Diverse Teaching Strategies for Immigrant Children

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Cohen & Lotan, 1997; Crandall, 1999; Johnson & Johnson, 1987; Kagan, 1994; Slavin, 1989, 1990.

Strategy 3.14: Help Students Develop Personal Self-Esteem and Leadership Skills. Teachers use strategies within and outside of class to help students develop self-confidence, pride in their heritage, and leadership ability.


Bilingual and bicultural students are valuable resources. Unfortunately these students are often viewed in terms of what they lack (especially English-language proficiency), rather than what they contribute. The value of bilingualism in cognitive and economic terms is established in that it promotes cognitive flexibility and creativity, enabling bilinguals to view issues from multiple perspectives. In addition, bilinguals bring much-needed skills to an increasingly global economy (Hakuta, 1987; Tucker, 1990).

Not all schools recognize the value of knowing more than one language. Although schools may recognize the importance of foreign languages for English-speaking students, they often neglect the languages that immigrant students bring to school, relegating students’ primary languages to the home or the community, rather than gradually adding English to that primary language.

This deficit model can have a profound impact on immigrant students, as well as on the teachers and administrators who work with them. Bilingual students may be overlooked when others are encouraged to run for student government, apply to honor societies, participate in advanced placement courses, or receive training as peer mediators. They may not receive equal consideration for college or career counseling. Their immigrant status may also limit their participation in government-funded work-study programs or college financial aid programs.

Marginalization often causes these students to internalize others’ perceptions of them. Rather than taking pride in themselves and their backgrounds and recognizing the value of their bilingualism and biculturalism, they may doubt their self-worth or seek to prove it outside school. Some students must contribute to their family income, and the low-skilled jobs available to them may further diminish their sense of self-worth. Conflicting expectations of family, friends, and school can create incredible pressures.

Students need opportunities to identify and celebrate their strengths, not focus on their weaknesses. Fortunately, there are many ways to accomplish this. Perhaps the most important is to have high expectations of these students and provide opportunities that allow them to live up to those expectations. Teachers can be trained in specific mentoring techniques that focus on communicating with students about dropout prevention, career exploration, decision making, transitioning to postsecondary or vocational education, conflict resolution, and community participation (Rumptz, Lucas, & McEmrys, 2001). For example, ELLs, or those who have recently exited from ESL or bilingual programs, may be ideal tutors for peers still enrolled in these courses. Older ELLs may be ideal tutors for younger children who are just learning to read. These tutors play an especially important role when they assist students at risk of failure in overcrowded elementary schools (Cook & Urzúa, 1993; Heath & Mangiola, 1991). Peer tutoring by older or more proficient students works nearly as well as teacher tutoring (Cohen, Kulik, & Kulik, 1982), and the benefits to the tutor are substantial. Teachers have long known that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it. The act of tutoring increases students’ confidence in themselves as learners, improves their academic skills, and increases the likelihood that they will stay in school. In addition, tutoring helps develop interpersonal and leadership skills. Cross-age tutoring programs have the additional benefit of encouraging young people to consider teaching as a career—a critically important possibility, since the declining percentage of Hispanic, Asian, and other minority teachers creates an absence of role models in schools.

Additional activities that celebrate students’ languages and cultures are also important. International clubs and festivals, extracurricular activities involving sports or music in which students excel, and opportunities to learn each others’ dances can help students develop pride in their heritage. When newly arrived immigrants help a school win the state soccer championship, everyone recognizes and celebrates their accomplishments. Similarly, the publication of student stories or poems in school journals or newsletters validates student efforts and offers a valuable outlet for self-expression. Simple banners or hall exhibits reflecting students’ diverse backgrounds help establish a positive multicultural environment.

Teachers can provide opportunities for students to demonstrate special linguistic and cultural knowledge, such as asking students to teach a short lesson on their language or to relate a local proverb to one from their native country. Working cooperatively on class projects helps students recognize each others’ strengths. Former students with successful careers may be invited to class to discuss their careers and the role that bilingualism may have played; current students can serve as experts in teacher development courses and workshops, helping teachers and administrators to understand their countries and cultural backgrounds. The important point is to emphasize students’ strengths while addressing their linguistic and academic needs.

Classroom Examples

Ms. Hernandez, a high school Spanish teacher, recognized that many of her Spanish-speaking students were having difficulties in regular Spanish classes, as their spoken language differed from the textbook variety, and formal instruction in their own language was limited. Rather than underscoring students’ strengths, the classes were further eroding their self-confidence.

Ms. Hernandez decided to develop a sequence of Spanish courses for native speakers, building on their oral language and developing their formal (especially written) language skills to further their ability to use the language in academic and professional contexts. After taking this course sequence, students transitioned into advanced placement Spanish classes with mainstream students, where they were able to earn college credit. Ms. Hernandez also developed a cross-age tutoring program in which Spanish-speaking and English-speaking high school students tutored ELLs in a nearby elementary school. Some of the Spanish-speaking students found themselves helping the English-speaking high school students with their Spanish. After this experience, several students indicated an interest in becoming teachers.

Teachers at one high school developed a weekend cross-cultural leadership institute at an environmental education center, where students from many different backgrounds were encouraged to develop confidence, leadership, and cooperative skills. For many students, this was their first weekend away from home. One activity required students to help each other negotiate an obstacle course, which required teamwork, confidence, physical and mental agility, and determination. Other activities engaged students in creating a banner for the school, participating in a talent show, and working with a variety of arts and crafts. In addition, two student government leaders (formerly in ESL classes) led an evening session, providing a forum for students to articulate their concerns about the school and to act on them by developing resolutions, which were subsequently presented to the student government and the principal for action.

Through these activities, friendships developed among students who had previously viewed each other with suspicion. Several of the participants became volunteers, guides, and interpreters for parents and new students at the international student guidance office during registration week. In doing so, they gained community service credits required for graduation. Another source of community service credits grew out of a field trip to a local nursing home, where students found senior citizens eager to talk with younger people who spoke their languages. Several students began visiting seniors regularly.

Another teacher, Mr. Wu, initiated a writing workshop by asking students to list (1) things I like about myself, (2) things I can do well, and (3) things others like about me. Students expanded their lists to serve as a means of introducing themselves to the class. As a follow-up activity, students brought personal items to school, including photographs and other pictures explaining who they were. In small groups, they elaborated on why these things were important to them. They wrote captions for the photographs and pictures, in both English and their primary language, and combined them with other items in a collage that was later displayed in the classroom.

Ms. Johnson routinely uses cooperative learning to integrate diverse learners into her middle school social studies classes. She groups ELLs with English speakers who are sensitive to the needs of these students and assigns roles that allow them to demonstrate special skills, such as designing and illustrating group posters. In the same middle school, a science teacher and a graduate student serving an internship helped immigrant students develop science fair projects. One project, by a 7the grade Somali student, won first place in chemistry. This student, who had only recently arrived from a refugee camp, learned to use the computer to enter the findings for her project poster.

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