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.

Q&A with Clare Mar-Molinero, Editor of “Researching Language in Superdiverse Urban Contexts”

We recently published Researching Language in Superdiverse Urban Contexts edited by Clare Mar-Molinero. In this post the editor answers some questions about her research and the inspiration behind the book.

How did you become interested in this field of study?

As a sociolinguist I’ve always been interested in multilingualism and its impact on society but initially I studied this through my interests in the Spanish-speaking world. More recently, however, and inspired by the work of people such as Jan Blommaert, Ben Rampton, Adrian Blackledge and Angela Creese, amongst many others, I started to think more about the impact of migration to urban centres particularly, and also realized that there was much to explore and investigate on my own doorstep in Southampton.

What was the initial inspiration for the book?

This book continues this focus on multilingualism, migration and urban contexts but shifts my emphasis to the research methods we use to explore these. A conference at the University of Southampton that I organized (funded by the MEITS/OWRI/AHRC) invited contributions and discussion round these themes and paved the foundations for the book’s chapters.

As you compiled your book, did anything in the research particularly surprise or intrigue you?

As the contributions developed it became very clear that there was a strong consensus and focus from all of us on the growing understanding of translanguaging, the importance of (self) reflexivity as researchers, the multi-modality of linguistic communication (and therefore the usefulness of linguistic landscapes) and the core role of the researcher-researched relationship.

What is your next research project?

I am hoping in the medium term to consolidate many years of working with Mexican academics (many as former PhD students) to put together a volume discussing language policies in Mexico – the role of global English, of neoliberal education policy (or the current AMLO regime’s claim to move away from this), the integration of returnee migrants and their language practices, the recognition (or not) of the indigenous languages, and how this all varies hugely across a very large and diverse country, with the ever-present dominating shadow of their US neighbor.

I also continue to have a strong urge to explore and research the challenges of multilingual practices in contemporary football: How is it managed? What issues does it present? What wider lessons does the phenomenon tell us about how multilinguals work together, etc etc. I have tried to study this with our local premiership team, with various false starts, as access for the researcher is difficult and often impossible, not helped by the constant changing circumstances of owners, players and managers, all of different nationalities, coming and going.

What books – either for work or for pleasure – are you reading at the moment?

I’ve indulged my love of magical realism and read Isabel Allende’s latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, which also centers round other of my passions: the Spanish Civil War and the Pinochet era in Chile. It turned out not to be one of her more magical realist novels, but gripping nonetheless. I’m also struggling to read Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, which should tick many of my interest boxes: travelling across the US, the scandal of the US immigrations treatment of Latin American migrant children, an interest in ‘soundscapes’, etc, etc. Despite many rave reviews, I’m finding it hard going, though, and maybe over self-conscious.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Learning and Using Languages in Ethnographic Research edited by Robert Gibb, Annabel Tremlett and Julien Danero Iglesias.