#7 A rising generation of culturally aware people

Imagine that there is a war in your country, one that threatens your rights and your safety and those of the people you love. You have no choice but to evacuate and emigrate to another country. You are young, perhaps 5 or 6 or 7, or maybe a little older, in your teens, and your education is interrupted by this move. Your education was important before, but now, in a primarily and officially monolingual country, you know that education may be your chance to learn how to thrive in this new place, where you are not always treated kindly or even humanely by your fellow people. This is not a new phenomenon, but it is happening here and now with English Language Learners and New Americans in the Vermont primary and secondary education system.

Recently, conflict and globalization have caused an influx of immigrants to Vermont, which is a really wonderful thing because it means that people and/or communities with extra resources can fulfill their civic duties by helping and welcoming new people, and it means that a relatively non-diverse state can expand its cultural horizons through dialogue with and acceptance of people with different racial, ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. However, there are barriers to being able to fully recognize these positive effects. The U.S. officially operates in English, and this extends to the public school system, where students whose first language isn’t English must first learn that before they can learn anything else, and it is also almost always essential when entering the job market or trying to engage with the community.

The reason that I’m focusing on education is that we, as students, are primary stakeholders in this institution and have a lot of agency to make change within it, which is both an important power and a responsibility. Public education is also unique in that while it is run by the government and its mandates, it is an extension of the community. Not only that, it is a concentration of the rising generation, the people who will decide where the community is going, locally, nationally, and globally. It is also where English Language Learners and New Americans often learn about English and the cultural norms of society, both through instruction and through interaction with faculty and especially with their peers, as well as where those cultural norms are set.

In Vermont currently, there are organizations that strive to provide access and support to immigrants and language learners, and several school districts have liaisons who work with students and their families to bridge the gap between different languages and cultures. Unfortunately, there are also reports of prejudice and hatred, which is a terrible effect of the often-positive tight-knit communities that Vermont is known for. I think that a lot of the work this year will simply be to raise awareness around this issue and the importance of understanding diversity. The first thing I asked you to do was envision life from a different perspective, and that may have been the first time you’ve done that. Everyone is so understandably entrenched in their own background and schema that looking outside it may be a foreign experience to them, and I think that that’s what breeds a lot of prejudice. I think it would be really meaningful to talk to different people around Vermont who are New Americans or English Language Learners, who have already gone through that experience in public education, and who are teachers, liaisons, and parents, to create a comprehensive view of Vermont life from people with vastly different experiences. Understanding and information gathered from these dialogues could also be used to compile a resource for communities looking to integrate new members from other places or with a language barrier. I also think that reaching out to extant organizations and getting involved could be an essential part of the process, as well as potentially seeking to change curricula by promoting learning that goes the other way (New Americans and ELL students teaching American students), but I’m open to suggestions and I would love for people to join me.

You can find my presentation draft here.

Featured Image by Zdenek Svoboda.

Clara Lew-Smith

4 Responses to “#7 A rising generation of culturally aware people

  • Awesome, Clara! I’m going to continue to try to get you to think about a narrower focus. For instance, your general topic is great, and it will be extremely important to get this wide angle. However, after you introduce and examine the problem at large, we’ll want to get to the nitty gritty of what, exactly, you’d like to change. Education is always a good thing; that is to say, the fact that you want to educate the state on this problem is commendable. However, let’s try to think beyond just education/information and focus more on change. What, specifically, would you and could you change in this issue? I’ve been biased in my blog responses to you: I want you to focus on curriculum, even if it’s just at one school. A truly global, international perspective in Humanities courses could be fun to push and exciting to explore.

    Looking forward to talking more about this at our retreat!

    • I really appreciate the feedback, and I think you’re right: I need to be clearer about my actual goal. Raising awareness is an aspect of it, and an important one, but it’s more of a step in the right direction than a definitive goal. I like the idea of changing curricula, but I guess I don’t quite know yet what that will look like, mostly because I don’t know which specific curricula is causing the problem. I think I might be pushing for more cultural integration in schools: New Americans and English Language Learners don’t just assimilate into American culture and language, they teach Vermont students about their culture and experience. This could change, but right now pushing for that seems like a good goal…what do you think? (Also, is that a part of curricula or simply school structure?)

      Thanks for making me think more about this!

  • Dianne Baroz
    7 years ago

    You have an exciting topic and the making of a really great pitch. You know a lot about your issue and now you need to think about what you would really want to see changed. Here’s my quick recap of how I read your pitch: Your focus is Equity in Vermont Education. You therefore believe that the ELL students are not being treated equally and are being denied the same level of skills as a Vermont student. (How?) The barrier is that they speak a different language and must learn English first. There are some towns that provide support for ELL students and their families, but there have been reports of prejudice. You would like to raise awareness and the importance of diversity. You would also like to speak to those ELL students who have assimilated in the past and gather their experiences in public education. I think that is where the ‘meat’ of your story lies. One angle might be to think about a reflective practice or review of ELL integration and lessons to be learned. Are those school communities ready for the next wave of refugees entering the Vermont school system? Just some thoughts as you prepare for your next overnight. Good luck—I know that you’ll do great!

    • Dianne,

      I think you’re definitely right that I need to refine and narrow my pitch. I also think you make a good point that I don’t really provide examples/evidence for the claims of injustice, and I actually think that that will be something that is proven (or at least shown) through interviews and dialogues as part of the process…it’s one of those issues that is easy to see but hard to qualify (I read that about racism somewhere and it’s really stuck with me). Part of that interview/learning process might be, as you said, gathering information about first efforts to integrate have gone and compiling a resource of, as you put it, “lessons to be learned.”

      Thank you, you’ve given me a lot to consider!

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