Prioritizing Participation: Five Things That Every Teacher Needs to Know to Prepare Recent Immigrant Adolescents for Classroom Participation

By Patchen, Terri | Multicultural Education, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Prioritizing Participation: Five Things That Every Teacher Needs to Know to Prepare Recent Immigrant Adolescents for Classroom Participation


Patchen, Terri, Multicultural Education


Any teacher who has worked in a public high school knows the force oral participation holds in a classroom, for a curriculum, and with the students. Few things can make or break educational access, momentum and opportunity like classroom participation. Present, it creates-communication, collaboration, confrontation, collusion-comprehension (whether of people, perspectives, or positions); absent, instruction flounders (Why won't someone say something?), understanding is debilitated, and community is next to impossible to construct.

When oral participation is neither present nor cultivated within a classroom, students and teachers lose opportunities to develop academically, linguistically (Fennema & Peterson, 1985; Swann, 1989), socially, emotionally, and/or psychologically (Eccles & Midgley, 1989). Its absence is particularly debilitating for immigrant Latina/o high school students relatively new to the United States, unfamiliar with the language of instruction, and inexperienced in the ways of U.S. schools.

Neglecting the classroom participation of these students is especially disturbing because, from at least Dewey forward, educational theorists have been beckoning practitioners to beef up their initiation, cultivation, and support of classroom participation in order to increase educational opportunity and advancement for all students. Classroom participation, while relegated in many classrooms to an abstract number of points (e.g., "ten points for participation." What does that mean?), cannot in practice be disputed (and certainly not by those policymakers who flourish in the political arena).

Yet, during the last two decades, most educational debates on adolescent students have ignored the more human (and humane) dimensions of education and have instead focused on issues of accountability and efficiency in schools. Such a focus hasn't helped immigrant students, who are generally referred to in the literature as educationally optimistic (Kao & Tienda, 1995; Matute-Bianchi, 1991; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001), but academically behind (de Cos, 1999; National Center for Education Statistics, 1992; Vernez, Abrahamse & Quigley, 1996).

For immigrant students, school settings in the U.S. represent distinct and often problematic learning contexts. The myth of the American public school as the "great democratic equalizer" has not played out in the education of many adolescent immigrants, and particularly for those from Latin America. In an analysis of "High School and Beyond" data from 1980, Vernez, Abrahamse, and Quigley found that of all immigrant students included in the study, Latina/os were the least likely of any racial/ethnic group to be placed on an academic track, to take three years of English or mathematics, or to take advanced courses of any kind in high school.

Indeed, Latina/o immigrants scored the lowest of any racial/ethnic group on nearly all indicators for course taking, educational expectations, and college-going (just as their native-born counterparts do). The situation is even worse for those Latina/os who enter the U.S. educational system as adolescents.

"Late entry" Latina/o immigrants, who enter the country after the age of 15 or so, are less likely to enroll in the U.S. school system or stay in school than children who come at an earlier age. Although it remains unclear as to whether these students are dropping out or never "dropping in," there is a great deal of cause for concern; the level of education these students achieve will largely determine the quality of the labor force in the future (1996).

The Spatial andTemporal Dimensions of Classroom Participation

Participation works on a number of levels. First, it immediately and viscerally involves the integration of one's perceptions and practices within the world (be it classroom, household, and/or marketplace). second, as people participate within larger social structures (institutional or familial), meaning is jointly constructed, interpreted, regulated and legitimated (tacitly or overtly) in activity temporally and spatially "situated" (Eckert, 2000; Lave & Wenger, 1991).

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