The Backlash: Attitudes overseas about Refugee Kids attending public school reflect what we may be facing here in the US

It is not new news that many countries in Europe, and more recently Canada, have been taking refugees from Syria and other war-torn regions for months, and that the “honeymoon” period of goodwill and charity is starting to wear thin–and the backlash is growing. See this article:

As an educator here in the US, particularly in Arizona, a state not known for particularly liberal views or  an “open-armed” policy toward immigrants,  I am concerned that these children and their families, who will be coming from various war zones around the world–Syria and Iraq most notably–will be facing just such resistance and unwelcome attitudes in our own community.

I found out just a few weeks ago, that we could expect an undisclosed but possibly large group of immigrant students, due to enroll in our school as early as mid-October. An apartment complex nearby likely took a contract to house as many families as they could accommodate, with some families having up to 8 members in a household. This is a bit of a stressful situation, mainly in how our classrooms may need to grow in size, which may possibly even create a need for combination classes—mainly ESL combo classes, which means my current position as a resource “pull-out” teacher may become a thing of the past. Although I am an experienced classroom teacher, even combo-grades, I like my current position. On the other hand, I look forward to the challenges and the joys of working with refugee students again.

This doesn’t mean I do not acknowledge the concerns about our school “climate” changing drastically (a big concern for my principal), or that there is likely to be health and mental/emotional issues among these children–I do, and there will be issues on a scale this school is not likely to have faced in some time. But this is what I have prepared for most of my professional life, and all of my training and schooling is going to be put to the test.

But the real issue here are the rights of the refugee students–they have a right to safe haven, to be able to go to school, to feel accepted. And with the current public climate, that terrorism is somehow following these children into our country, I am doubly concerned. I am going to need to advocate like never before. Will our community be up to the task?

Will I?

I truly hope so, for theirs—and all of our sake.



Alicia Keys short film: Let Me In

This is a very poignant and beautiful example of what it might be like if the tables were turned, and we in the West were the refugees. I believe Alicia Keys is a great activist spirit, sent from heaven (with a voice to match), and I wanted to share her vision with you here…As another human being who loves and respects all lives, most especially the thousands of refugee lives across the globe, who need our love and compassion, and shelter from the storm. Please watch! Via Upworthy on Facebook.

I #shOwup for Education

Recently, I read that Global Citizen was starting a movement called #shOwup to give voice to those of us working, in our own small way, to make changes to the world that will hopefully raise awareness and bring an end to poverty in our lifetime. Part of this movement is to educate others, but most especially girls and women. Few experiences in my life mean more to me then the opportunities I’ve had to impact the lives of children from other countries, whose families came to America to save their children from war, economic crises, even genocide.

I have been able to work in the classroom, and as a volunteer, teaching mainly English Language, but also general life skills, like swimming. Last year, each Saturday over 6 months, I worked with a local refugee resource and network organization, teaching English language mainly to adult refugees, mostly women, from countries like Birundi, the Sudan, Tanzania, Mexico, and Bhutan. Along with these lessons, I taught basic math skills involving money, time, and reading a western calendar. I taught them about local resources available to them, and spoken phrases to get the help and assistance they deserve. Often, they would bring their children, and the lessons would include them as well!

This summer, I  volunteered for a week of swimming lessons at the same community residences, teaching refugee kids how to avoid drowning, but also how to have fun in the water. I worked with two other awesome and dedicated volunteers, again through Iskashitaa. I made a commitment to come back after the school year begins, and volunteer a day of homework help per week to the kids of a Somali family. I have come full-circle in this, as I began my service to refugees through Iskashitaa when I was still a novice teacher, back in 2007.

Over the years, I have volunteered when I could, and also made sure to stay educated myself. I have taken many hours of professional development, mostly online and for free when I could. The local University of Arizona Center for English as a Second Language (CESL) department offers many free classes, to teachers as well as students. Currently though, I have taken the big step of going back to college for a Master’s degree in Multicultural Education and ESL (at NAU). I am taking two courses per semester, and incurring more loan debt as I go…but I am hoping it is a means to an end. I’ve decided to dedicate my life to Education, so I felt it was time to increase my knowledge and skills, and hopefully to reach a broader audience.

My eventual plan is to go to another country, perhaps through the Peace Corps, and teach English in a community far from my home. I feel this to be my ultimate mission as a teacher, one I aim to complete before I have to retire (I am already 50 years old, so I need to get on it!). Then I will truly be a Global Citizen.


Culturally Relevant Education Workshop with Dr. Love

I recently attended a 3-day workshop and seminar at the U of A, called The Culturally Relevant Education Seminar, sponsored by the Department of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy & Instruction within my district. With the temps hitting upwards of 115 degrees for most of those 3 days, I was happy to be in the air-conditioned kiva, learning with colleagues from across the city. I was also honored to be in the presence of so many awesome educators, community leaders, and speakers of color, as well as artists and performers sharing their cultures and craft.

But I was most affected by this keynote speaker and educator, Dr. Bettina Love. Dr. Love  is an award-winning author and Associate Professor of Educational Theory & Practice at the University of Georgia. I had seen her present before, through a video on TEDx UGA that was required viewing in my Cultural Education Foundations coursework. So I was very surprised and pleased when she was featured on day three of the seminar.

Dr. Love uses hip-hop sensibility and culture to transform urban education, tapping into students’ cultural intelligences, informing the way in which students can learn about their social and cultural identities, while being active in social justice. She uses music, digital technologies, and full-body kinesthetic learning techniques to enhance student engagement, and provide them with a voice. She makes a very eloquent argument for shifting the current paradigm of education to include tools and experiences that relate directly to the lives and academic needs of students of color.

As a teacher of inner-city youth myself, I have tried, with limited success, to bring some of these techniques and methods to bear in the classroom, particularly the inclusion of musical genres that the students share and respond to. I realize, as a white educator in a predominantly WASP culture, my understanding of Hip-Hop culture and what it is like to be African American in our society is limited at best. But what I do know is, my students–African American, Latino, Indigenous, along with many other cultures–want to learn, but most importantly, they want to be accepted and heard. So I will continue to use all the tools and research at my disposal to provide them with a voice, and an alternative way to learn.

I invite my readers to check out Dr. Bettina Love’s website, and view the TEDX video, as this was pretty much a similar presentation to what I experienced at the CRE seminar.

She is launching a website soon that will feature a curriculum, tools and materials to enhance learning in the urban classroom, called Get Free. I believe it is still a work in progress, but if you watch Dr. Love’s website,  I think it will be available soon.

The need for this way of teaching, and a curriculum to deliver it,  is  so important now, more than ever. With the predominance of racial violence, intolerance, and the negation of social and economic resources being made available to multi-racial cultures and the poor in this country, we must begin to inspire the hearts and minds of the next generation, show them that their lives do matter, and be active in the call for social justice.

Education is Power. Knowledge is Freedom.

Week #6 Journal-Thoughts on Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

As is obvious from the history and undeniable evidence presented in the Brown Lecture by Teresa McCarty, that culturally responsive pedagogy is extremely successful in bringing about positive change, not only in education as a whole, but in providing students, their families, and communities, a voice…not only through the application of their first language, but through social action, activism, and applied cultural traditions and life-ways, within the framework of American Education. In reading from The Cultural Responsive Teaching website, I found this quote foremost on my mind:

“Parents are the child’s first teacher and are critically important partners to students and teachers. To help parents become aware of how they can be effective partners in the education process, teachers should engage in dialogue with parents as early as possible about parents’ hopes and aspirations for their child, their sense of what the child needs, and suggestions about ways teachers can help. Teachers explain their own limitations and invite parents to participate in their child’s education in specific ways” (The Education Alliance, Brown University ). 

It has become increasingly important that we include parents in the conversation about what is best for their children’s education. In my experience, most parents expect the best, but may have come to the conclusion that it is outside of their power to say anything, or to try to change “the status-quo”. When I ask them what they wish to see in their child’s English Language support program, I get very little response, or the exchanges go something like: “I want my child to speak English to do well in school”, or “I don’t want them to get held back, I want them to be as successful as their (mainstream) classmates”. They are terrified that their child will be singled out for failure, or looked at as “less than” (a deficit condition) because they are thought to need “special” support in English. And although it is my job to teach them English, I can understand their point of view.

What they don’t seem to get is that, although I am not fluent in all the students’ first languages, I intend that they stay “bi-literate”…that is to say, as they are learning English, I wish their parents to still instill in them a love and learning of their first language, alongside their second language acquisition, English. I make this very clear at the outset. But I feel as if they do not believe me, or are just agreeing to whatever I tell them, because one does not “argue with the teacher”.

In most of these exchanges, I’ve tried to share the students’ data, their strengths, as well as their misconceptions and areas needing intervention, with a sensitivity to their cultures and individual needs. But it has become clear to me that, sometimes,  the parents do not feel they need to be more involved, particularly if they do not themselves speak much English. And this may be the reason: I send home communications in their home language, translated by district Language Acquisition specialists. Up until fairly recently, when I was unable to get district help with this, I would rely on online transcription (Google Translate, Babelfish, etc.). It was some time before I found out that this was a bad idea.

But it was not a parent who told me. In one case, an Arabic-speaking student of mine said (when I queried him about whether his Dad understood a letter I sent home in Arabic), “My Dad said it was unreadable. It was not the right dialect, and was in the wrong direction (left to right)”. From that time on, I have tried hard to seek out correct translations, or even ask district interpreters to call their homes. But this has been hit and miss, because there is such a shortage of reliable interpreters, even with our Meaningful Access mandates. I feel it is difficult for parents to take anything we (teachers and representatives of the district) say seriously, when we can’t even get through to them in their preferred or home languages.

This also goes for state testing and adopted curriculum concerns. Parents I have met do not seem to question the assessment process, or understand it fully. We, as teachers, currently have little if any say in what is to be found in the Common Core. We can adapt material to the curriculum, yes…up to a point. I feel very fortunate that my curriculum, as an ELD specialist, allows for more cultural awareness and appreciation, but it is still a bit dated. So I am constantly adapting and updating it with resources I find: Online videos of traditional dancing, and music in other languages; artwork and creation/folk stories (The Big Myth comes to mind, a really cool resource); Realia that I find, or that the students bring from home, that exemplifies an aspect of their cultural identity; sharing my own ancestry and traditions (anecdotal information), as they relate to their own; Collecting language phrases for a “first language” word wall. These are just some of the things I have implemented. I am fortunate to be able to do this, because I know from when I was a mainstream classroom teacher, how difficult it was to get the administration or grade-level colleagues on board with anything outside of the regular curriculum offerings.

I have not forgotten either what I have learned about the “Multiple Intelligences“. When I was studying for my Bachelors in Elementary Ed, I did my thesis paper on the Multiple intelligences theory and the theory of “Indigo Children” (a comparative study). Neither of these theories are subscribed to in the mainstream educational environments I have worked in over the years, with MI being only barely touched upon, when I was taking Structured English Immersion courses for my endorsement. But to this day, I feel that the different ways in which students learn is still relevant, now more than ever, and particularly among bi-cultural students. All students learn differently, and have strengths in different “intelligences” (ie: Artistic, spatial, linguistic, to name a few)… that is patently obvious. This is what “differentiation” in instruction is supposed to address. But I’ve noticed, in most classrooms, that “differentiation” mainly occurs in the form of more varied “activities”, more tasks. Applying this directly to individual student learning styles is largely an after-thought. So, I believe by sharing what I have seen work well with students from any culture, especially when it speaks to their personal experience and interests, is worth sharing.  Some teachers I have worked with have been very receptive to this…but largely, most keep to the way they’ve “always done things”. This comment from Ms. McCarty’s lecture stands out in my mind:

“Educators and parents in these schools understand that sameness, uniformity of approach does not equate with fairness. So, for example, having equal access to a Common Core, whose Common Core, whose languages, knowledge and voices are included and which notches, languages and community futures are placed at risk?  These education projects take seriously the promise that any child may be expected to succeed, understanding that not every child succeeds through the same experiences or measures, and that definitions of success themselves are race, class, and power linked. If we are to fulfill the promise of Brown, we must fight for policies whereby these types of self-determined education practices are not mere examples” (McCarty, 2015).

We need a major paradigm shift in our approach to teaching all students, but particularly bi-cultural students. Some of them do not even realize what they are missing, culturally. When I share something of their culture, I am sometimes surprised that they did not already know something about it. Often, they say that it is not relevant to them. When I ask them why, they say it is something from their parents’ or grandparents’ experience, and not their own. As sad as that is, I must then try to integrate this knowledge of their ancestors’ past cultural identity, with their current cultural identity, because it’s all relevant. This includes the real history of the United States, and their place in it. Many of my students of Spanish-speaking cultures have family from Mexico. The majority do not even realize that they are the result of hundreds of years of racial blending; that they may be of  Indigenous and Spanish decent. The fact that their parents do not always share this gives me pause, and I wonder if it is my place to tell them of this possibility. But I feel that they need to question where they came from, so they can more fully develop their identity. I do not want them to go on thinking they are one thing, what society tells them. They should have access to as much information as they can get. I do this at great risk, sometimes. But so far, it has only helped them, and myself, to build a trusting, meaningful teacher-student relationship.  And that is a start.