Theoretical Application & Analysis of the Environments We Cultivate in the Classroom

Abigale Upham
23 October 2013
EDU 581C
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Many theories and much research has gone into attempting to explain success and failure
among minority youths in school. Ogbu’s claims that differentiating between voluntary or
involuntary and first generation or second generation minorities holds the answer to academic
success and failure. However, when Gibson did her own research she found much less of the
assumed correlation, and decided to dig a little deeper into the controversy. Theorists like Lee
and Gonzalez continue Gibson’s idea to brainstorm methods of combining home and school
culture to promote and safe and supportive environment for all learners in order to cultivate
academic success or failure. The story of Angie’s family was extremely helpful in looking at both
the helpful and faulty explanations provided by previous research and theories.
Ogbu (1987) categorizes immigrants into “types” which he uses to explain his theory on
why immigrant minorities might have a more adaptive advantage over immigrants who have had
more involuntary means of incorporating into a new society, and further claims that the
difference will effect potential success in school. Angie’s family situation could be examined as
evidence for Ogbu’s idea. Their voluntary move into the states matches nicely with their intense
focus on education as a priority. Still, this is one secluded account. In actuality there is great
variability in school performance across immigrants, both voluntary and involuntary. Even in
Angie’s own family there are children who are very in tune with their education and find
academic success, while others struggle in school. As Gibson points out, “a number of different
factors, including the immigrant group’s reason for leaving its homeland, its status in a new
country, the context it encounters on arrival, and the nature of the resources available to the
group, interact together to shape immigrant student’s performance in school” (1997, p. 441). and
therefore cannot be simply divided into two distinct categories of voluntary in involuntary.
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Angie’s family example can help to actualize Gibson’s theory. Angie left behind a troubled
husband, crossed the border without gaining citizenship, works extremely hard to put her
children through education and keep the family close nit while not being able to seek help from
financial aid or the convenience of a CA driver’s license. Her choice was voluntary and her
children do seem to assume education as a top priority and perform well in school. However, it is
equally as likely that a family could migrate from Mexico legally and then experience their
children struggling academically. Both scenarios are voluntary, but the outcomes are still
extremely different. Why? Because there are countless other factors in every individual situation
that shape how life plays out.
Another assumption of Ogbu’s is that migrant first generation and second generation have
very different vulnerability factors and perspectives. He outlines this argument by saying that
formal education in the new country of residence is seen as more accessible and of higher quality
than the education offered to them at home. Because of this, the first generation might rationalize
any encountered prejudice and discrimination as a foresight before moving, not letting it stand in
the way of the opportunity they struggled and risked so much for. They have experienced these
struggles and risks first hand and aren’t going to let them be “for nothing.” On the other hand,
the second generation did not have to live through the difficult and scary choice to pick up and
move to a completely new place. Ogbu (1987) claims that second generation has less motivation
and determination because they are out of touch with the effort and losses cut to get to where
they are now.
Angie’s family story could be said to be more in lie with Gibson’s philosophies. Both
Kelly and Kevin crossed the border to meet their mother in America and entered school not
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knowing any english. Both have worked and still work along side their parents, aunts, and uncles
cleaning, painting, and babysitting. They have absolutely experienced tough and trying times that
would, allegedly, lead them to value education and pursue through all to gain it. However, Kevin
and Kelly both say they don’t remember actually making the journey to their mother. They work
extremely hard for their family, but because their parents have been overtly adamant about it and
instilled values and morals in them to do so. The values they embody are much more likely to
have been derived from their particular family dynamics and relationships than on account of
their generation. At one point, Angie’s husband adamantly insisted that he had a stronger belief
in the American school system than the educational system he experienced. This particular value
of “host country” education is present in Ogbu’s argument, but Ogbu fails to account for the
priority that Kevin, Kelly, and their younger siblings seem to also internalize for learning.
Gibson found a stronger indicator of academic success is derived from students feeling
“strongly anchored in the identities of their families, communities, and peers and when they feel
supported in pursuing a strategy of selective or addictive acculturation” (1997, p. 446). This is
reflected in a lot of Kevin, Kelly, Genaro, and Justin’s answers during our panel discussion. They
all stressed that their favorite teachers were strict and asked a lot of them, much the way their
mother does. Typically I would not guess that being strict would be a number one motivational
driver for students, but it shows that the teachers care, hold all students to the same standards,
and believe in each one.
This particular focus of the panel discussion shed the most light on the importance of
keeping ideas of cultural discontinuity, awareness, adaptability, varied perspective, and flexible
teaching integrated in an educator’s philosophy. Cultural discontinuity is the theory that there can
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be both matches and mismatches between school culture and a student’s home culture, and that
the “degree of continuity between home and school effects students achievements” (Barraugh,
2013). Some researchers have embodied this perspective in a destructive manner asserting that
children who enter school from a different background lack culture and knowledge and are
therefore more or less doomed as far as academic achievement goes. However, others like
Gibson and Lee have taken a much more healthy and productive stance on the issue. They see
cultural discontinuity as a spectrum rather than black or white, present or lacking. They also
describe any discontinuity between school and child as a combination of upbringing and
individual personality. Regardless of the combination, this view pushes educators to explore,
understand, and integrate their students’ backgrounds with their classroom environments and
teaching methods as opposed to traditional methods of forced assimilation. Such tactics that ask
teachers to identify home culture and be creative and smart in adapting school atmospheres to
such familiarities have been defined as “culturally responsive teaching” (Barraugh, 2013).
EJE Academies Charter School provides an excellent example of a school striving to
develop a structure that is inviting and supportive for its students. Home visits for the sake of
learning about family as opposed to lecturing them have been implemented as a critical strategy
for all teachers. Extra time is taken to work with all students, bilingual education, and consistent
social justice assemblies all aid in the symbiotic relationship between home and school. Gonzales
(1995) further develops the theory by disproving the view that all culture embedded from home
has a negative influence on students entering school and instead look at the home home
environment for certain funds of knowledge that can be integrated into curriculum and learning.
Routines and structures, study locations, styles, atmosphere, and time, and discipline styles and
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interpretations are all important aspects of a child’s life to acknowledge and work with in a
classroom if we want to produce a comfortable and successful learning environment for them
(Barraugh, 2013).
Lee’s article suggests bringing texts into classrooms that share similarities with the
language and culture that a child was raised in. “Culture provides a matrix through which
meaning is created & negotiated and natural language is among the most powerful mediators of
knowledge, values, and thinking processes” (Lee, 1995, p. 627). Lee continues to point out that
humans tend to draw interpretations based on the social knowledge we already have built.
Because of this, Lee feels that traditional African American writers of fiction, drama and poetry
are more likely implement “Black English Vernacular” in their writings and therefore open a
more relatable and understandable door to learning than, say, Shakespeare. This is not to say that
all high school literary canons should be condemned, but cultivate a connection between familiar
language and classroom reading could help students to initially internalize our lessons regarding
the skills used for critical thinking and analysis. Lee restates his theory as a challenge to “situate
the abstract tasks of the school curriculum in contexts that make sense to students” (Lee, 1995, p.
Gibson (1997) provides another example of awareness to combat assumptions and
cultivate a safer classroom environment. Occasionally parents do not show up for parent-teacher
assessments or other educationally related affairs. Instead of judging that the family does not
value education, we should dig deeper to reveal the true reasoning behind the absences. Many
parents work multiple jobs, care for more than one child, or have difficulty getting sufficient
transportation. On top of these obstacles, education is highly prioritized by parents. By putting
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the effort into understanding differentiating situations of students, we can better ensure that we
are granting all students the education they and their parents yearn for and deserve. Another
small tactic I was able to use in my own practicum classroom is simply making an effort to be
relatable. One of my EL students, Robert, was fairly shy about revealing his answers or questions
about our lesson on novels. However, he let slip that he likes soccer. We talked for a bit about
when I used to play, who his favorite team is, and how my brother wakes up at 5:00am to watch
all of Liverpool’s games. After this he dropped his passive reaction to our lesson and has since
been more open to my one-on-one prompting.
Angie’s kids, nieces and nephews all emphasized the strong connection and pride they
feel from their heritage and family relationships. This idea is not as novel as Gibson makes it
sound. Think about it. If I felt insecure and out of place in my family, community, or school I
would probably find it very hard to do well in my education because so much energy is being
spent to defend and protect myself. The infuriating thing is that this notion is such an obvious
and relatable one for human beings in general, yet we still sometimes fail to provide inclusive
and safe environments for all of our students.
Kevin and Kelly said that learning english was not too outrageously difficult because
they were young and its easier to pick up on new languages. Knowledge of the dominant
language in school is still clearly an advantage for students, but it does not exist in isolation as
the sole reason for academic achievement. It is much more likely that teacher’s assumptions,
judgements, and approaches play a large role in shaping English learning students into motivated
learners instead of self-conscious students. Learning a new language is an obstacle for anyone,
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but the biggest disadvantage is in how educators perceive these students and the opportunities
and atmospheres they provide for their learning.
Being able to listen to a first hand account of Angie’s family’s story helped to solidify my
current philosophies on education by putting stories and the ineffective and effective elements of
theories into reality. I have always stood by equal opportunity and an approach that leaves
judgement and assumption outside, but seeing how it can truly affect a human being only made it
that much more crucial for me. I think entering teaching with their trials and stories and the
perspective solidified by them will lead to a more enjoyable learning experience for my future
students, and also for myself in the career.
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Ogbu, J. (1987). Variability in Minority School Performance: A problem in search of an
explanation. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 18(4), 312-334.
Gibson, M. A. (1997). Complicating the Immigrant/Involuntary Minority Typology.
Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 28(3), 431-454.
Lee, Carol. (1995). A Culturally Based Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching African American
High School Students Skills in Literary Interpretation. Reading Research Quarterly,
30(4), 608-630
Gonzales, N. (1995). Funds of Knowledge for Teaching in Latino Households. Urban Education,
29(443), 443-470.
Sanchez Guest Panel, October 9, 2013.
A. Barraugh. Multicultural & Philosophical Education. Lecture, 2013.
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