Classroom Culture Clash (page 4)
Robert Jiménez, professor of language, literacy and culture, is sitting with a graduate student, Brad Teague, before a computer in Jiménez’s Wyatt Center office. He’s working with the student on the conclusion of a research paper. “This might be a good place to add a sentence about the current debate,” says Jiménez.
It is. With comprehensive immigration reform on the national legislative agenda, this is an interesting time for Jiménez and his peers. Jiménez’s research focuses on the learning needs of Mexican-heritage students. Politically, the rhetorical heat is on.
Among school-age children, English language learners have a tough time. In the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 7 percent of fourth grade limited English learners were proficient in reading. Math scores for the same grade level, and for 8th grade, as well, were similar.
Then there’s No Child Left Behind. On the positive side, the 2001 act requires states to pay attention to these learners. They must be tested, their scores must be reported separately, and they must meet requirements for adequate yearly progress (AYP). But this leaves a big question: how can schools ensure that students are learning the content they require given their language needs? As Jiménez points out, the narrow curriculum increasingly being adopted by schools reduces the opportunity for English language learners to build vocabulary and practice skills.
Jiménez’s research focuses on elucidating cultural differences between Mexican students and their native-English speaking peers. Over the last four years, with funding from the Fulbright Scholar Program and more recently from Vanderbilt’s Center for the Americas, Jiménez has undertaken a study of students, classrooms, and families in Puebla, Mexico, about 60 miles southeast of Mexico City. Jiménez is part of a working group of Transnational Literacy Researchers, comprised of faculty and graduate students from Vanderbilt and the University of the Americas, in Puebla.
“I wanted to find out how Mexican schools teach reading and writing, especially what teachers and others consider valid or acceptable literacy instruction,” says Jiménez. “So I observed classes at a local school and interviewed teachers and students. Over time, this expanded to several more schools. I also went into the community to see how people make use of reading and writing in their everyday lives.” He observed several marked differences in reading, writing and speaking.
“In Mexican classrooms, students had more freedom to speak. They’re not as closely regulated. Kids talked a lot more, and they talked more loudly. There was overlapping speech. In the U.S., this kind of speech would be considered interruptive. But the speech was usually task-oriented, even though it didn’t follow the same protocols.”
In an American classroom many teachers would view such speech as disruptive. Students who were previously viewed as engaged are suddenly seen as discipline problems. “Other researchers have documented teacher judgments that such speech is rude, or ill-mannered. They feel as though they have to spend more time teaching politeness,” Jiménez notes. These differing norms leave Mexican-heritage students confused.
About 11 percent of Latinos are sorted into special education categories, somewhat lower than the national average. But for those who don’t actually have learning disabilities, the effect can be stigmatizing. “Special education instruction is not helpful in the ways that one would expect,” says Jiménez. “These are students with cultural differences. And what they need to overcome these differences is access to higher vocabulary English in classrooms and the curriculum. Content in special education classrooms can be simplified and watered down. Unfortunately, this is too often true of instruction in ESL classrooms, as well.” In time, many more Latinos than whites or blacks drop out of schooling altogether. “In some urban areas, the numbers can be as high as 70 or 80 percent,” says Jiménez.
In Puebla, Jiménez noted another important difference: Mexican students did a lot of writing but not a lot of authoring. They copied and reproduced texts. For Americans imbued with a constructivist approach to learning, this seems rather old fashioned. But as Jiménez says, the same approach is practiced in many parts of the world. “Students bring this concept of learning with them, but it’s not a productive strategy in this context. Someone says, ‘describe this using your own words.’ Well, what does that mean?”
With data collection now finished in Mexico, Jiménez and his colleagues plan to develop a better understanding of how Mexican students are taught in American classrooms.
How can American schools come to terms with the growing Latino population and the resultant implications for learning, especially with the new emphasis on school accountability? It begins with better understanding, Jiménez says. “Our long-term goal is to help teachers understand what parents and students’ prior educational experiences have been. Is it possible to create more familiarity? Why don’t we let kids talk?” If the experience of a new school can be made more similar, with the appropriate kinds of instruction to build language skills quickly, these students can succeed, he argues.
“We’re looking at the things we can do to best support pre-service teachers. We want to offer them good instructional practices.” Toward that end, Peabody has recently inaugurated a new undergraduate minor in teaching linguistically diverse students. Jiménez hopes that a new master’s degree in the same area will follow.
“There are so many factors besides teacher language,” Jiménez says. “The cardinal principle of instruction is to really know your students in order to make instruction understandable. Typically, teachers share a similar background with their students and there are a lot of shared cultural assumptions.”
Aside from taking cultural differences into account, the question of what comprises good instruction is also politically charged. “I get most excited about so-called two-way instruction, or dual immersion. It’s got the strongest research support,” says Jiménez. But he may be facing an uphill battle. In recent years, voters in California, Arizona and Massachusetts have supported propositions that have greatly scaled back bilingual education.
Reprinted with the permission of Peabody College. © 2006, Peabody College, Vanderbilt University.
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