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Safety Net: Seeing school through immigrants' eyes helps teachers help students

Friday, May 4, 2007

Late last fall I attended a professional development session hosted by the Marshall Public School District. The session was led by Kansas State University education professor Tonnie Martinez and was designed to help teachers better understand and respond to the challenges that result when an increasing number of their students speak little or no English. The title of the session was "Help! They don't speak English." When I arrived, I walked up to an Hispanic-looking woman and introduced myself.

Wrong woman.

Martinez was the woman northern European stock standing next to the Hispanic-looking woman -- whose last name, it turned out, not Hispanic. I think I said something witty, like "Uh.... Oh. Sorry."

Both women were very gracious, laughing off my mistake. I got the impression both were quite used to seeing people trip over their assumptions.

That moment suggests says something about the cultural moment in Saline County, where in the past decade or more there has been a significant influx of Hispanic people: Assumptions are dangerous in times of change.

It's impossible -- we should remember -- to neatly divide people into this kind or that (common categories that tempt us these days include legals and illegals, white and Hispanic, Hispanic and black, black and white) because purity is rare -- thankfully -- and we're all mongrels to one degree or another -- by blood, by marriage, by ideology and often by necessity.

Martinez was invited to Marshall, I'm guessing, because the complexities of social change are at the surface and more insistent than they are for most of us, who may encounter people from other cultures regularly but generally aren't forced to interact and can easily edge around each other.

It's a troublesome and wonderful fact that public schools have to serve the students they get, whoever they are and whatever language(s) they speak, whatever foods they eat, whatever songs they sing. Marshall school officials recognize the need for teachers to understand the cultural implications of the growing Hispanic population in the district, because they have a duty to help those children learn and grow and they have a responsibility to make adjustments in how they teach that help native English speaking students thrive as well.

It ain't easy.

In her annual report on the Prairie View Early Childhood Learning Center to the Marshall Board of Education April 24, Cheryl Nichols noted that about 57 percent of the children enrolled this year did not speak much, if any, English at the beginning of the school year.

"Most of the kids are speaking pretty good English by the time they reach kindergarten," she said. Her staff main goals are to help young children learn the most basic skills needed to thrive in school, things like sharing toys, finding their own cubbies, putting on their own coats. Language barriers present a big challenge to both teachers and students in working toward those goals.

Martinez helps teachers see and appreciate the difficulties immigrant students face when arriving cultures meet established cultures. Friction often results. Friction and opportunity.

There are practical considerations. Teachers, for instance, may understandably expect immigrant students to do the same work as native students. But they should be aware that the demands are inherently greater on immigrants.

"It is extremely fatiguing to work all day long, to list and process things in another language," Martinez said. Native students may have to make effort to understand difficult concepts in school but they don't have the added burden of having to first understand a language that doesn't come naturally to them and then wrestle with the concepts. It's something native speakers may not notice and may have trouble sympathizing with, because they often have no comparable experience to draw from.

Immigrant students may also react differently to things native students take for granted. For instance, a routine fire drill may be a welcome interruption of classes for native students, but immigrants who have direct experience with war may react with terror, the memories of air raids and real bombs coming involuntarily to their minds.

Martinez talked about acculturation, which is the meeting and interaction of different cultures. Of course, when you say "cultures" it's important to remember that those things are made up of actual people, all of whom have a variety of things in common and a variety of differences in infinite combination.

It's messy, that's for sure, and disconcerting for everyone concerned. Martinez noted that some people want to stand pat and insist that immigrants reinvent themselves, learn the local language, learn the local ways. She says that's natural, really. Cultural biases are part of culture.

But she urged teachers to see past their biases and to help students do the same.

"Look at why students behave a certain way rather than rushing to judgment," she said. "It's not about political correctness. It's about respect."

Nichols said one thing that stood out for her was differences in how people from different cultures understand time and appointment protocols. Parents from some cultures see appointments as being more approximate than precise. Staff would get frustrated by parents coming to conferences late, but it wasn't intended as disrespect. It was a matter of not understanding the ways Americans approach things like that, according to Nichols.

Nichols said her staff learned a great deal from Martinez and is looking forward to her return in September.

Martinez also urged teachers to recognize the signs of culture shock, which recent immigrants are especially susceptible to, and not misinterpret those signs, which could include anger, irritability, disorderly behavior, signs of depression, excessive sleeping, social withdrawal, loss of interest in favorite activities. Such behavior could be interpreted as signs of bad character, but she said they are just as likely to be signs of cultural stress.

Some immigrant students may feel the effects of what Martinez called deculturation, the no-man's land between two cultures, not really fitting in either.

"Folks may struggle for years to figure out where they fit in," she said.

Martinez is not just an academic who studies the challenges of language and culture barriers. She has lived them. She hales from western Kansas and her hometown has seen an increase in Hispanic residents that far exceeds what Saline County is experiencing.

When she left, the Hispanic population was roughly 2 to 4 percent, she said. When she returned 10 years later it was 40 percent.

"I didn't know what to do," she said. Those first days we just smiled at each other. "It begins to change the whole lexicon. Who is the minority? Minority student soon will be white."

And while that fact may stir fear in the hearts of many people who are accustomed to being in the majority, she says the dominate language and culture are in less danger than people may assume (another assumption, like a wrinkle in the carpet, that it may be easy to trip over).

"It's not the English language that's in danger but the Spanish language that will be lost as kids assimilate," she said.

New elements in any society will disrupt stability a bit. It's worth remembering that we've been doing this throughout our history. Specific immigration laws and processes change. The stream of immigrants may wax and wane, but as long as America remains both free and prosperous, it will draw to it the talented and resourceful of the world. That's our core strength as a nation.

And it helps to have people like Martinez to help us through this wave of change.

ERIC CRUMP, Editor
Safety Net