Magazine Feature

A Case for Acculturation

It’s time to update the way we think—and talk—about immigrant students.
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Illustration by John Jay Cabuay

“I’d like you each to tell me where you are from and one thing about your home country,” Wanjiru Kamau said quietly, glancing around the classroom at two dozen middle schoolers. The students were reluctantly attending a lunchtime meeting at Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring, Maryland, to discuss a new student club.

Some of the students laughed nervously; several rolled their eyes or tried to appear disinterested.

“I’ll start,” one girl finally said. She explained how she was frightened and missed friendly people in her home country, the taste of native foods and the warm weather of home—but that she “loves the television here.”

With her comments, everything changed. The room was filled with smiles, laughter and supportive, excited conversation. Soon all the students—all immigrants from several different African countries—were taking their turns and speaking proudly about their experiences.

Kamau is the founder and executive director of the African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation (AIRF), an organization in the Washington, D.C., area. In posing questions to the student group about their home countries, she was demonstrating an integrative approach that researchers believe helps immigrant students in multiple ways, keeping students actively connected to their lives prior to arriving in the United States.

“No one should forget where they come from,” says Ennie Okusanya, a teacher who supervises the student group at Argyle and who is, herself, an immigrant from Nigeria. “It is the foundation of who they are. They have the opportunity to create their American story.”


Beyond Assimilation

Many anti-bias educators know intuitively that they should help students adjust to and succeed in their new culture, a process often referred to as acculturation. From a youth development standpoint, acculturation is far more beneficial to immigrant students than the outdated expectation of assimilation, a process during which immigrants fully adopt their new cultures and shed the old.

Elena Makarova, a scholar who studies cultural identity development, recommends that educators support what some experts call additive or bicultural acculturation, a process that allows new immigrants to adjust to their new culture while still maintaining pride in and substantive connections to their heritage and their country of origin. Makarova notes that this approach helps immigrant students lead healthier and more successful lives at school.

“In order for them to develop appropriate psychological and social outcomes, they need to keep the bilingual and bicultural heritage,” she says.

AIRF’s practice of encouraging students to talk about and stay connected with their positive memories of their home country is an example of additive acculturation.


How We Got Here

Striving for additive acculturation is a critical goal for educators who work with immigrant students, but it requires working against a difficult institutional history. In the United States, the immigrant student experience has traditionally been narrated in terms of successful or unsuccessful acquisition of English and adaptation to social norms. The narrative often overlooks students’ ties to their cultural heritage and the complexity of their lives. Assimilation is expected, at least in part, because some educators see immigrant students as “fortunate” to be here.

“A lot of their support is through their status as English language learners and that becomes the focus rather than understanding the range of issues for a child who has been through an immigration process,” says Rebecca Lowenhaupt, a researcher studying the issue at Boston College. “Sometimes that can lead to a deficit in our perspective.”

Such myopia on the part of educators can have a devastating psychological effect, says Makarova. “If they think of themselves as lost from their heritage culture, there may be a lot of maladaptive psychological and social outcomes,” she observes.

Young immigrants may have endured difficult journeys out of violence or deprivation into a shockingly different, confusing and stressful culture. Many cope with competing pressures to conform to the adopted culture and to live according to their heritage. They face social and institutional racism and hear threatening xenophobic language every day. Even the simplest interactions may be confusing or fraught with tension.

We believe that students’ home language and culture are tremendous assets that we must leverage for their own learning and that of their community.

Teresa Lynn Morgan, a researcher who has studied Latino immigrant high school students in rural Midwestern towns, uses cultural bereavement—a term coined in 1988 by Dr. Maurice Eisenbruch—to describe the loss experienced by youth who assimilate under such circumstances. This loss can be exacerbated if family members have not been through the same assimilation experience and, thus, do not share the student’s sense of loss.

Hannah Turner, who teaches English language learning (ELL) classes at Argyle, says that her students are often bullied and pushed into distancing themselves from their heritage and culture. One very new student from Latin America, Turner recalls, talked about avoiding an area frequented by families from his home country because “Hispanics are dirty.”

Kamau points out that many schools and social service agencies “lack the cultural knowledge, sensitivity and skills required” to effectively counter this internalized dialogue and to support immigrant students and their families. Makarova agrees. Her research with scholar Dina Birman finds that schools’ curricula and pedagogies can promote “assimilationist ideologies, while ‘erasing the different histories and social and economic realities of their students.’” In a co-authored article, Makarova and Birman explain that researchers have found a “dearth of mechanisms, strategies, language programs, or committed teachers to integrate the minority youth in the school and to provide support for their psychological adjustment needs.”


Where Can We Go From Here?

Educators who embrace the ideas of additive acculturation seek out ways for immigrant students to benefit from their adopted culture and to make positive contributions to their peer group. Research shows that involvement in extracurricular activities, such as the after-school program that Okusanya facilitates, is paying off for immigrant students because that involvement provides “an opportunity to show their abilities and to facilitate cross-ethnic friendships,” Makarova says.

We want to give students a positive African self-image that can co-exist with the American identity they crave.

One of the ways AIRF supports students as they navigate their futures is by connecting them with successful mentors with similar backgrounds. On Saturdays, members get together with college students for academic help, discussions, games, field trips and meals. Club meetings feature foods, clothing and traditions from various African countries. Members also have the opportunity to show pride in their culture schoolwide. Students in the Argyle group were key organizers of a multicultural event that featured clothing and music from all over the world, and AIRF students at nearby Montgomery Blair High School held a performance based on traditional dances from several of their home countries. These events gave the larger student body the benefit of learning about parts of the world unfamiliar to them and fostered opportunities for cross-cultural conversations and friendships.

“We want to give students a positive African self-image that can co-exist with the American identity they crave,” Kamau says.

But isolated cultural celebrations aren’t enough to keep students meaningfully connected to their heritage. The group also works with organizations that represent immigrants from other parts of the world, and members are encouraged to participate in community service, student government and other activities that allow them to champion their heritage, learn more about others and become leaders. For example, AIRF students helped organize a social mixer and creative writing exchange, through which they compared their experiences with students in an Asian and Hispanic student groups.


How Do We Get There?

For schools that are ready to make a shift toward additive acculturation, Makarova suggests conducting a review of the policies and norms that surround immigrant students with an eye for identifying marginalizing practices (such as separating ELLs into different classrooms for large chunks of the day or discouraging students from participation in gifted programs or extracurricular activities).

The next steps require sustained commitment and professional development: providing counseling that specifically addresses the needs of immigrant students; establishing inclusive instructional practices; and fully integrating and recognizing the assets of ELLs.


Counseling services

Administrators, counselors and teachers can begin by gathering information from students and families about their needs and experiences. (A survey or a regular family night to discuss specific concerns can aid this data gathering.) Families of immigrant students should also be encouraged to participate in school leadership, says Lowenhaupt. (For example, one parent-teacher organization had a specific slot for an ELL parent.) ELL staff should be called upon to speak to the needs of individual students and of their classes generally. Experts at the University of Washington School of Education who focus on family engagement across cultures recommend the development of cultural brokers who can help immigrant students adapt to their school systems while still maintaining connections with the culture of their home country. Bilingual counselors or social workers who are experts on immigrant students can train other staff members in how to be more culturally responsive across the school.


Inclusive instructional practices

Additive acculturation doesn’t benefit only immigrant students, just as inclusive teaching practices don’t benefit only students who are members of a minority group. When educators intentionally design curricula that promote positive identity formation for all students, they support acculturation. This might include assigning texts that are “mirrors” reflecting their identities and “windows” into the lives of others; offering students opportunities to tell stories about their lived experiences; helping them develop the vocabulary necessary to talk about injustices they witness; and teaching practices that empower students and support their capacity to become change agents.


Integrating ELL students

Lowenhaupt notes that, in the classroom, focusing on student assets supports additive acculturation by “capitaliz[ing] on previous knowledge to build new skills, such as bilingualism and bi-literacy.” This practice, she says, pays off for students both emotionally and practically.

Turner agrees. It disturbs her that immigrant youth are often either isolated in ELL classes or thrust into mainstream classes based on their English language skills instead of their abilities. “More and more businesses understand the value in hiring bilingual employees, yet my students are on a path, not of their own doing, that will take it away and rob them of those employment opportunities,” she says. Turner makes it a point to not just reinforce home language but to integrate her students’ cultures into her lessons and assigned projects, and to plan classroom celebrations related to her students’ home countries.

Ben Master, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation in Washington, D.C., cites recent research suggesting that students taught in two languages do better academically long term. “[G]eneral education instruction would do well to tap into their level of mastery and thinking in their native language rather than perhaps viewing or labeling them as struggling students across dimensions other than language,” he says.

In his research, Master highlights the work of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) on the issue. The result is the district’s comprehensive “Roadmap to English Language Learner Achievement,” which promotes better training. “We believe that all educators in our system are responsible for our English Language Learners, and therefore all teachers are language teachers,” the plan says.

Across the United States, several models have been developed for language acquisition. In OUSD, where close to one-third of the student population are ELLs and half of students speak a language other than English at home, school leaders are developing more dual-language classes in which native English-speaking students and ELLs are taught both languages together—a best practice, according to language acquisition research. In other content areas, OUSD has committed to placing ELLs based on their level of understanding of the material rather than on language, surrounding them with support from classmates and bilingual teachers.

Like the credo espoused by Master, Turner and Lowenhaupt, “Roadmap to English Language Learner Achievement” is unambiguous in its message to educators: “We believe that students’ home language and culture are tremendous assets that we must leverage for their own learning and that of their community.”

Hidden Stressors

Schools often assess how well an immigrant student is adjusting to school in terms of English proficiency and social assimilation. But students may be experiencing a whole host of stressors beyond language acquisition and peer relationships, such as:

  • adjusting to practicing a minority religious tradition;
  • navigating a larger school than they are used to;
  • learning a different grading system;
  • adjusting to the pace of teaching and the amount of homework;
  • adapting to different behavioral norms.

Schools that seek to support additive acculturation should be sure that supports are in place to assess for these hidden stressors and should regularly offer students opportunities to share stressors their educators may not have thought of.

Here are some professional development and classroom strategies for educators seeking to help immigrant students feel welcome, valued and safe at school.

The uncertainty of being undocumented or having an undocumented family member can weigh heavily on students. Visit our web package to find out how you and your school can offer support and connect undocumented families with accurate, actionable information and advocacy.