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?

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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

Where Do Important Lessons Begin and End?

“The pressures of inequality and of wanting to keep up are not confined to a small minority who are poor.”

~Wilkinson & Pickett, The Spirit Level, 2010

“While preparing for a presentation, I start a conversation with the custodial worker assigned to our room. He tells me that my type of work is important, but no matter how much we try to perfect the school and the teacher, nothing will change until we realize that a perfect school in the middle of an impoverished ghetto can never amount to anything. I look up from my neat binder and pile of handouts. The African American man leans over with a squint in his left eye and asks, “What message are we giving a child when we invest in the school but neglect his parents and his community?” I think about this for a long time and I am transformed.” 

~Ríos, Teacher Agency for Equity, 2017

Two important events have happened that carry important lessons.

Lesson #1

My fish got sick. His name is Mr. Anderson. Mr. Anderson is a Betta. Betta’s are very lively and friendly. Since I bought him, I’ve had him in a very small tank that seemed to suit his needs. But with the change of season he started withering. His usual energetic self was now laying at the bottom of the tank. He was lethargic and often buried his head under rocks. Since the weather changed, I decided to add a small heater but it didn’t make a difference. He ate less and less and within days, I began to worry Mr. Anderson wouldn’t make it.

When my son came home for the weekend, he pointed out that Mr. Anderson was depressed. Depressed, I asked? Depressed, he repeated. Maybe you should change his environment, he said while he read up on Bettas on his phone. And you need to talk to him too, Mom. Bettas live alone but they need company.

I bought Mr. Anderson a larger, more vibrant home. I added a filter and some colorful rocks. We all made a special effort to talk to him a lot. Mr. Anderson has not been happier! He swims and darts around all day. His eating habits have improved and he dances for me when I am near enough to see.

While watching Mr. Anderson jiggle his beautiful red polka-dotted body, a feeling of profound appreciation and warmth swept over me. Call me sappy but I felt like he was channeling love, gratitude and the spirit of God to me.

I learned that even a small, loner fish like Mr. Anderson can have needs. I learned that mood is important and moods are tied to our environment. We all need a good space and change. I am reminded of a post I wrote a few years ago called, Mindfulness for Poor People—on the power of space and how often We are forced to stay small to accommodate.

Mr. Anderson gave me permission to acknowledge the causes of my own suffering. I too had been feeling sick and lethargic. I was trying to fix it but doing the wrong things. By being mindful of Mr. Anderson and my environment, I knew what I needed to recharge my spirit.

I have grown out of this space and I am ready for change.

Lesson #2

Last week my daughter texted me to say she was in a shelter. A shelter? I texted back. Yea, she replied, there’s been a shooting. Oh, so that’s what they call lockdown at Stuyvesant, I thought. I marveled once again at the power of language.

I instinctively knew my daughter was safe but I wondered about her inner world—was she scared, disillusioned, saddened by the incident? I ran to my computer to get the news. The first update I got was from Twitter, my new ‘go-to.’ Within minutes more tweets were posted with information and photos. It was already being labeled a terror attack.

I slipped into the world of cyber space. Simultaneously, I sent numerous texts to my daughter and husband coordinating their escape from lower Manhattan. Forty minutes passed before I looked up from the screen and my eyes landed on the black bat I had put up for Halloween. Below it was a large bowl of Costco candy. That’s when it hit me. Another holiday tradition usurped by violence, stress, anxiety.

It wasn’t until eight o’clock that I left the house to get my daughter and husband at the train. They crawled into the car with dark circles under their eyes. They were flushed over with that withered, sour smell of the subway.

The next day we decided to keep our daughter home from school. I told her it was important to take time to pause and reflect. I recommended she rest and say a prayer for the dead. She looked at me sideways.

Not surprisingly, her fortress of a school opened ‘business as usual.’ Teachers, administrators and school leaders courageously opened their doors, taught a full day and led. A part of me envied how easy it was for them to just carry on. But then I realized— isn’t that what we keep doing— over and over again? We just keep carrying on?

I learned that violence, stress and anxiety are real, heavy shared universal human experiences. How fast we can absorb, process and digest the daily dose of violence, stress and anxiety is still considered an individual’s mental health problem. We talk about the negative effects of cortisol and trauma on kids and learning. Teachers and school leaders absorb the same chemicals and it results in chronic low trust, depression, poor health and random, peculiar, anti-social behaviors we often see in our schools and communities.

I learned there are no borders, labels, nor identities that can individually claim the type of violence, stress, anxiety we are experiencing as a society. We are one, big, ravaging sponge-like organism, with little fires sprouting out from all over our limbs. Whether you are home alone or in company, whether you reside at the middle or on the top, or even if you’re dead in the roots your soul screeching and squirming—we are all One.

 

Moving from Mindfulness to Advocacy

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“In its position on The Gates of Hell, The Thinker occupies the center of the lintel and presides over the figures of the damned that populate the doors below. Behind him a chaotic dance of death takes place. He sits apart, stripped of clothing, and no symbol remains to assist us in his identification. He is perhaps the poet, the creator, the judge, the sculptor – all of these or none.” The Thinker, Rodin, The MET, NYC

Yesterday I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I meandered into a long, rectangular room until I was face to face with Rodin’s most famous work, The Thinker. It was a smallish sculpture that hovered over three others, each triple in size. To the left, there was Adam who seemed to be emerging. To the right Eve who hid her face in shame. Between them, a group of male bodies called The Three Shades. When I approached the tiny inscription on the wall, I learned that The Thinker belongs to a greater, albeit unfinished masterpiece called The Gates of Hell.

I was stunned. All these years, I never knew. The Thinker is the central figure of a bigger vision! A chaotic dance of death and multiple figures of the damned. What is the purpose of this Thinker? I ask myself.  I had arrived at the museum fixated on another question which I realized was sort of the same: How do we move from mindfulness to transforming our world through education?

According to Dr. Chris Goto-Jones in a course he designed called, Politics of Mindfulness, the mindfulness revolution which is led primarily by white, middle class Americans, does not require any particular change in values or economic systems, but simply involves our becoming able to relate to them differently—with more patience, gentleness and compassion. Further he adds, for a ‘revolution,’ this movement seems to show remarkable conservatism.

In the field of education, I have often observed how the mindfulness movement for teachers and schools is about coping with stress. It can be interpreted as an individual therapeutic device or a way to accept (albeit with compassion and awareness) the way things are.

In my view, there is something missing in this perception of mindfulness. For me mindfulness is a spiritual act, one that leads to reciprocal transformation. It is an act of Conscientious Engagement that engenders courage, advocacy, seeking out and defending truth. As intended by ancient wisdom and tradition of Buddhism—mindfulness is about freedom from suffering for the self and for all living beings. That is because mindfulness leads to enlightenment which is the full destruction of any illusion of duality—in other words, there is no “other.” Freedom, in my mind, can never be an individual state , but rather only exists in community.

What is the value of The Thinker in society? A poet, a writer, a teacher, for example—a person who makes a life out of reflecting on knowledge, on interrogating our purpose as human beings, engaging with extremely complex topics in such a way that we can evolve and grow. This is at the heart of education, isn’t it, the passing on knowledge, skills, values, and beliefs from one generation to the next? What is the value we place on education?

I am asking these questions not just because of the recent proposed 9.2 billion dollar cut to the education budget, but because we are living in a world that is increasingly driven by dramatic, public displays of Actions that beg us to reflect on what we value—

Politicians grandstanding, television cameras taping, Twitter feeds feeding, soldiers fighting, angry people protesting, police arresting, bombs bursting, madmen hating, guns killing, teenagers drinking, escape pills popping, campaigns circulating, business deals signing, stocks investing, prison guards guarding, retirees redecorating, shoppers consuming, birthdays at Disney…

After a long time of feeling lost in chaotic thoughts, I step back from The Thinker and I accidentally crash into a mother wearing a hijab. She is holding the hand of her young daughter who looks about six. My sandal almost pops off so I bend down to fix it. When I stand up to regain my balance, the mother apologizes several times and she scurries away, her beautiful daughter looking back at me with luminous eyes. In that instant, I remember who and where I am. My mind flashes back to that time when I was waiting to meet a principal in a small Bronx elementary school. At the center of her office there was a small round table surrounded by books. One book was propped up in the center so I grabbed it and read it. It was called, What Do You Do With An Idea?

I was transformed. By the time the principal arrived, I was soft-hearted, open and clear minded. Any school leader with this book at the center of her office, on a child sized table matters deeply to our society. Without knowing anything more about her, I loved her and her role in the world instantly.

This year I published a book. And even though my writing miraculously found its way out into the world thanks to my editor at Routledge, I still sometimes get a little lost. It’s so easy to forget one’s whole journey, one’s purpose. Who am I and do my words and actions matter?

My goal for writing the book was to provide a guide for others like me to move from thinking and mindfulness to action, to develop every day practices that matter in the real world of schools and institutions, always keeping equity in mind. I believe that we can build an egalitarian society if we can envision it but I am not sure if everybody believes this is possible and if they do, they may not know how to be proactive. Sometimes, I feel we are fragmented…those who sit in meditation and do yoga and believe in small acts of kindness and those who are riled up, rightly angry and speak out passionately against injustice. What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!

How do we pull these worlds together? Do we share the same language, the same dream?

I also believe we are each equipped with a divine intelligence to move us in the direction of unity. Sometimes, it’s easy to get lost, to forget our power, to know what we do and say matters very much in the world, be we are very equipped for greatness. We will move beyond this.

In my book I discuss six principles that I envision will help us move from mindfulness to transforming our institutions in society, starting with education organizations and schools. I outline in detail the rationale for these principles and provide real world examples of the practice. It is just a beginning. Moving forward, I will rely on each and every one of you, those of you in the field, to share back, to respond, to help keep building this new language and an understanding for this important work.

Take a look first.

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