Sunday, March 21, 2010


This movie is an appropriate addition to the content of this blog. See the main film site at

to kill the Indian in the child . . .

I just found this video, which is very appropriate to the topic of this blog.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Negotiating comprehension

I just had to include this entire blogpost from Academomia (written by my cousin,) because it's a fantastic example of negotiating for meaning--for sense-making. I'm afraid that a language learner might not be as persistent as 3-year-old Charlie:
On our way to church this morning Ryan and I were talking about our university's quarterback situation in which we lost a bunch of games, our starting QB was injured and taken out of a game that was not supposed to be that big of a deal but that we were barely hanging onto, our second string QB was put in, and we scored like a thousand points inside one quarter.
Ryan made the giant mistake of saying "Poor starting quarterback, that's a tough deal."
Charlie piped up from the back seat. "Wha happened to him?"
"Uh, our quarterback got hurt playing football."
"Wha happened to him?"
"He fell down during a football game and got a booboo. Now he is all better but the coach has to decide which quarterback is going to play the rest of the season."
"Wha happened to him?"
"Our quarterback fell down and hurt his leg, Buddy. He's fine, but now there are two good quarterbacks and the coach has to decide who gets to play."
"Wha happened to him?"
"Charlie, why don't you tell me what I've told you so far?"
"I don't know."
"Wha happened to him?"
Sigh. "Our quarterback fell during the football game and hurt his leg. His mommy wrapped him up in a quilt, gave him some milk, and let him watch TV. Now he feels better."
Later after we picked him up from Sunday School Charlie skipped down the hall saying "The football player fell down and got a booboo and now there are two quarterbacks and his mommy wrapped him up in a quilt and let him watch George and that was SO NICE of her and now he feels ALL BETTER!"
Now that is real sense-making related to the experience of a three-year-old--comprehensible input, as it were! How do we recognize when our students haven't been able to make sense of what we're saying? A high school student is much less likely to persist, so we may not discover the problem before a test, unless we do careful and constant formative assessments.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Oakland campus caters to refugees, immigrants

The LATimes also had an article related to the topic of this blog today, Oakland campus caters to refugees, immigrants. The international high school provides an alternative to newcomers, some of whom have never been in a classroom. Many of the students at the Oakland International High School have had little or no education in their homelands, and most have endured the tragedy of refugee camps, absent parents and even being orphans before coming to this country. The school has an ambitious mission
... to provide quality alternative education for recently arrived immigrant students in English language acquisition and in preparation for college. Our diverse students become active participants in our community while learning in small groups through hands-on, interdisciplinary projects and collaboration.
(School website)
and a willingness to make it work, which isn't an easy job for either the students or their teachers. The article tells the story of some of its students:
Samuel Kanwea showed up for what should have been his freshman year in high school illiterate, malnourished and exhausted from years of living in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast. His family had never been able to afford the luxury of education, so he spent his early teenage years collecting firewood and selling fish. When the Liberian refugee started school in Oakland at the age of 17, it was the first time he had set foot in a classroom.
(Gorman, p 1)
Another student from Guatemala has a slightly easier time because she speaks Spanish, which is not her native language, and she had attended some school.
In one sense, Florinda -- who attended only two years of school in Guatemala before arriving in the United States in spring -- has an impressive gift. She speaks both Spanish and Mam, a Mayan dialect. But, like many new immigrants, she doesn't speak any English. Everything else in school -- geography, algebra, U.S. history -- will be out of reach until she learns the language. Classmates become both friends and translators.
(Gorman, p 1)
The principal Carmelita Reyes is very much aware of the difficulties students have when they are not literate in evey their native language. But Florinda at least has the advantage of already being bilingual, which we have read is always an advantage to learning a new language. She also can seek help in Spanish, while some students do not have fellow speakers of their language that they can turn to for a translation.
Hser Kaw, 15, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after his family fled Myanmar. He spent just a few years attending school in a bamboo building before coming to the United States as a refugee in 2007. Hser said he often skipped class at the camp.

When he first started at the Oakland school, Hser said, he felt intimidated because he couldn't read, write or speak English. He spoke some Thai and a little-known language called Karen. ...

In his first year, he received mostly Ds and Fs. He said he considered quitting, but knew that he would be able to find a better job if he graduated. So he sought out extra help and completed his missing work, and he's now in 11th grade. Reyes said Hser is often the first student to arrive on campus in the morning.
(Gorman, p 2)
I was shocked to read that these students even received grades at this level. Getting D's and F's in subjects you have no background to be able to understand can only knock away a student's motivation. Luckily many refugees are made of very strong stuff to get them this far.
Even though learning to read has been a tremendous struggle, Kanwea said getting discouraged hasn't been an option. His mother, Jessie Kanwea, said she is relying on him and his sisters.
(Gorman, p 2)
The article ends with a quote from President Obama's speech to schools, which the class was reading.
Even when you're struggling, even when you're discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you, don't ever give up on yourself. . . . The story of America isn't about people who quit when things got tough. It's about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

Inner City Boarding School

In my reflections on Chapter 1, where the concept of negotiating identity was introduced, I wrote about the boarding schools that have often been used to erase the identity of (usually) indigenous children so they could become "productive members of society." Thus I was struck by an article today in the New York Times Magazine "School Issue," The Inner-City Prep School Experience, about the SEED School in the Southeast section of Washington, DC. It sounds almost like the same sort of experience that these other children experienced. And yet it isn't entirely. The children go to their homes and neighborhoods every Friday afternoon and return Sunday evening to what become the sanctuary of the school, where they are dressed like the child in the picture, which would certainly not be accepted in the 'hood, and have to negotiate their identity all over again. According to their website:
SEED’s model is unique not only in that it is a boarding school for public school students, but also in that it is located within the students’ local community. Proximity to the local community nurtures positive contact with family and community leaders. It also provides students the opportunity to serve as role models and improve their own communities through service. SEED offers resources for local families, thereby strengthening both students’ support structure and the surrounding community.
(SEED School website/Experience)
But how do the kids manage their two identities, the school identity and the home one? For one thing, the Student-Parent Handbook says it "is is not the intention of the school to regulate every aspect of a student’s individuality.” (Jones, p. 1) so the students are permitted a certain amount of the hair styles, jewelry, etc. that is important to their home identity. One girl told the writer that
SEED was her refuge from the drama of the neighborhood, the bridge between home and the bigger world, the place that would help her be the first in her family to go to college. “I know what I gotta do when I’m at SEED,” she told me. She could move between worlds. But, she said, “I don’t mix my worlds.”
(Jones, p 2)
The students' need to negotiate their identities is very clear from this quote:
To survive that back and forth, many SEED students learn to code switch. A SEED student knows he can’t swagger through the hallways in baggy jeans, the rapper Ludacris blaring out of his iPod, while he avoids eye contact and a handshake with Mr. Adams [the head of the school.] But if he takes too much of SEED back to the neighborhood basketball court — the big words and pressed shirts — he could have troubles of a different sort. Rather than try to erase students’ street culture, Adams, who is 39 and biracial and was raised by a single African-American mother, talks to students about the particular value of it. “Someone who can navigate a dangerous neighborhood has a skill set that others lack,” he told me. “Why would I want to rid him of that?”
(Jones, p. 3)
Certainly Adams' attitude is the exact opposite of the leaders of the old boarding schools! These students are protected from needing to negotiate their identity constantly by being at the school 5 days every week, but their position at home is the same situation we described in blog reflections on another book for a CGU class this summer, The Adolescent Dilemma (which we tried to direct at high school students, but instead got reactions from other teachers.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Language as a bridge and an identity

Hector Tobar's column in the LA Times today, Language as a bridge and an identity, provides a lot of wisdom on this topic. Tobar is of Latino origin, and spoke Spanish until he started school.
I know, from experience, that a second language is like a mental muscle that will turn flabby if you don't use it on a regular basis.

The first words I spoke were in Spanish. At 5, I was still fluent. But at 17, after a dozen years of only English in local public schools, I spoke Spanish like a 4-year-old.

When I went to college and mastered Spanish at age 20, worlds opened up to me. I had my first real conversations with my Guatemalan grandparents. Today, Spanish is essential to my profession -- I've interviewed peasants and presidents in the language.
(All quotes from Tobar)
In the article he interviews parents and students at a weekend Spanish class which helps the children hold on to their Spanish.
I was invited to speak on Sunday to a group of 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds, and to their odd, tiny "classmate" -- a stuffed bear. Like me, the children were all English speakers, born in the U.S. But the stuffed bear spoke only Spanish ... So the kids and I chatted in espaƱol -- just so el oso wouldn't feel left out.
One of the parents told him the reason he found it necessary to enroll his child in the school:
"As soon as my son went to preschool, all of his buddies were speaking to him in English ... English was powerful. And Spanish was for the people cleaning up the school."

It seems odd that the language of Cervantes and Neruda would be considered a second-rate tongue. But that's the reality of L.A.

Here, English is the language of success, while Spanish is the language of hard labor. Some people run away from it as fast as they can.

A small minority would like to erase Spanish from the city's life. That would be a grave mistake.

Spanish adds to our collective cultural sophistication, along with Korean, Mandarin and many more languages. Those tongues and the people who speak them make us a more cosmopolitan and economically competitive city.
It was certainly a lot easier for my children to stay bilingual in Denmark. English was a high status language that everyone needs to be able to speak, so they start it in school in 5th grade. But even though speaking English has high status, being American sometimes gave problems, particularly from the time of the Vietnam war, all the way to Clinton's presidency.

But cultural sophistication is not the only reason to keep your first language, which is Spanish for many of the residents of our area. All of your languages are part of your identity.
And being connected to the language of your ancestors is good for the soul. [One of the parents] says she sees the impact of not knowing Spanish on some of her relatives. "They don't know where they come from, or where they're going," she said. ... "I have all these cousins who are basically monolingual in Spanish," she told me. "But all their kids are monolingual in English. They can barely communicate with each other."

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Being a hybrid

I asked a Taiwanese/American friend to look at this blog, and to comment on it. I asked her to tell me about her Chinese/American identity, remarking that in Denmark I used to feel like I was 75% Danish and 75% American (since there was certainly some overlap in the two cultures.) Linda said she understood the concept but considers herself 65% American and 35% Chinese hybrid (as a mathematician, she wants it to add up!)

Linda has very kindly shared a couple of sections from her Ethnographic analysis of her own background, which was a major assignment for our summer classes.

Family Background

I was born and raised in a middle class family with traditional Chinese values. My father was an entrepreneur who was the primary financial provider for our family. My mother was the traditional loving wife and mom. She focused most of her attention on instilling good values in her children, doing everything she can in her power to ensure that everything was done to the utmost of her ability. The house was spotless in her presence, the children were never left unattended and the household ran smoothly.

Growing up as a young child, I was exposed to several languages. My first language was Taiwanese. It was the primary language that was spoken within our household, and among friends and relatives. As I entered into my school years, I learned Mandarin, which was the formally accepted written language in Taiwan at the time. My father spoke Japanese as part of his professional dealings, and as a result, I was exposed to the Japanese language as well. It was not until my college years [in the U.S] that I actually spent some time formally studying the Japanese language. Throughout my secondary school years, I spent five years studying the Spanish language as part of my foreign language requirements.

My first introduction to the English language and the western culture was at the age of eight when my family immigrated to the United States. For the most part, my western influences came from the world outside of home. As a child, my teachers and friends at school played essential roles for shaping my acceptance of the Western culture into my life. It did not take long for me to embrace the openness of the Western culture, as it closely connected to my personality. Confused about my true identity, I was living a Western life by day and an Eastern life by night throughout most of my school years. The two sides of me did not mesh until I began to look within myself as a young adult. It was not until my late twenties that I actually accept myself as sort of a hybrid, someone who embraces the freedom of the western culture while still upholding some traditional Chinese values from within.

Today, I feel extremely lucky to have been exposed to both the Eastern and Western style of education. As a teacher, I will pick and chose from both styles of education. Depending on the needs of each student in my class, I can shift between the Eastern and Western style of teaching.

Language Acquisition

My first encounter with the English language occurred on my first day of class in America as a third-grade student, at Yorbita Elementary School in La Puente, California. No one in my immediate family spoke English, and thus, my first day of school in the United States was complete immersion in the most unexpected way.

As I recall, the teacher pointed to me during my first day of class and said, “Linda”. She pointed to herself and said, “Ms. Dubra”. Not being aware of the English name that I was just given at that time, I remember thinking the English language was so complicated. In Chinese, the simple words of “you” and “me” were just “ni” and “wo”. I thought to myself, “Why are there so many syllables for such simple words of communication?” After a few days of having this misconception, I finally made the connection that “Linda” was actually my name, and therefore, “Ms. Dubra” was the name of my teacher.

My experience as an ELL student in 1978 was one that was nurturing and encouraging. My teacher and the class aide were both more than supportive of my inability to understand the English language. They were also pleasantly surprised at my mathematical capabilities, as I had no problems comprehending formulas and equations that were based on the Greek system of numeration.

Differentiated instruction was used to teach me the English language. Initially, a student aide who I met with for approximately one hour per day taught me some basic English vocabulary using body language and picture cards. As I began to understand some verbal English instructions, I joined first grade students during the English portion of their class. My day consisted of two separate instructional parts. It was through this method of differentiated instruction that I learned to read in English.

It took only a few months before I was able to communicate verbally using some basic day-to-day English vocabulary. However, it took many years of practice before I felt confident writing in the English language. It was not until I fully immersed myself into the American culture as an adult that I was able to comfortably write in English. That meant I had to stop translating from Chinese to English and actually, think and write directly in English. It took almost twenty years of work in progress for me to achieve a fluid level of written communication in the English language.

On schools in Taiwan and the U.S.

(from the email, not the ethnography) Generally, school in the US was a lot easier in terms of academic expectations, and much more at ease (more freedom) with respect to the daily school life. The teachers were all super nice and caring, and they never really punished anyone. In Taiwan in the late 70's, the teachers [could] physically hit students for talking, doing something incorrectly,... as a form of punishment. Middle school students actually [had] to have their hair cut a certain way, a very specific length - I remember always laughing at my sister's silly cut when we were young. Can you believe that?

[Linda added in a later email that] the education system today in Taiwan has changed quite a bit as well. Students are allowed to have their own preferred hairstyles now, unlike before where they even had someone at school reshaping your haircut if it did not meet the stated requirements. Coloring hair is still not accepted in most schools. Teachers are also not allowed to hit students anymore today. I would estimate the change to be in the 90s, maybe a gradual change began in the late 80s as Taiwan opened its market to the outside world, receiving more western influences as a result.
(Emails from Linda - My emphasis)
I think Linda describes very clearly the conflicts of two cultures, how she negotiated her identity between home and school, as well as her own awareness of her lack of Academic English, as discussed in the book and earlier in this blog.

Since there were most likely very few Chinese students in her school, she learned entirely through immersion in English, with caring teachers. Since she had learned not only her family language Taiwanese, but the Academic Chinese of Mandarin in school and was adept at mathematics, she was able to pick up the language quite quickly and was encouraged in her studies. She was given maximum exposure to English by being placed in a regular classroom (albeit a couple of grades back) so that she could learn to read along with the first graders. Since her language was not European, she had to learn an entirely different code and had very little other than underlying language universals to help her learn English.