Magazine Feature

Crossing Borders/Border Crossings

The depth and clarity of a teacher's multicultural lens can make — or break — immigrant students' ability to learn.
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Illustration by Ken Orvidas

On a cool morning in Whitfield County, Ga., a thin boy named Alfredo sits alone at the edge of the classroom. Shoulders hunched forward, Alfredo stares at the desktop in front of him. This is his first day of school in America, and he is frightened.

A thousand miles away, in St. Paul, Minn., 6th-grader Pang Yia doesn't say much until a teacher hands her a large sheet of paper and a box of markers. Speaking through pictures, Pang Yia tells the story of how she traveled from a Thai refugee camp to the middle of Minnesota.

Further east, in Lewiston, Maine, a tall young man named Mohammed weaves through a sea of mostly white faces and heads for an empty classroom, where he kneels next to another Somali-born student for the morning Muslim prayer.

Every year, thousands of immigrant and refugee students like Alfredo, Pang Yia and Mohammed enter American schools. One Minnesota educator calls the classroom "a cultural Petri dish" — one of the first places native English-speaking people interact with new immigrant populations.

For schools, this usually means growing pains, lots of questions and a crash course in multicultural literacy.

Yet multicultural training for teachers frequently lags behind immigrant population growth. Too often, one Georgia principal lamented, "multiculturalism" gets translated into a sombrero hung on a classroom wall. The result, educators say, can include harmful stereotypes, unfair disciplinary actions and failed opportunities to create classroom environments inclusive of all students.

While language barriers are perhaps the most obvious hurdle in teaching students from other countries, more and more educators are realizing they need to look beyond the obvious, examining their own cultural filters to better understand the cultures from which their students come.

They're learning a key tenet of English language learner programs: Students learn best in the safest, most comfortable environment possible.


'A Dual Identity'

"Being an immigrant or refugee student is like having a dual identity," says Be Vang, a 6th-grade teacher at Hayden Heights Elementary School in St. Paul, who immigrated to the United States as a child. "If you're from the dominant culture, maybe you've never experienced what that feels like."

Many of the Hayden Heights' Hmong refugee students have two names: a Hmong name given to them at birth and a Western name given to them upon arriving in the United States. One 5th-grader goes by "Jefferson" at school; at home, his parents and siblings call him by his Hmong name, "Bee." When asked what name he uses when he thinks of himself, he quietly answers, "Bee."

It's a delicate and exhausting balance, choosing what to hold onto from the native culture and what to embrace from the new one.

Mohammed Mohammed, a Somali-born junior at Lewiston High School in Lewiston, Maine, resembles many of his American-born peers: He rattles off sports scores, watches "American Idol" and uses Google to help with homework. But twice a day, Mohammed breaks from class to find an empty room, or he leaves campus and drives to a nearby mosque, in order to say his Muslim prayers.

He and his Somali peers face intense scrutiny, and sometimes bias, in a state the 2000 Census defines as the whitest in the nation.

"At first, the white students wanted to be our friends, but their parents wouldn't let them," says Mohammed's friend Khalid. "It was their first time around refugee students. Their parents told them we were bad people."

Teaching Tolerance illustration of a teacher crossing the line to meet her student

Overcoming Bias

Teachers aren't immune from bias. When Hayden Heights Elementary was told it would receive more than 100 Hmong students from a Thai refugee camp, some teachers objected. Some worried the new students would lower the school's standardized test scores. Others complained they might be a drain on campus resources. And some worried that American parents would withdraw their children from the school.

"Their concerns really amounted to, 'What is best for our white students?'" says Polly Pampusch, a 1st-grade ELL teacher at Hayden Heights. "It's very upsetting that many teachers never think to ask, 'What global or political forces brought these students here?'"

Cultural education helps teachers overcome bias and stereotypes. Teacher Blanca Balderas came to Southeast Whitfield County High School near Dalton, Ga., two years ago from Monterrey, Mexico, through a program called The Georgia Project. The program sends Georgia teachers to a four-week language and cultural institute in Monterrey. Teachers from Mexico come to Georgia for one to three years to provide additional language support to immigrant students and their regular classroom teachers.

Balderas also acts as a cultural resource, helping teachers and administrators learn how to check their own cultural biases before judging a student's behavior.

"In Mexico, students don't have timed passing periods," Balderas says. "So we were having a lot of Mexican students showing up late for class. Some teachers would say, 'My goodness, they're lazy!' or, 'What's wrong with these students?' Nothing was wrong — they just needed someone to tell them, 'That's how you did it there; this is how we do it here.'"

Being an immigrant or refugee student is like having a dual identity. If you're from the dominant culture, maybe you've never experienced what that feels like.

— Be Vang, 6th-grade teacher

Too often, though, the job of challenging teachers' biases lands on the shoulders of teachers of color. Vang, the 6th-grade teacher at St. Paul's Hayden Heights, says it's a job that sometimes leaves her feeling frustrated, tokenized and valued only for her knowledge of Hmong culture. To counter this, she says, districts should step up and provide the training that teachers need.

"What we really need to know is the nuts-and-bolts stuff, so that we don't write off our students as being bad or lazy or disrespectful," Vang says.


'We Do Need to Listen'

Without proper understanding, teachers can unfairly interpret cultural differences as discipline problems.

Recently at Southeast High School in Georgia, a teacher scolded a student from Mexico for failing to look at her when she spoke to him. "She kept saying, 'Why are you looking at the floor? Look at me!'" Balderas remembers. "But he couldn't. In Mexico, that's a sign of great disrespect. So I pulled her aside and explained that by looking down, the student was trying to be respectful. She got it then."

Vang suggests that teachers "step back and ask ourselves, 'Is this behavior inappropriate because my culture teaches that it's inappropriate?' Different cultures value different things."

Vang doesn't advocate that teachers excuse inappropriate behavior simply because it might be rooted in cultural difference. "But we do need to listen and understand where our kids are coming from, so we know how to approach the situation in the most constructive way possible," she says.

At Lewiston High School last year, a student from Somalia approached biology teacher Michael McGraw after failing a test and tried to negotiate a better grade. McGraw reprimanded the student and told him, "We don't do that here." The student got upset, and a tense interaction ensued. But then, McGraw says, "I read a little, and I realized that in this student's culture, negotiation is really important to survival. So I came back to the student and said, 'OK, we can negotiate for other things. Like, if you study more, I'll give you a higher grade.'"


Inclusive Classrooms

As a coping mechanism, many immigrant students become more reserved around teachers and classmates who don't understand their language or their culture.

In his first-period health class at Southeast High, Luis Hernandez sits at the back of the room. He doesn't speak much or raise his hand. One hour later, in a beginner's ESOL class with teacher Marie Varela, Luis sits in the front row, eager and self-assured.

Today, Varela is teaching about the endings of past-tense verbs. "Can anyone tell me a verb (that ends) with a 'T' sound?" she asks.

"Worked," Luis calls out, emphasizing the final "T" sound. Luis answers the next three questions, too.

Varela laughs and raises an eyebrow. "Good, Luis, you get it! Let's let other students answer, too."

ESOL teachers call this the affective filter.

"If you are worried about making a mistake or whether someone is going to make fun of your accent, you're not going to learn," explains Jeff Hensley, an ESOL math teacher at Southeast High who spent four weeks in Mexico through The Georgia Project.

Hensley helps his students feel at ease by asking them to help him learn Spanish, hanging a map on the wall that shows each student's hometown and reading and traveling enough to know something about the Latin American regions from which his students come.

"I'll have teachers say to me, 'This student is so shy,'" he says. "And I'll think, 'Are we talking about the same student? That's one of the most outgoing students in my class!'"


'Something to give'

Teachers don't need to travel to other countries or learn new languages to create culturally inclusive classrooms. But they do need to look beyond food festivals and other themed activities, says Vang, from Hayden Heights.

"Teachers love themes because it means we can do the same thing every year," she says. "But it teaches students that it's okay to tokenize. The message is, 'This month we're going to care about the Latinos, or the African Americans, or the Asians, and when it's over we're not going to look back.'"

Alternatively, authentic multicultural education happens naturally, subtly and throughout the year, she says: "It shouldn't have to be Latino Cultural Week to read a book by a Latino author."

Sometimes, all teachers need to do is ask questions.

Advanced ESOL student Gabriella Casillas, a junior from Michoacan, Mexico, who attends Southeast High, says she likes it when non-ESOL teachers ask about her culture.

"We are learning about American culture, where everything is different," Gabriella says. "So when someone asks me about my culture, it makes me feel important, too, like I have something to give."

Newcomers' Club

It's 30 minutes before the first bell, and Marie Varela's ESOL classroom is buzzing.


Gabby Casillas, a junior here at Southeast Whitfield County High School in Dalton, Ga., translates a math story-problem into Spanish so classmate Miguel can finish his homework.


At the board, teacher Blanca Balderas explains the mechanics of an algebra equation to a group of boys earnestly scribbling in their notebooks.


At the back of the room, several students crowd around a desk and practice their English vocabulary words. A poster pinned to the wall above them proclaims, "Each person's story is as different as fingerprints."


This is the Newcomers' Club, started last year by Gabby and several advanced ESOL classmates. Their hope: to create the safe space that newly arriving immigrant students need in order to feel at home in American schools.


It's what Balderas calls a "safe zone," the time each day when students can let down the guard that comes with interpreting a new and foreign world. "In non-ESOL classes, many of these kids are shy," she says. "But in safe zones, they're totally different."


Safe spaces

When a beginning ESOL student dropped out of school last September, Gabby, who moved here three years ago from Michoacan, Mexico, says she decided to act.


"When I first arrived here, I felt like I was so alone, and I couldn't communicate with anyone because I didn't know any English," she says. "Communicating with teachers was the hardest thing. Some were helpful, but some put me in the back of the class because I couldn't speak English. It made me feel left out."


She asked teacher Marie Varela for support in starting a homework club: a chance for advanced ESOL students to mentor beginners – and, she says, a way to help English-language learners stay in school.


Encouraged by Varela, Gabby and several classmates passed out fliers to all the beginning ESOL students and organized a meeting to explain their idea. Advanced ESOL students shared their experiences of feeling lost and alienated.


Then they hosted a Thanksgiving breakfast kick-off, and the Newcomers' Club was born.


The group meets for about 45 minutes every morning before school in Varela's classroom. Participation isn't mandatory – rather, beginning ESOL students know the space is there if and when they need it.


In addition to homework help, students get the chance to connect with others who understand the difficulties of straddling different cultures.


"If you don't speak very well English, students will make fun of you. If you look Mexican, they will think you're illegal," Gabby says. "They don't know what it feels like to be in a different country where they don't speak your language, and you're trying very hard to speak like them."


The program started with seven volunteers who created an application process for potential "helpers." The tutors learned to manage the tutoring schedule and have learned hiring skills. Teachers say the students' class work has improved through helping others.


Today, 14 "helpers" and about 30 "newcomers" regularly participate in the program. Two non-immigrant students, both of whom are enrolled in advanced Spanish classes, are among the volunteers, too.


"We help them with their Spanish, and they help us with our English," Gabby says. "Regular teachers have thanked us, because it means all the students are doing better."

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