EDUCATION FOR EMPOWERMENT

Finally, I turn to a discussion of what it means to educate students for empowerment. The research on school experiences of language minority students shows that societal and school structures have a significant impact on students’ identity (e.g., Cummins, 2000; Garda & Bartlett, 2007; Gibson, Gandara, & Koyama, 2004; Lee, 2009; Nieto & Bode, 2011; Shin, 2007; Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001). These investigations have often been framed in terms of cultural assimilation or cultural pluralism (Bartlett & Garda, 2011; Valenzuela, 1999). Cultural assimilation is the process whereby a minority group gradually adapts to the customs and attitudes of the dominant group. Cultural pluralism describes a situation where smaller groups within a larger society maintain their cultural identities, and their values and practices are accepted by the wider culture.

In her study of students attending an all-Mexican, inner-city high school in Houston, Texas, Valenzuela (1999) argues that the school’s assimilationist policies diminish students’ native language and culture. This kind of “subtractive schooling,” she asserts, results in reduction of students’ social capital required for academic success. In contrast, Bartlett & Garda (2011) document the successful efforts of one New York City high school to educate Dominican immigrant youth. The authors examine the language and cultural challenges that the immigrant teens face, and how the school works with the community to respond to those challenges. Bartlett & Garda (2011) attribute the students’ success to an “additive” approach taken by the school staff—the students are viewed as emergent bilinguals with potential to succeed academically and socially, and not as failed attempts at assimilation into mainstream culture. The students’ ethnic community is encouraged to participate as partners in their education and to contribute the “funds of knowledge” that exist in their communities to this educational partnership (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2005; Schecter & Bayley, 1997).

Cummins (2000) argues that to educate the whole child in a culturally and linguistically diverse context, it is necessary to nurture intellect and identity equally in ways that challenge “coercive relations of power.” According to Cummins (2000: 44), “coercive relations of power” refer to “the exercise of power by a dominant individual, group, or country to the detriment of a subordinated individual, group, or country.” He gives as an example that, in the past, dominant group institutions (e.g., schools) have required that minority groups reject their cultural identity and abandon their languages as a necessary condition for success in the mainstream society.

“Collaborative relations of power,” on the other hand, refers to the empowerment of minority individuals or groups (Cummins, 2000). Cummins points out that interactions between teachers and students are never neutral with respect to societal power relations and that empowerment derives from the process of negotiating identities in the classroom. In varying degrees, these negotiations either reinforce or challenge coercive relations of power in the wider society. For example, Cummins states that acknowledging culturally diverse students’ religion, culture, and language as valid forms of self-expression is to challenge coercive relations of power. He contends that students whose identities are affirmed by educators are more likely to succeed academically than those whose voices are silenced.

Other researchers support Cummins’s assertion. Nieto (1992) reports that the academically successful students from various cultural backgrounds in her study had a positive sense of cultural identity. She presents the case of Manuel, a 19-year-old Cape Verdean who had a negative attitude toward immigrants taking on Americanized names and identity:

That’s something that a lot of kids do when they come to America. They change their names. Say you’re Carlos, they say, “I’m Carl.” They wanna be American; they’re not Cape Verdean .... That’s wrong. They’re fooling themselves .... I identify myself as Cape Verdean. I’m Cape Verdean.

I cannot be an American because I’m not an American. That’s it.

(1992: 176)

Another student in Nieto’s study, James, a Lebanese Christian, stated:

First thing I’d say is I’m Lebanese .... I’m just proud to be Lebanese.

If somebody asked me, “What are you?” ... everybody else would answer, “I’m American,” but I’d say, “I’m Lebanese” and I feel proud of it.

(1992: 136)

Although both Manuel and James clearly took pride in their cultural roots, Nieto notes that the pride these youth felt was not without conflict, hesitation, and contradiction. One of the most consistent outcomes in her study was “the striking combination of pride and shame that the young people felt about their culture” (Nieto, 2002: 107). This is because “a positive sense of cultural identity flies in the face of the assimilation model held out as the prize for sacrificing ethnicity, language, and even family loyalties” (Nieto, 2002: 106-107). Language minority students are presented with a choice of either holding onto their native language and culture or accepting assimilation, with no options in the middle. This, Nieto contends, creates a great deal of internal conflict, which leads to academic failure, or even depression. Vinh, a student from Vietnam in Nieto’s (1992) study, is a case in point:

I’ve been here for three years, but the first two years I didn’t learn anything. I got sick, mental. I got mental. Because when I came to the United States, I missed my [parents], my family and my friends, and my Vietnam .... I am a very sad person. Sometimes, I just want to be alone to think about myself.... Before I got mental, okay, I feel very good about myself, like I am smart . . . . But after I got mental, I don’t get any enjoyment .... I’m not smart anymore.

(1992: 146)

Nieto (2002) argues that students and teachers need to construct curricula that affirm all students while also challenging the idea of fixed or idealized identities. Understanding the multiplicity and fluidity of student identities is a first step in this transformative education.

 
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