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

Ode to Dewey: Powers, Prophecy and Dignity of Teaching

I believe that this educational process has two sides – one psychological and one sociological; and that neither can be subordinated to the other or neglected without evil results following.

Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, 1897

The last few days have been dreadful— a real deep freeze. Not only has the weather been unbearably cold, but our boiler collapsed on New Year’s Eve leaving my family without heat and carbon dioxide scares for three days. On the third morning, I lay paralyzed with madness. I was cocooned in an old blue sleeping bag, several layers of fleece and wool covered feet. In that moment I thought, I’m losing my mind. Trust in my existence waned. I sank deep into my sofa and considered what happens to our body, mind, spirit when outer conditions become increasingly challenging?

My eyes land on the portable heater we borrowed. The steady hum muffles my brain. It didn’t help that I had seen the Mountain Between Us and The Zookeeper’s Wife over the holiday. Everything felt like it could spiral out of control in a minute. What happens when outer conditions become increasingly challenging, arduous and pained? What happens to us when the world fails us, when society fails us— as it happened for the millions of Jews, Poles, Slavs during World War II, the African slaves for over three hundred years, for the Puerto Ricans after the hurricane?

It’s only been three days and I’m feeling bi-polar. I am tight lipped, sullen and defensive. Then suddenly, I’m running outside with a surge of energy and gratitude for life. I log onto the internet. Diane Ravitch posted Dewey’s Pedagogic Creed on her website. I want to read it, to feed my intellect, but I can’t. I’m too cold and lethargic. I decide it makes better sense to drive my daughter to school. I can do this, I think.

I am driving her to school and a yellow bus suddenly stops holding us hostage in the middle of a narrow block. Usually I’d feel agitated, but I’m warm so I relax and observe the scene. Shortly, a mother appears out of the house ushering two children. She zips a coat, tinkers with a hat, hugs, kisses and onto the school bus, one by one they go. There are four cars behind me. The longer we wait, the more I become breathless, the more I surrender to this image— the love and devotion for our children and their education has the power to stop a stream of traffic. It is in an instant a lesson on how our inner world can dictate social consciousness.

I am zooming down the West Side highway. My high school age daughter snoozes in the back seat and I am filled with gratitude for her life, my freedom, her school. The dead boiler and the cold feels temporary and insignificant suddenly. I think about the day to day life of a teacher and school leader who choose a life of service. They build learning communities for children and families who may be experiencing hardship and challenges caused by cracks and gaps in society. We hear stories of fires, natural disasters, trauma. We imagine or know intimately the life of a refugee where suffering and displacement are prolonged. Homelessness, family illness, separations, poverty. So many of us come to school as part-time survivors. How should we approach teaching and learning when our outer conditions appear to be increasingly challenging? How might we design learning communities that are conscientious, that are responsive to the frailty of our society, structures and political arrangements that often fail us miserably? How can we institutionalize our universal love and devotion for the inner and outer lives of all of our children?

When I get back home, I am ready for Dewey’s Pedagogic Creed.

I highlight and bold so many beautiful lines. I interrogate his thinking. Then, I close my lap top and think, what is the best way to share my day’s important discoveries.

I believe that every teacher should realize the dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.

       Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, 1897

 

Raising Children to Believe or Not to Believe

I was at Ikea yesterday buying my daughter a desk. Upon our arrival, my husband and I looked at each other and frowned but quickly got into the Ikea “I’m-cute-even-though-I’m-cheap” mode we loved when we were just starting out. I suppose the initial frown was the reality that twenty years later we might have hoped to be shopping somewhere else, where the furniture is made of solid wood, for example or where we wouldn’t have to come home and put it together. I like Ikea, don’t get me wrong. I liked going there and enjoyed putting my daughter’s desk together with her and my husband even more. It was nice to close the windows on a hot and humid day, put on the AC and do something physical. In the evening, I hugged my daughter as we both stared at the desk and hutch and said, “How exciting is this, huh?” She smiled with happy sleepy eyes and I left her room satisfied. But there was a huge lump in my throat.

Let’s go back for a minute to Ikea so you can understand the lump in my throat.

We were in the ‘Work Stations’ section of the store where you can see all the furniture nicely put together and decorated in neat showcase rooms. The four of us had already spent at least thirty minutes going over the handful of desks and table tops. (We had in all fairness already looked at the one we wanted on line but wanted to be sure and save the delivery fee.) At the last minute, my daughter was considering an alternative style so I told her she could choose either one but should sit at the original desk one more time to be certain.

On the way to the desk, I saw a father and son eyeing the same unit. The son must have been sixteen or seventeen years old and at least six foot three. He was about a foot taller than his father. Both had on flip flops with white tube socks underneath. The son looked like an athlete, or in the very least, an athlete wanna-be. The boy’s hair was straight and slightly oily, his father had the same hair only thinner; the father’s stomach protruding over a similar pair of shorts. I could overhear the father telling his son the unit was perfect and what was wrong with it? The son examined what must have seemed to him a doll sized piece of furniture (that really, I wondered if it was even big enough for my five foot two seventy five pound daughter) while his father described it’s greatness. The son’s face remained straight as his father repeated himself over and over again.

To buy time and give them space, I let my daughter hop around from one unit to another excited about buying her desk for her first year in Junior High. We had given her a budget and had shopped for two weeks on line but after going over all the pros and cons of her small room and the ‘temporal’ nature of the purchase—we had settled on Ikea (she demonstrated just enough enthusiasm to placate any remorse in my mind about wanting to buy something better).

Meanwhile, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the towering young man with his aging father who five minutes later was still trying to convince his son that this small unit was just the right one. I have to tell you, I felt unexplainably tied to that moment as if we were strapped together by some imaginary umbilical cord.  My heart lunged. I was frozen with deep compassion for the moment, I couldn’t stop watching and feeling a broad spectrum of emotions.  As usual, I was probably staring. I wanted to go over there and take them by the hand and show them a bigger desk, one that was also affordable but was just a little further ahead in the showroom. But I couldn’t so I waited and watched to see what the son and father would do.

A few minutes later without saying a word and not changing the expressionless expression on his face, the son walked ahead and found a slightly bigger desk. The father followed behind and when the son pointed it out, he looked at the small tag that dangled on the side. Seeing that the price was about the same as the first, he nodded and starting talking again, the son listening, not saying a word. I knew the father was relieved that there was another option. I swallowed and stared, feeling a heave in my chest as they stood side by side and considered it together, the whole time, the son not changing the expressionless look on his face but standing right there with his Dad, considering. He knew his father wanted to buy him a desk he could afford and he’d make the best sales pitch around it. He knew he was being given a choice in the small window of ‘little to no choice’ but he would act as if he had all the choice in the world.

I have not been able to stop thinking about this father and son moment. In fact, I’m still reeling from the after effects of emotion and I don’t know why really. Perhaps it’s because it makes me examine my own feelings of grief and gratitude and humility. Examine my beliefs around parenting and poverty consciousness, about how to raise children to believe in the midst of scarcity. About what we do for our children (all parents, all children), about the masks we have to put on, about the games we play in order to pretend we’re moving ahead in spite of not having moved ahead very much at all.

I also can’t stop thinking about how that father couldn’t see the size of his son. I know that feeling– wanting your child to stay small forever so you can shelter them from the world. We have the instinct to protect them and we want them to believe the world is wonderful and exciting and abundant and, and, and, and…. I know what it’s like to want time to slow down long enough for me to catch up because as the adult you want your children to see the greater half of yourself, you want to show them how to move ahead, not stay the same and definitely not fall behind.

But there it is. The first day of school arrived like a clock whether you were ready for it or not. Supplies and desks must be purchased. How do we raise children to believe in abundance when we’re faced with scarcity? How do we act based on trust and in total faith in the silent partner of the universe?
I know that moment in the store where I connected with that family will resonate in my soul for a long time. I was reminded I am not alone. I am in the company of millions and millions of parents in the world. We are raising children at a very precarious time. We are one. We are the same. That father’s pain is my pain, his hopes and dreams for his son are my hopes and dreams. His son is my son. I want him to have a desk he can sit at so he can learn and grow into a thinking man.