Diverse Teaching Strategies for Immigrant Children

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Olsen & Jaramillo, 2000; Ruiz-de-Velasco & Fix, 2000.

Strategy 3.13: Build a Sense of Community in the Classroom. Teachers are sensitive to the myriad challenges that face immigrant students, not the least of which is fitting in and being an accepted, integral, valued member of the classroom community. Teachers view their classrooms as places where students learn and practice values of understanding and honoring the diverse cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds of individual students.


Many teachers today face classrooms that mirror the rapidly changing demographics of their states, communities, and school districts. Just a decade ago, a class might have included only one, or a small handful, of second-language or immigrant students; today, classrooms are filled with an unprecedented mixture of cultures, languages, national backgrounds, and ethnicities. Schoolwide efforts to address these pressing issues often center on more superficial aspects of building community—an assembly to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, a dance for Cinco de Mayo, or a parade for Chinese New Year. Teachers are left searching for ways in which they and their students can find meaningful common ground within the four walls of the classroom.

Careful teachers find ways of avoiding divisions, aware that classrooms can splinter along invisible fault lines. When a class is made up of students from many different primary language backgrounds, the teacher can ensure that work groups create interactions among students from different language groups. Even when a teacher must pair a proficient primary-language speaker with a less proficient one of the same language to provide peer assistance, the teacher sees that the pairing is not permanent, but merely a temporary arrangement.

Teachers also need to consider the range of language fluency in the classroom. Status often accrues to those who speak English more proficiently; structuring situations so that students of varying levels of proficiency must work together to complete a task can help break down barriers, especially if students less proficient in English can contribute a meaningful, valued portion of the task in their native language.

Several well-researched, well-documented approaches to cooperative learning (Johnson & Johnson, 1987; Kagan, 1994; Slavin, 1989-90, 1990) address some of the issues (see also Strategy 3.5). Each approach requires considerable skill and practice by the teacher to succeed. But teachers who invest the time notice improvements in intergroup relations as well as increased academic achievement (Crandall, 1999).

It is critical to distinguish between doing cooperative learning and simply putting students in groups to do some work. Although it is often called cooperative learning, group work is often a somewhat random collection of students completing some task together. In real cooperative groups, such as those Kagan describes, the teacher assigns students to groups; each group represents students with a range of abilities. True cooperative groups operate on the principle of positive interdependence: Each student has a role and is accountable to the rest of the group. The groups incorporate clear individual accountability and an emphasis on students’ use of collaborative skills.

Some teachers have been trained in complex instruction (Cohen & Lotan, 1997), an approach to cooperative learning that goes directly to the heart of status in the classroom. Teachers make explicit the kinds of skills and abilities needed for groups to solve intrinsically interesting problems or to complete group products. Group norms govern expectations and behavior. For example, students who systematically engage in complex instruction projects know that “one will be good at all of the tasks involved; everyone will be good at some of them.” Because the group tasks (e.g., an investigation focused on the theme of social stratification in medieval Japanese society) truly require the use of multiple abilities, not all of which relate to reading and writing, every student can contribute to the group product. Because of the way the tasks are structured, complex instruction units break down the hierarchies that exist in classrooms, which reflect the larger school and community.

Other teachers employ a variety of methods to build group inclusion and class cohesiveness. Many such activities make up the team-building portion of cooperative learning approaches. A common activity gives teams a problem to solve, but team members may not speak or use nonverbal cues. Team members receive an envelope with parts from different broken squares. Their group task is to reassemble the pieces into squares, following the above rules. Another interactive method of building teams is a variation of Kagan’s numbered heads together activity (see also Strategy 3.5). Students count off in groups of four or five, so that every student has a number. The teacher poses a question to the class and asks groups to put their heads together to discuss their response. After allowing a minute or two for group discussion, the teacher repeats the question and calls out a number. The teacher then calls randomly on one group to answer, and the student with that number in the group answers.

Teachers who use methods of grouping and instruction to break down barriers find that their classrooms are significantly more equitable, lively, and happy for all students. Methods such as complex instruction, which directly address potential inequities and unequal status within the academic content, are powerful on multiple levels.

Classroom Examples

Ms. Tan is dedicated to creating a classroom governed by mutual respect and understanding. The 32 students in her 7th grade social studies class represent a mix of cultures, languages, national backgrounds, ethnicities, and races. Seven students are black, five are Euro-American, two are newly arrived from Russia, ten are from Central America and Mexico, and seven are Southeast Asian—two from Thailand, one from the Philippines, and four from Vietnam.

Recently, racial tensions have been rising in the surrounding community and spilling over into the school. Ms. Tan notices that students are segregating themselves more by groups and sticking together more. Even though her classroom has been relatively calm, she has redoubled her efforts to promote inclusion and cooperation.

Today students are seated in their cooperative groups working on a jigsaw project. On the surface, there is no way to tell how they are grouped, though it is obviously not by ethnicity, language, or race. Some examples of group team-building projects are displayed on one wall—in one case, the groups have created a group identity and drawn a picture or symbol to match. The teams are reading short historical pieces related to different immigrant groups. Seated in topic-specific “expert” teams, the team members will soon return to their home teams with information on the immigrant experience they have read about—when it took place, why the person came, how the person felt on arriving, what conditions and attitudes greeted them here, and whether the immigration was voluntary or involuntary.

The work in home teams is productive and focused. Students are responsible for filling out a grid outlining what other team members are providing from their reading in the expert groups. Each team member will then choose an immigrant experience unlike their own or their family’s. Their job will be to stand in the shoes of that person and write a diary-like account of that experience. Ms. Tan will spend considerable time making sure that students know and appreciate the differences between voluntary and involuntary immigration. She has planned several activities to help them process the hard feelings that are bound to come up as the unit proceeds, but she knows that avoiding the issues would be worse.

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