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December 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 4

Seeing Their Strengths

Let's ditch deficit-based thinking, and instead focus on the strengths of our immigrant students.

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EquitySocial-emotional learningInstructional Strategies
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Credit: Credit: Ikon Images / Alamy Stock Photo
"How many languages do you speak?"
I was helping Robert, one of my high school seniors, fill in his Common Application for college. I knew a small slice of Robert's story. He was an orphan and had spent years in a refugee camp in Uganda.
"Ten, miss," he replied nonchalantly.
I snapped my head around, wide-eyed, to look at him. "Ten?!"
Robert explained that after fleeing to Uganda as a child, he taught himself nine languages out of necessity so he could communicate with others living on the border and at the refugee camp. Years later, having enrolled in high school in the United States, he was studying Spanish, his 11th language.

Making Their Way

For the last four years, I have had the honor of teaching recent immigrants and refugees, including Robert, at a large, diverse urban high school in New England. My students come from across the globe, from more than 30 countries in total. They come from rural refugee camps and crowded inner cities. They have escaped war, gang violence, and the political and economic effects of widespread corruption. They have come in search of safety, a better education, broader opportunities, and new beginnings.
My students bring with them hopes and dreams of a brighter future. They also bring with them tremendous skills and assets. There is the Iraqi refugee who acts as translator for her parents when they attend hospital appointments; the Brazilian senior who is a primary caregiver for her younger niece and nephew—dropping them off at daycare before school and preparing their meals at night; the student from the Dominican Republic who cleans office bathrooms late in the evening to help pay her family's heating and electricity bills; and the Nepalese student who translates for incoming students and families when the school is unable to find a translator. Then there is Robert, who as a high school senior not only spoke 10 languages and maintained excellent grades but also worked 40 hours a week as a certified nursing aide, a primary breadwinner for the extended family he lived with.
In making their way to America and in creating lives here, my students have had to become masters in negotiation, problem solving, and teamwork. They have learned to understand multiple perspectives. They have had to develop perseverance and grit in spades. Many of my students command maturity far beyond their years—maturity often cultivated out of necessity.
And yet, too often I find that my students don't recognize these strengths as valuable assets. It appears that many of our school systems often don't either.

Our Words Matter

For decades, our country's immigrant education programs were designated English as a Second Language programs, ESL for short. For Robert, English as a 10th Language would be more accurate.
Today, many schools and programs classify our students as English language learners or simply English learners. Often, new arrivals begin in a sheltered class with intensive English instruction before being integrated into classes with native-English-speaking peers. There are numerous benefits to this approach. These students are often given space to have intensive language instruction and receive additional support. But there are also challenges. In these settings, new arrivals might have fewer opportunities to interact with native English speakers, which would help support their language acquisition (Carhill, Suárez-Orozco, & Páez, 2008).
When it comes to best supporting and educating our immigrant-origin students, however, it is important that we think beyond just language instruction. Of course, it is essential that we ensure our newest students master English. But by focusing primarily on language acquisition, it can be too easy to fall into the trap of seeing these students through a "deficit-based lens" (Valencia, 1997), concentrating on what they lack (English) and losing sight of the myriad of strengths they possess.
I am reminded of this blind spot when I hear others express surprise about the incredible work my students have done—creating a powerful, highly conceptual model of a Holocaust memorial, for example, or writing a persuasive op-ed published in the local newspaper. Sometimes we forget what our students are capable of achieving.
When our school systems lower expectations for immigrant-origin students or focus on their weaknesses, our students take note—as do their peers. There is the boy who is deeply bored in a math class that is covering content he already mastered, but that he just can't yet express in English. There is the high honor roll student who came to me in tears because an adult told her she should apply only to community college and not set her sights higher. I often hear my students confess that they feel somehow "less than" their native-English-speaking or American-born peers.
Lynsey, one of my Haitian students, recently shared with another teacher:
When I was in low-level ELL classes, many teachers and administrators thought that we could not understand many things. "It's too difficult for them," they said about us. "They'll just be confused." However, once the language barrier was overcome, once we were taught the vocabulary to go along with any project or lesson deemed "too difficult," they saw that we were just as capable as students who spoke perfect English, as long as they had a little patience with us.
Fortunately, there are many concrete strategies teachers and schools can use to ensure that we more intentionally tap into the strengths of our immigrant-origin students, while still providing rigorous English language instruction.

1. Hold High Academic Standards

My students often tell me they feel that others equate their intelligence with their English ability. Building on Lynsey's advice, our schools should work to set high academic standards for all students, including our immigrant students.
One successful strategy is to build in more long-term projects where students have a chance to iterate over many drafts. In the fall, I have students learn how to write op-eds, working on one 450-word article for upwards of three weeks, learning to hone their argument as well as practice their grammar. They write on a wide array of topics, some that are deeply personal, about everything from depression to Islamophobia to virtual learning in the classroom. The very best pieces are then published in the local city newspaper. In the spring, my students jointly tackle community issues, devising ambitious goals for local improvement projects like starting a school food pantry or compiling a resource book for teen parents. They work in teams over months to make phone calls, hold meetings, write proposals, and create real lasting change.
Time is important. It allows us as teachers to provide necessary scaffolding, and it provides students the opportunity to accomplish high-level academic work, without their level of English posing an insurmountable barrier.

2. Value Native Languages

While supporting students' development of English, schools must actively create strategies and incentives to encourage students to maintain and develop their native language skills.
Aside from the enormous advantages of being multilingual in an increasingly connected world, research has found a myriad of cognitive advantages to multilingualism, including an increased ability to balance multiple tasks, process and learn new information, and focus.
But too often our immigrant-origin students lose their native language skills in the process of learning English, especially if they are made to feel that that their first language is a sign of being different or less-than. I am reminded of this loss every time I'm invited to the home of my Iraqi student Safiya. Without fail, Safiya's generous mother serves me a feast of delicious pilafs, salads, and sweet cardamom tea, and we have long conversations, with Safiya as the translator. And inevitably, Safiya's brother or mother gently tease her for her rapidly contracting Arabic.
One way schools and districts can show they value our polyglot students—and encourage native English speakers to invest in language learning—is by adopting the Seal of Biliteracy, a certificate awarded to graduating high school students that acknowledges their literacy skills in more than one language. And in the classroom, teachers can work to affirm the importance of being multilingual in daily instruction and can incorporate ways for students to draw connections between English vocabulary and associated words in their native language.

3. Collaborate with Families

In my career, I have occasionally heard teachers speak disparagingly about the immigrant parents of my students: "They just don't share the same beliefs about education," or "They just don't want the same thing for their daughter," or, most often, "It's sad they just don't seem to care enough to come in for the school meeting for their son." When I hear these statements, I think of my students' families, families who have left everything—professions, family, friends, homes, and all that is familiar—to start again in our country. They do so with the hope, the dream of creating brighter opportunities for their children.
Meeting with teachers can often be intimidating for many English-speaking, American-born parents, let alone for parents still mastering the language or learning how to navigate new systems. Historically, many schools have not truly seen or wanted families as equal collaborators in the work of educating children. But families are our students' first and most important teachers—and schools can do much more to create a welcoming environment for them.
Family engagement is of particular importance to me: Two years ago, I coauthored the book Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher's Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success (Scholastic, 2017). In it, Harvard professor Karen Mapp, veteran master teacher Ilene Carver, and I laid out a roadmap for how educators could build strong, meaningful collaborations with families.
Similar to how we must shine a spotlight on the assets of our students, we must recognize the many strengths of our immigrant families in order to build true partnerships with them. While they might not speak fluent English or be able to assist with their child's writing homework, families have invaluable "funds of knowledge" that we can build upon.
To cultivate these partnerships, schools must commit to investing seriously in in-depth professional development on family engagement, something we have found too rarely happens. And school leaders must carve out and designate meaningful time for educators to build these long-term relationships with families.

4. Reshape the College-Application Process

In working on college applications with Robert, my Congolese student who speaks 10 languages, and with his peers, I was struck time and again by how often my students don't recognize their strengths and skills—and therefore aren't actively describing them on their college applications.
Counselors play a critical role in ensuring immigrant-origin students can navigate the college process. However, in U.S. public schools, on average, there's one school counselor to support the academic growth, emotional health, and future success of every 464 students (ASCA, 2019).
Schools must invest in counselors so that all students have an advocate who has time to get to know them and help them share their strengths. As we work toward this goal, schools can partner with local and national organizations that help address the counselor gap with volunteer college and career mentors. These mentors can work with students to draw out and help them share their stories, as well as navigate applications and financial aid paperwork.
In addition, college applications and admissions traditionally put an emphasis on AP courses, high standardized test scores, and exceptional internships and summer volunteer experiences. These measures more often favor students from advantaged backgrounds. A promising initiative from Making Caring Common, a project out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, articulates a new vision for how colleges could rethink the admissions process in pursuit of equity for economically disadvantaged students, including many immigrant-origin students. The project's report and associated coalition, "Turning the Tide," has been endorsed by 140 leaders in college admissions. It sets out a series of recommendations for how colleges could refocus applications to more meaningfully account for students' contributions to the community and their own families (2016).

So Much to Offer

I was excited last spring when my student Robert was accepted to an elite New England college. Together we toured the campus, his eyes growing wider and wider as we wandered through the student center and peeked into classrooms, envisioning what the next four years would bring. This fall I've been getting nearly daily text updates—on everything from move-in day to orientation to the first day of classes. Each text has made me smile. I know how hard Robert has worked to get there and how much he has to offer his fellow classmates. And, I'm so glad that others now know it too.
Copyright © 2019 Jessica Lander

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Have you or your colleagues ever lowered expectations for immigrant students? Reflect on what you've seen and heard.

➛ In what ways could you better recognize the strengths of your immigrant students?

➛ How could you encourage students to maintain and develop their native language skills in your school or classroom?

References

ASCA. (2019, May 7). ASCA releases updated student-to-school-counselor ratio data. [Press release].

Carhill, A., Suárez-Orozco, C., & Páez, M. (2008). Explaining English language proficiency among adolescent immigrant students. American Educational Research Journal, 45(4), 1155–1179.

Making Caring Common Project. (2016). Turning the tide: Inspiring concern for others and the common good through college admissions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Valencia, R. (Ed.) (1997). The evolution of deficit thinking: Educational thought and practice (Stanford series on education and public policy). London: Falmer Press.

Jessica Lander is a teacher, writer, and journalist living in Massachusetts. She is an avid explorer and lover of stories. She is a writer living in Cambridge MA. She teaches English language learners as a social studies teacher at Lowell High School in Lowell MA. Over the past eight years, she has taught students in middle school, high school and university in the United States, Thailand and Cambodia. She is specifically deeply committed to supporting immigrant students, teaching history, and civics. She is an author of Driving Backwards, an award-winning nonfiction portrait of a small town in New Hampshire and co-authored Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success.



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