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September 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 1

Learning from New Americans

When schools tap the expertise of newly arrived English language learners, both teachers and classmates have something to learn.

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The faces of America are changing. According to expert demographers like Kenneth Johnson, by the middle of the 21st century, there will be more nonwhites than whites in the United States (Johnson & Lichter, 2010). The challenge of addressing this demographic shift with respect, knowledge, skill, and care increasingly falls on the shoulders of teachers and school leaders. In our teacher education program at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, we asked the question, How can we best prepare teachers to lead students, schools, and communities through this demographic transition?

One College's Approach

Most of the students in our teacher education program are white and either middle or upper class. Because New Hampshire is one of the whitest states in the nation, they have limited exposure to people of color, let alone exposure to children from other countries and cultures.
We want our preservice teachers to be aware of their limited knowledge of diversity. We want them to explore their prejudices and to question stereotypes. We want them to aspire to better understand their English language learners—or what many now refer to as new American students—appreciating their unique talents, strengths, and needs.
To enhance our students' cultural literacy and understanding of diverse groups, we've developed a core curriculum that's designed to teach critical thinking, empathy, and self-reflection. We require our students to take courses in world geography, multicultural education, and international politics and literature. Although we believe these academic approaches are useful, we felt we needed to do more.

The Dignity of Expertise

Bill Cumming, director of the Boothby Institute in Maine (www.theboothbyinstitute.org), has spent his life helping other teachers discover the power they have to make a difference in their students' lives. Bill taught us an important pedagogical strategy—or maybe it's a way of being—that he refers to as "the dignity of expertise": Our students—and not us—are the true experts on their own experiences and needs and on approaches that will work for them.
In recent work on bullying prevention (Preble & Gordon, 2011; Preble & Taylor, 2008/2009), both teachers and students agreed that students are more knowledgeable than adults about many things that happen inside and outside school. Moreover, students are eager to share their expertise on these topics.
There's a certain kind of dignity in being viewed as an expert. When we at New England College tapped into the dignity of expertise, we started a chain reaction that has changed lives.

I Cannot Say My Heart

Anna-Marie DiPasquale works for Lutheran Social Services as a social worker at one of our large local schools, Concord High School. She works closely with new American students—from Nepal, Bhutan, the Congo, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Russia—who are at great risk of dropping out of the high school. To encourage these students to stay in school, she recently arranged for them to visit New England College.
When we learned of Anna-Marie's goals for this visit, we hatched a different plan. Instead of having the students visit our college simply to sample the postsecondary experience, we decided they should also come to teach. They could tell our preservice teachers what they believed every teacher should know to successfully teach new American students like themselves.
On the day of their visit, with deer-in-the-headlights looks on their faces, 14 students walked into our classroom of 32 teacher education students. They began tentatively.
Kumar was the first to speak. He was from Bhutan and had lived in Nepal for many years. He quietly said,New teacher will know I feel frustrated. I speak three language, but not understood. English not good. In my school, I cannot say my heart. I frustrated because I cannot find the word. I am sad.
After a round of applause, Narapati from Nepal went next. He said that teachers need to give language learners extra time when they ask students a question in class. He explained,
I hear a question in English, translate my language, come up with answer my language, translate into English inside my mind, and get English words out.
Anna-Marie shared research showing that this process takes about 25 seconds—by then, the teacher typically has moved on and left language learners in the dust. Narapati repeated solemnly, "I need teacher to wait extra time for my answer."
A dark-eyed girl from Afghanistan in a white head scarf spoke next. She said,
I want all new teacher to say to new student, "Stay after class and talk." This is most helpful, makes you see teacher care about you and want you to do well. Meet with the teacher after class is very good.
A confident young woman from Somalia spoke next. Najma wanted teachers to introduce new students to the class so these newcomers could connect with peers more easily. She spoke of coming to school for the first time, walking into the classroom, and taking her seat. She said it was difficult to get to know other students:
Some teachers say work in a group. No one picks me. I like teacher to put me with partner. I can learn and know this student well. This is very good for teacher to do.
Ram and Damanta from Nepal explained that they wanted teachers and classmates to have more empathy for new American students. Another Nepalese, Shiva, agreed and said that "people laugh at me when I try speak English and hurt how I feel."
Finally, a tall young man from Congo added, "I think teacher must say to me when speaking not good." He clearly struggled to be understood and added emphatically, "I want teacher to make correct me. I want to learn. Not just teacher say nothing." He looked a bit angry, and Anna-Marie gently questioned him, trying to clarify his meaning. "Are you saying that when you make a mistake in English, you like it when the teacher takes the time to correct you?" "Yes!" he said with a big smile.
These new American students became increasingly confident as the 90 minutes slipped by. They began to speak more freely and comfortably to the future teachers, who started to ask them questions: When did you arrive in New Hampshire? Why did you choose to come to New Hampshire? Do you have brothers and sisters?
Anna-Marie's students ended their lesson by having two students give the class a set of academic instructions in Nepalese. The Nepalese students spoke quickly and confidently and laughed out loud when they realized that no one had a clue what they were talking about. The preservice teachers instantly saw just how challenging school can be for a student when everything is taught, spoken, and written in a different language. It was a moment of intellectual humility and empathy (Paul & Elder, 2009) that we hope will stay with our students throughout their teaching careers.

What the Future Teachers Learned…

After all the new Americans had spoken, the preservice teachers thanked them by identifying one important lesson they had learned. One future teacher pointed out how important it is to remember that new American students often speak several languages beside English. She said,It's really wrong to call this English as a second language, when it's more like English as a fourth language! When you know that, it gives you a whole different impression of and respect for these people!
Other preservice teachers mentioned that they would remember to immediately pair a new student with another student so that he or she could make a new friend and get extra help right away if needed. Others said that they learned that teachers need to check in often with their new American students to address any frustration the students may be experiencing and establish whether the students understand what's going on in class. Several preservice teachers thanked their guests for letting them know that they should take the time to correct them when they make a mistake and give them feedback on their language usage so they can improve their English more quickly.

And What They Need to Learn

Shortly after the students' departure, when the preservice teachers were asked, "How many of you can locate the countries that these students came from on a map?" almost no hands went up. They were then asked, "How many of you know why these students had to leave their counties to come to the United States?" Again, almost no hands went up.
Teachers can show respect for new American students by learning the geography of their region of origin and understanding the politics and current events behind the immigration of these groups to the United States. Showing new Americans that you're familiar with their personal story, that you know something about their native country and why they might have emigrated, is one of the best ways to show you care.
One preservice teacher added rather timidly at the end of class:I went to that high school that they all come from. I saw some of those kids in the hallways and the cafeteria, but I never once approached them or tried to speak to them or even thought much about them. I'm glad I got to know them better today.

Students Teaching Students

As a result of their teaching experience at New England College, many of the new American students gained confidence and spoke up more in class. They were eager to take advantage of their newly discovered voices. Anna-Marie approached several social studies teachers at the high school and asked whether they would be willing to have her students make presentations in their classes. Many teachers readily agreed.

Creating Empathy

During their visits to social studies classes, the new American students shared their personal experiences with and their perspectives on such topics as religious differences, cultural differences, and immigration. One class discussion proved especially powerful: A student, originally from Bhutan, shared his story about how he had come to live in New Hampshire.
When he was 2 years old, his family, along with many thousands of other Bhutanese from mostly one ethnic group, was forced out of Bhutan by the king. The family fled to Nepal, where they had no choice but to settle in a refugee camp. After 15 years and many failed attempts by the U.S. State Department to work out a solution to return the Bhutanese home, several hundred were resettled in New Hampshire.
Anna-Marie asked the class to imagine President Obama kicking people out of the United States because they ate different foods, dressed differently, and spoke a different dialect. How would they feel about that? The mainstream students in the class were shocked. They couldn't believe that people were forced to leave their country as a result of others' intolerance toward cultures different from their own. And slowly, many students began to realize that they or their friends may have behaved in similarly intolerant ways toward these new American students.
The classroom sessions ended with a YouTube video of Gandhi's life titled "Be the Change" by hip hop artist MC Yogi. The new American students challenged their peers to join them and act as change agents in their school and community to fight intolerance, prejudice, and stereotyping of others.

Providing Food for Thought

Students Anna-Marie works with also created small-group lunches during which students get to hear one another's stories. Now, every Monday, approximately 15 new American students and 10–20 mainstream students sit together at lunch and talk. Different students volunteer to come each week, and different adults take turns sitting with the students. The lunch group began with no real agenda. The students' initial awkwardness and reticence to speak gradually dissolved into conversation, laughter, and amazement. Anna-Marie and the participating adults created lists of questions for students to use as discussion topics if their group got stuck, such as, Would you be friends with someone of a different religion? or Why might people leave their country?
As word has gotten out about how interesting these small-group lunches are, more students are signing up. As a result of these lunches, Ashtar from Iraq said, "I never had any American friends, but now I have a lot of friends in school, even Facebook friends." Padam said, "I have many more American friends now, and I feel more comfortable starting conversations." Najma added, "Students are friendlier in the hallway and even smile at me."
Mainstream students appreciate having the opportunity to learn about kids from different backgrounds. One mainstream student exclaimed, "This is fantastic! I never get a chance to get to know someone from the other side of the world!"

Learning the Ropes

The high school is also implementing a peer-to-peer mentoring program. The newest students will be paired by language with an advanced-level new American student to ease the newcomers' transition into the school and community. Mentors will receive formal training this fall.

Sharing Expertise

Finding their voices, reaching out and connecting to those around them, and helping others be successful have inspired the participating students to do even more. These new American students have started a speaker's bureau. They speak to social studies classes to provide expertise on their home countries. They share their experience and expertise on such topics as current events in the Middle East and Africa, religion, culture, dress, food, and the issue of arranged marriages.

Expanding the Lesson

Several weeks into summer vacation, Anna-Marie and several new American students took another trip to New England College. This time it was to speak to a group of veteran teachers from across New England at the college's annual summer institute for teachers. Her students asked the veteran teachers to consider inviting their new American students to have some of the same opportunities we've written about here.
Who knows what will happen in these schools? Maybe these teachers will find new ways to give voice to and invite input from their new American students. Maybe they'll offer them incredible new opportunities to fit in with their peers. Maybe they'll enable mainstream students to expand their global and cultural awareness and deepen their empathy and understanding of others who may, at first, seem unlike themselves. Maybe they'll broaden all students' knowledge of geography, international politics, languages, and culture.
Don't you just love the dignity of expertise?

Johnson, K. M., & Lichter, D. T. (2010). Growing diversity among America's children and youth: Spatial and temporal dimensions. Population and Development Review 36(1), 151–176.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2009). The miniature guide to critical thinking: Concepts and tools. Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Preble, W. K., & Gordon, R. (2011). Transforming school climate and learning: Beyond bullying and compliance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Preble, W. K., & Taylor, L. (2008/2009). School climate through students' eyes. Educational Leadership, 66(4), 35–40.

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