Equity & Diversity

Teachers Should Adapt to Culture of Newcomer ELLs, Researchers Argue

By Corey Mitchell — October 26, 2015 2 min read
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Researchers who spent two years documenting the education of Somali Bantu refugees in a Chicago elementary school argue that educators should do more to adapt to the culture of newly arrived immigrant students.

Conducted between fall 2004 and spring 2006, the two-year ethnographic study followed 19 students who had no prior formal schooling and limited literacy after spending most or all of their lives in Kenyan refugee camps.

The students’ school, located in one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, had a veteran staff that have experienced multiple waves of refugee settlement, including arrivals from Bosnia, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Many educators are trained to deal with students with limited or interrupted formal education, but the teachers and staff at the Chicago school told researchers the Somali Bantu students were “completely different” than other immigrant groups.

The study authors—Dina Birman, associate professor of educational and psychological studies at the University of Miami, and Nellie Tran, assistant professor of counseling and school psychology at San Diego State University—argue that “insistence on having the newcomers learn and abide by schools rules led to avoidable problems and conflicts.”

Assigned to mainstream classrooms and pulled out twice a day for English-as-a-second-language classes, the students struggled not only with the language gap but also with classroom rules and culture. They often refused to participate in activities, hoarded classroom materials, and often disrupted classes.

The teachers and school staff reported “feeling ill equipped” and unable to accommodate the students’ needs. While many of the staff members and teachers spoke a language other than English, there were no teachers or aides who spoke Somali or Maay, the most commonly spoken languages among the Bantu.

Though the Migration Policy Institute report painted a picture of teachers and students struggling to bridge cultural and language gaps, the researchers cautioned that their findings are not “necessarily generalizable to other refugees of (limited formal education) students attending different school settings.”

The researchers—Birman, a refugee from the former Soviet Union, and Tran, who hails from a Vietnamese refugee family—questioned whether the race of the students played a role in teacher assessments of their behavior and academic abilities.

It is a question that federal officials are exploring on a much larger scale. This month, the U.S. Education Department’s office of English-language acquisition and the White House Initiative on Education Excellence for African Americans announced plans to develop guides to help educators address the needs of the nation’s 130,000 plus black English-language learners such as the Somali Bantu.

The Migration Policy Institute has also released a series of studies tied to the school readiness and academic achievement of children from black immigrant families.

The Academic Engagement of Newly Arriving Somali Bantu Students in a U.S. Elementary School

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.