in the silence of the moment writing never fails to enlighten.
            So, with this purpose in mind, here are the questions I’ve been asked to ponder:
            What am I working on? I’m currently working on a novel that was born out of a conversation with my son who suggested I write about a new society. I had been stuck on revising old projects for a while and he proposed a completely new, dystopian novel (I believe he said it was absolutely okay to do what other writers are doing) Then he added, “Write something I’d like to read.” Since I consider my son a philosopher with deep thoughts and big questions about life and existence— I felt compelled by his request. I’ve been working on this novel since and as it turns out, I’m enjoying myself tremendously. The developing story is about an independent community charged with fulfilling a young adult’s vision that makes them question the true nature of leadership & our responsibility to others. The novel is my primary project these days although I will continue to post on my blogs.
How does your work differ from others of its genre? I’ve been told my writing speaks to the intellect and the spirit. This makes sense because I’m an educator with a thirst for knowledge and a respect for research. But, I’m also an artist which makes me a rare breed. On the good days, I like to call myself an alchemist of the soul. Years ago when I attended New York University, I wrote a research paper intermingled with poetry. The professor loved it but she didn’t know how to grade it since it was supposed to be academic writing. Fortunately, she figured out a way to give me credit for the piece without having to throw out her tightly defined rubric. This goes to show you that even back then I had a tendency to mix things up a bit. In sum, my writing is infused with questions I hope will inspire people to examine the world we live in and how we can make a difference.
Why do you write what you do? I write about topics that help me build trust with myself, with God, with people and with the world. I write about themes that matter the most, themes that are universal and integral to our existence. I often use my writing as a platform to rant and rave. Life and living are sorely imperfect and writing is an opportunity for me to make peace with the ugly. I write about topics that stimulate the brain, help us transcend the mundane and rethink ourselves out of the box.
How does your writing process work? I’m a spiral writer and just in case I just made that term up, let me explain. I write and then spiral back to the previous page, edit and then continue on, spiral back a bit, edit and continue on. This is for two reasons. First, I need to revisit what I’ve written so I can get back into the zone. Second, I’m a teacher at heart so I find it painful to write without revising at the same time. I’ve read this is the worst thing you can do as a writer—revise while you write, but after many years of doing it compulsively, I’ve accepted this as part of my personal process. Fortunately, it somehow works out in the end. As for the novel I’m working on right now, I’m experimenting with something completely new. I’m writing without a master plan. I’m allowing the novel to unfold like an onion. The truth is, I have no idea where it’s headed. Each day (and I’ve made a commitment to write at least 10 pages a day), the story reveals itself in the moment. It’s not to say I don’t ruminate about it when I’m not writing (that’s impossible!) but I don’t really have it all charted out. This has been extremely liberating to say the least. When I told my daughter (who is a budding writer herself) she said, “Isn’t that so much more fun?” Yup. It is!
It gives me great pleasure to pass on this conversation to a writer and educator who I met a few years ago while grappling with one of my first writing projects. His name is Jude Hollins. Jude lives in Harlem, teaches in the South Bronx and wakes up around 4:30am to write. His current novel project involves a futuristic NYC with diverse characters that reflect the “majority minority” reality that already exists in many American cities. I highly recommend you visit his blog and website where he discusses the YA genre with all of its peculiarities. Jude’s writing is fresh, inventive and quirky. He effortlessly captures the creative lingo of the young people he writes for. Jude will be posting his Writing Blog Tour on August 21. Check him out at  shuiverse.blogspot.com and http://jude-hollins.squarespace.com