Magazine article Multicultural Education

IRAQI REFUGEE STUDENTS: From a Collection of Aliens to a Community of Learners

Magazine article Multicultural Education

IRAQI REFUGEE STUDENTS: From a Collection of Aliens to a Community of Learners

Article excerpt


Some years ago, when I visited an elementary school in New York during their multicultural festival, a teacher excitedly commented on the song-and-dance performance of a group of recently arrived Russian immigrant students: "This festival is so good for them. This is the one day when the poor things can shine." An adult immigrant from Eastern Europe myself, with teaching experience on both sides of the Atlantic, I felt an acute sting from that remark.

"Those poor things," newly arrived at an American school, were still struggling with English, but they could handle math above their grade levels, and, as their music teacher discovered to her surprise, could not only read music, but also write it. They certainly did not need pity; what they needed were the same opportunities to learn and the same expectations of achievement as their native-born American peers.

The teacher's remark is symptomatic of the intentionally well-meaning, but in effect demeaning views of ethnic/cultural minority students, in particular, English language learners (ELLs). There is a consensus among teachers that cultural and linguistic diversity is a "value" and a "resource" for learning, but it is not entirely clear what it is a resource for, and for whom. It becomes even harder to explain why the students who are contributing the most to the linguistic and cultural variety within our classroom landscapes are the ones whose learning does not seem to benefit from such diversification.

Ethnic minority students, and especially immigrant newcomers, who arrive at our schools virtually bursting with cultural diversity, are consistently at a higher risk of academic failure compared to "regular" American students. According to Moss and Puma (1995), ELLs are significantly more likely than American-born children to repeat a grade, less likely to be graded "excellent" in reading and math, and are often assigned to grade levels at least two years below age-grade norms. Moreover, in regard to overall academic ability and performance, teachers tend to rate ELL students lower than the non- ELL population.

A Resource for Learning

One of the major reasons why minority students in general, and immigrant newcomers in particular, perform poorly in schools is that their home cultures, while being "celebrated," are not sufficiently utilized as the resource for their own learning. That children's home culture is indispensable to learning has been argued theoretically by Vygotsky (1978) and his followers, and confirmed through ethnographic studies. It is the culture of the child's home-not the cultures of others- that enables and supports cognitive development through the complex system of social and cognitive factors: norms, beliefs, values, behaviors, socialization practices (Rogoff, 2003) as well as psychological "tools of the mind," such as selective attention and memory strategies (Bodrova & Leong, 2007).

Children acquire these tools in the process of interaction with members of their communities and participation in activities within these communities. Our human capacity for learning is a function of biology, but what we learn, why, how, and from whom, is culturally determined. Systematic observations of children of various cultural groups in their classrooms and communities (Au, 1980; Delpit, 1996; Gibson, 1982; Philips, 1983) invariably demonstrate that children perform better academically if the culture of their classrooms, including expectations of appropriate behavior and instructional strategies, reflect the culture of their homes.

The very maintenance of home culture, even if not actively supported by the school, has a positive effect on school performance, as shown by Deyhle (1992) in her study of Navajo youths. Gibson (1997) observes that minority youths "do better at school when they feel strongly anchored in the identities of their families, communities, and peers, and when they feel supported in pursuing a strategy of selective or additive acculturation" (p. …

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