“Being There” vs “Being Here”: Behind the Scenes of “English Learners’ Access to Postsecondary Education”

We recently published English Learners’ Access to Postsecondary Education by Yasuko Kanno. In this post the author takes us behind the scenes of the research presented in her book.

The hallmark of canonical ethnography, as Clifford Geertz once opined, is “being there”: You immerse yourself in a far-away place for months, even years, in order to document the cultural life of a group. But what if you are a full-time faculty member at a university with all the usual obligations of teaching and service? What if you also have a young child at home? Disappearing from the face of the earth to focus entirely on one’s ethnographic fieldwork doesn’t exactly fit into the reality of a working-parent academic. We need to be “here” teaching our classes, attending committee meetings, feeding our children while also trying to spend as much time as possible “being there.” It is under those conditions that I conducted my fieldwork for English Learners’ Access to Postsecondary Education.

I must say that the “balance” part of the (field)work-life balance went out of the window as soon as fieldwork began. For one thing, high schools in the United States start early. At Brighton High School (pseudonym), the site of this ethnography, the first class started at 7:46 am. To make it to the first class for an observation, I would wake up around 5:45 am, pack a lunch box for my eight-year-old, feed him breakfast, get ready myself, and leave home by 7am. Then, a typical fieldwork day would look like this:

7:35 am: Check in at the security desk at Brighton to get a visitor’s badge

7:46 – 9:05 am: Observe Alexandra in her geometry class

9:10 – 10:29 am: Dash to another room to make it to Carlo’s American Literature class—only to find him absent that day (once again!). I observe the class anyway.

10:34 am: Walk to the other end of the school building to Ken’s study hall classroom, pick him up, and we walk together to the library for an interview.

11:15 am: Finish the interview. I stay in the library and add to my fieldnotes before I go home.

I made it a rule never to leave the school premises for the day until I finished augmenting my fieldnotes because I knew that as soon as I left the field site, my second and third shifts as a faculty member and as a mom were waiting for me. When my fieldwork ran late in the afternoon, I would sometime arrive at my son’s school just barely before the afterschool care ended. I would then pick him up, drive home, make dinner, and then head out again for his soccer practice. While waiting, I might read an article for my next class—or if I was truly desperate, grade some papers. At night, after my son went to bed, I would finish up the outstanding emails for the day, noticing that other mom colleagues of mine with young children were also emailing after 11 pm.

But is an ethnography produced by the “new me” who has so many other responsibilities inherently worse than work by “PhD student me” who had the luxury of devoting weeks at a time to fieldwork? The answer is an emphatic no. For one thing, I am now a far more skilled and experienced ethnographer. I can detect, much faster and with far more clarity, how emerging patterns fit into a developing narrative and subsequently adjust my data collection to confirm or deny these initial assertions. For example, I was able to notice, early on, that high-level academic courses such as honors and advanced placement (AP) courses were essentially inaccessible to my participants because they were ELs. My early detection of this pattern then led me to observe honors and AP classes to find out what kind of learning my participants were excluded from. Also, my interactions with students and educators who hold vastly different worldviews from mine has, over the years, led me to become more self-reflective of my own biases. In this study, I worked with two very low-performing ELs, Carlos and Eddie, who were constantly at the edge of dropping out. Seeing their struggles to receive any kind of career guidance that did not involve college caused me to re-examine my own deeply-held bias that a college education ought to be a goal for everyone. I now firmly believe that effective career and technical education at the high school level can benefit students like Carlos and Eddie, who were not motivated to go to college but who had other talents and interests.

So, although starting another ethnographic project always throws a wrench into my already precarious work-life balance, it is the thrill of discovery and learning that takes me back to “being there” again and again.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Educating Adolescent Newcomers in the Superdiverse Midwest by Brian David Seilstad.

Foundations and Frustrations in Adolescent Newcomer Programming

This month we are publishing Educating Adolescent Newcomers in the Superdiverse Midwest by Brian David Seilstad. In this post the author explains how the idea for the book came about.

Schooling is often represented in dichotomous terms as either a liberator or an oppressor. Reading about various student experiences across diverse histories and contexts reflects and refracts this reality and underscores the equity and social justice goals inherent in education. Adolescent newcomers globally and in the US Midwest, the focus of this book, are particularly relevant to this theme in that they arrive in new locations, often as refugees or other transnational migrants, buoyed with an array of skills, experiences, and dreams that can support their, it is hoped, adaptation and creation of lives of dignity. However, the research on adolescent newcomers points out that this is neither an easy nor straightforward task and that schools often struggle to support and retain students, leading to disparate and sometimes troubling outcomes for both individuals and society (Fry, 2005; Short & Boyson, 2012; Suárez-Orozco et al, 2010).

This project was born from several personal experiences and convictions. First is my own history of living and learning in other cultures and facing the intense challenges of languacultural learning, particularly as an adolescent or adult.  Second is a conviction that schools, among all social institutions, can be positive transformative agents for learners if the institution and educational actors are highly attuned and responsive to the lives of the learners. Largely as a result of my White, American male background, a majority of my own schooling and learning experiences have been affirming and engaging, but I recognize that this is not the case for many learners throughout the world, a situation that remains a deep need for redress.

These aspects led me to explore in this book the languacultural practices of an adolescent newcomer program community in the US Midwest. The inquiry includes descriptions of the program’s history and policies while following and recording the daily class activities of one cohort of first-year high school students across their academic year. The students collectively spoke varieties of Spanish, Portuguese, Swahili, Kibembe, French, Somali, Nepali, and Arabic in a program with many staff and teachers of similar linguistic backgrounds and proficiencies.  This approach provides a broad and relevant context while maintaining a focus on daily communicative interactions as the core of the learning experience – indeed, what is education other than one extended experience in language development?

The chapters of the book ultimately center the disparate experiences and outcomes of the students and underline that, while the program supports many learners well, the program’s English-centric ideologies, policies, and practices create obstacles to many students that, in some cases, are insurmountable and lead to intense frustration and even dropping out. This leads to a recommendation that the program reorient its priorities to understanding the students’ languacultural backgrounds, specifically their home language literacy, and designing learning experiences to fully embrace and support the students’ emergent or experienced bilingualism.

Taken as a whole, the book strives to present a vision for humanity and schools –  one that is positive and affirming of all peoples and reflective of the beauty that emerges from the diversity and complexity of the human experience. While this may remain unrealized in many contexts, it must remain, particularly for educators, our global aspiration and driving purpose. I am deeply thankful to the program’s many administrators, teachers, bilingual assistants, and students for allowing me to share a year in their lives and discuss their own perspectives about these issues. I hope that readers of the book will find meaning here, and any comments or questions can be communicated to:

Brian Seilstad (American College Casablanca, Morocco) bseilstad@aac.ac.ma or website.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Researching Language in Superdiverse Urban Contexts edited by Clare Mar-Molinero.