Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Eduardo and Leslita -- Crosscultural Challenges in the Classroom

From Ash:

Last week, Po and I spent a lot of time exploring the differences between parental involvement for the child of educated parents (whom we called "Eddie") and the child of less-educated parents ("Leslie"). But that doesn't mean that we don't recognize there are other influences on parental involvement as well, and that's what I want to talk about today. And remember when Po and I warned that, at times, we might not come off as the good P.C. liberals we're supposed to be? Well, here's the day when that warning really applies to me.

Because today, I want to address how rapid immigration is resulting in unrecognized crosscultural challenges in the classroom that we have to address.

We can't underestimate the impact on immigration upon our schools, and our kids' education. 17 million children live with a foreign-born householder. And it isn't just their parents. Children themselves are immigrants: immigrants make up 20% of our nation's student population.

9 million of the kids in our schools speak a language other than English when they get home: of these, 7 million of them are speaking Spanish.

And usually, language seems to be the only thing we seem to consider at issue. "How do we teach all these kids who don't speak English?" That's an important question. But what I want to argue is that we can't just stop there.

We also need to recognize that a child's immigrant parents are often likely to be poorly educated. Immigrants from Asia are actually well-educated: 50% have bachelor's degrees or higher. But only 11% of the immigrants from Latin Ameria have degrees (and half of all our immigrants come from Latin America.) A huge chunk have only minimal education - 20% of all foreign-born immigrants (over the age of 25) have less than an 9th-grade education.

Beyond the lower educational attainment of their parents, we also have to deal with other, tangible cultural issues facing children of immigrants, or those who are immigrants themselves.

And "deal with" doesn't just mean that we give a lip-service amount of respect to everyone's backgrounds by having the occasional "foreign culture" day at schools.

I'm saying that we need to recognize that families from different national backgrounds may have dramatically different approaches to schooling and education. And we have to either teach these parents and kids about the values we hold as important within the American school system, or change the system to accommodate their different traditions.

Now, we all seem to understand that Hmong families who arrive in the U.S. would need special attention in the class. After all, the Hmongs have no written language, so the idea of reading would be quite literally foreign to them. And we also recognize that others from similarly exotic backgrounds would also need accommodations.

But what about those coming from Central and South America? We fail to see that there is anything other than a language barrier from those families. And studies have shown that that is completely incorrect.

For example, families coming from Mexico and other Latin American countries come from extremely patriarchical societies. There, a good child is one who is obedient and respectful. So, not surprisingly, studies of Mexican parents in the U.S. believe, that if their children are quiet, obedient and listen to the teacher, that's all it takes for a child to succeed in school.

In my own experience, I've worked with families from countries like El Salvador and Guatemala. The parents have had lifetimes of revolution, repression -- and the one thing you don't want to do when the soldiers come through the village is speak out. And indeed, studies have shown that parents with backgrounds like these believe that the key to success in education is in conformity. The goal is for their children to think and do the same things everyone else does, and never intellectually challenge those in authority.

From that perspective, shyness is almost a key to success. But from the Anglo-American point of view, shyness is a character flaw you need to get over to get ahead.

In other studies, immigrant parents from countries such as Cambodia, Mexico, the Philippines, and Vietnam, believe that things like a child's learning social and practical skills are as important in school as developing their cognitive ability -- while white Americans would say it's the opposite: it's their problem-solving skills, verbal and creative abilities that are the most important.

At the same time, sociologists have determined that Mexican -American mothers do not see themselves as ‘teachers’ of their children. They see parenting more in terms of nurturance.

Which means, not surprisingly, that children with these cultural backgrounds are doing worse in American schools -- which are based in developing intellectual autonomy through the debate of ideas. In fact, I'll even argue that the very behaviors these families see as virtues may actually dooming their children to failure in the American system.

If it still seems difficult to understand how these cultural influences result in behaviors that directly hurt these children's success in school, here's an example from my tutoring kids.

95% of my kids come from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico -- extremely patriarchical, hierarchical societies. In those communities, you often show respect to elders and superiors by looking downwards; you don't look them in the eyes.

Now imagine, a white, Anglo teacher facing a room full of these kids, all silently looking down at their desks. They probably don't even realize that they are looking down, but if you asked them about it, they'd believe they were conducting themselves in a manner that would show the teacher the appropriate demonstration of respect.

But the teacher sees a room full of kids, not looking at her, not responding when she asks a question. So she thinks the kids are disengaged -- they're bored and not paying attention. Even though they actually might be listening to every word. She may even get pissed off at . . . irony of ironies . . . how disrepectful the kids are being, not even pretending to pay attention by looking up at her as she lectures.

For a while, I thought, "I can't say anything to the kids. The fact I think they should look up at me is culturally biased." But I thought, linguists call it code-switching, how you act and speak with one community is different from another. It's a learned process -- but you have to know to when it applies. I know the kids act differently when they're on a basketball court -- so I explained it like that -- how you act in class is different than when you're with your parents.

"Look up," I insisted, "Pretend it's a science experiment."

Some of the kids thought I was crazy. They didn't disagree with me -- yes, as a matter of fact, they did usually look down during class -- but they said it was just too hard to look adults in the eye. And you could tell when they tried it -- even with me, whom they've known for years -- that they were physically uncomfortable.

Then, a week later, all of Tutoring stopped when two brothers bounded in the room, breathless with excitement. They had tried my experiment. They were looking at the teacher -- in the eyes -- when a friend of theirs who was looking down got in trouble for not paying attention. And they didn't get in trouble. They knew they would have been, if they hadn't been looking up. They were thrilled. And other kids decided they'd try the experiment, too.

Months later, the kids are still looking up in class, not getting in trouble, watching others get yelled at for not "paying attention."

To just stick these kids in an ESL program (if they're lucky) and then shrug when they don't succeed is laughable.

The good news is here that there are some studies on classes for parents from Hispanic backgrounds -- teaching the parents how to teach their kids to read, and the like. And these programs do seem to work. Their kids are more school-ready, test scores go up.

The bad news is that there are so very few of these programs available, that there's little to go on beyond that.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! I have a friend who teaches English as a Second Language at a local community college. She told me about different cultural no's.

Regarding eye contact, it made me think. Growing up with a profound hearing loss, my classmates and I always relied on visual cues. We use a lot of eye contact. I was a little surprised that the Latin American culture has different ideas about looking at people. Because I thought that anyone with excellent hearing do not always need to look at people when talking. So I wonder if the lack of eye contact applies only to the cultural backgrounds of Eduardo and Leslita?

I also wonder what happens if Eduardo and Leslita have hearing losses? Suppose they get no benefits from hearing aids? Suppose their families have no health insurance and cannot afford the cochlear implant surgery and the frequent visits to the audiologist for upgrading the software programs in their speech processors?

Since I got my cochlear implant, I have learned that there are sounds out there. I always look at where the sounds are coming from. It made me think about kids who can hear and they get their information through hearing various sounds.

Again, thanks for a great read! The posts are always interesting and I find myself thinking about them for days!

8:43 AM  

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