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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com.

Education Opinion

Who Are Transnational Students?

By Peter DeWitt — August 14, 2016 5 min read

Today’s guest blog is written by Allison Skerrett, associate professor of language and literacy studies in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at The University of Texas at Austin.

Who are Transnational Students?
If you teach in an urban or diversifying school, like I did, you’ve likely experienced or seen a version of this scenario with students we think of as immigrant kids.

José is a great kid. We know he and his family are from the DR (Dominican Republic). José participates in class and is interested in the work. He periodically jokes around with his buddies--just like all the other kids do. We notice that José and his friends’ bantering often involves code switching between English and Spanish. José generally gets all his classwork and homework done. We think of José as an immigrant student, maintaining his home language and culture while positively engaging with the American school system to secure a strong future for himself and his family in their new homeland.

But there is something about José that concerns, and honestly, frustrates us. José and his family sometimes go “back home” for long periods of times--weeks or even a couple of months. We have no way of knowing when those disappearances will occur because José and his family don’t tell us their plans. After a week or so goes by, we ask one of José's buddies if he’s seen or heard from José, and they tell us he’s in the DR. We question José's friend more intently, “Is he coming back? Do you know when? Why has he been gone so long?” The student shrugs. He replies he thinks Jose is coming back but he doesn’t know when.

The student starts looking uncomfortable with our barrage of questions. After all, this isn’t his business. This is José's and his family’s personal business. And if his friend has shared some of that business with him, he’s sure not going to tell some teacher or administrator without his friend’s permission. Besides, you’re the teacher; you’re the principal/administrator. Why don’t you know what’s going on with José?

José does end up returning. We feel both surprise and indignation. He’s now missed 6 weeks of classes. We pepper José with questions that he rightly perceives are laced with our frustration. “Why were you gone so long? Why didn’t you tell me? I wasn’t sure you were even coming back! You’ve missed out on so much work. How are you ever going to make that up? Just with your absences alone, you’ve already failed for the term, maybe the whole school year!” José's expressions shift from readiness to respond, to worry, until we see he is clearly upset. He walks away.

The lengths of times that students like José are away from us vary. Their reasons for leaving are different: A parent/grandparent is terminally ill and the family decides to return home to spend that remaining period of life together. Dad gets wind of a six-month or one-year work opportunity that is lucrative enough to justify a semi-permanent move to yet another country. An expiring visa necessitates moving “back home” for a while so that some family member does not enter undocumented status.

The educational experiences of students in the countries they enter or re-enter are also diverse. Sometimes their schooling is interrupted. Others enroll in school depending on the length of their stay and that nation’s educational policies or conditions. Students who attend school may discover that the languages or curriculum and instructional approaches in use are quite distinctive from, or bear some similarities to, those in their other country/countries.

Unlike immigrant students and families who settle permanently into their new homeland, the youths and adults I am describing are transnational people who live across world nations to maximize their economic, political, educational, and other life opportunities (Levitt, 2001; Vertovec, 2009). This demographic is rapidly growing, with scholars of transnationalism estimating that one in four school-age children worldwide are caught up in these transnational flows (Coe et al., 2011).

How can teachers, school leaders, and educational policymakers support the educational achievement of transnational students?

I have been conducting research on transnational students for the past six years culminating in my new book, Teaching Transnational Youth: Literacy and Education in a Changing World (Skerrett, 2015). I draw upon the educational experiences of transnational students and the curriculum and instructional practices their teachers use to support their literacy development to design what I call a transnationally-inclusive approach to literacy education. The book leads teachers through a coherent set of principles and curriculum and instructional practices they can implement to promote their transnational, and all other students’, academic success. These include:


  • Teachers actively inquiring with all students into their educational experiences, literacy activities and interests, and language and cultural knowledge and skills in one or more countries.
  • Teachers using the knowledge acquired about students to guide their design of flexible curriculum and instructional practices that respond to students’ educational and social histories, academic strengths, interests, and learning needs.
  • Documenting and sharing students’ academic development and learning needs with educational partners, including family and pertinent teachers in other countries.

Teaching Transnational Youth (Skerrett, 2015) also proposes some educational policies and practices that can be implemented at the school through national/international levels to ameliorate the challenges that transnationalism presents to education. These include:


  • School leaders, teachers, students, and families planning together for transitioning students in and out of transnational school settings.
  • Building cross-national professional learning communities among schools, school leaders, and teachers that share in the education of transnational students.
  • International education policymaking that explores issues such as accounting for time spent in schools across different countries, and academic competencies that are shared across international school systems, in adequately measuring transnational students’ academic achievement and progress.

Migration scholars criticize the lack of research, practice, and policy attention to the educational circumstances of transnational youths (Mazzucato & Shans, 2011). Every educational stakeholder can mobilize their implicit and newfound knowledge about transnational students to advance educational equity for all.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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