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  • Vanessa Lusa

Changing the Narrative: The Positive of Teaching Students with Immigrant Backgrounds

Author: Vanessa Lusa

Lead: Explore the narratives of teachers shaping the educational landscape for students with immigrant backgrounds in Spain. In this summary blog of Vanessa's master thesis, you can learn about culturally and linguistically responsive teaching and joys for teachers working in diverse classrooms.


In today's globalized world, education is evolving rapidly, with an increasingly diverse student population. As noted by the OECD, the rise in students with immigrant backgrounds, a demographic that faces significant academic and well-being challenges is particularly noteworthy. In Spain, where nearly 10% of students come from immigrant families, the disparities in academic performance and well-being are stark. These challenges have not gone unnoticed by policymakers, researchers, and educators. However, amidst these discussions, the voices of teachers, who play a pivotal role in shaping the educational experiences of immigrant students, have often been overlooked. This oversight perpetuates a narrative of deficits and shortcomings of both the teachers and students. These perspectives neglect the potential strengths that arise from a diverse student body. In this context, my master's thesis aimed to shed light on the lived experiences of teachers working with immigrant students in La Rioja, Spain, focusing on uncovering positives and understanding best teaching practices.


Understanding Students with Immigrant Backgrounds

Navigating the terminology surrounding students with immigrant backgrounds can be complex: migrants, migrant backgrounds immigrants, foreigners, the list goes on. I use the broad term "students with immigrant backgrounds." This group is diverse, including both newcomers and those who've spent their lives here, but whose families come from elsewhere, regardless of Spanish language proficiency. I choose a broad definition of students with immigrant backgrounds to reflect the often narrow definitions of who is considered Spanish.


Context: Spain, Immigration and Education

La Rioja, nestled in northern Spain, offers a unique glimpse into the complexities of immigration and education. Over the past two decades, Spain in general and this specific autonomous community have seen the immigrant student population grow from 1% to 11% of the non-university student population. Similar trends occur across Europe (OECD, 2019a). While Latin American students dominated in the early 2000s, African and Asian student numbers have risen significantly. In La Rioja, over 15% of students come from immigrant backgrounds, a figure higher than the national average. Many come from Morocco and Romania, drawn by work opportunities in the agricultural sector as grapes and wine are the principal industry in the region. But it's not just about where they come from; it's also about the socio-economic factors at play. Many immigrant families in La Rioja face economic hardship, adding another layer of complexity to their educational journey.


In recent years, governments and researchers, in Spain and across Europe, have increasingly emphasized immigrant education, stressing the necessity of inclusive systems to meet the diverse needs of all students. There has been a focus on attendance issues, school segregation between public and private institutions, an academic performance gap in math reading, and science, and the challenge of fostering a sense of belonging among immigrant students, both those with Spanish as a first language and those learning Spanish as a second language See Studies A, B, and C.  


Did you know? First generation immigrants in Spain perform close to one academic year behind their peers in reading and math assessments, second generation students only slight less! What is more - speaking Spanish at home reduces the gap by only 35% discrediting the language deficit hypothesis which is a commonly held belief in Spain that if the students were proficient in Spanish, there would be no performance gap. To paint it in a different picture, academic repetition rates for students with immigrant backgrounds are almost twice as high as those of their native peers.


The perspectives have been deficit heavy often seeing immigrant students as a problem to overcome for the education system. In Spain, policies have evolved over, from a focus on assimilation to one of inclusion, emphasizing pluriculturalism and plurilingualism. But implementation isn't always straightforward. Budget cuts, changing political climates, and regional disparities all impact how these policies play out in schools. Teachers find themselves at the frontline of these rapid curriculum and legislative changes, tasked with adapting their practices to meet the evolving needs of their students.


The THEORY. How do you teach linguistically and culturally diverse students?

My thesis was based on several theories about teaching including Critical Pedagogy, Linguistically Responsive Teaching (LRT), and Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT). These frameworks emphasize creating inclusive environments that challenge social issues and empower learners, providing essential approaches for addressing the needs of linguistically and culturally diverse students. From there I investigated what were the other narratives coming from teachers about immigrant students and about these theories.


Critical Pedagogy

At its core, Critical Pedagogy (Freire, 2000), attributed to Freire, recognizes that education is inherently political and that both teachers' and students' identities shape the learning process. It advocates for creating equitable learning environments that analyze and challenge social injustices. Critical Pedagogy is the foundation of asset-based teaching methods (meaning that teaching should build on the context and strengths of the students). LRT and CRT are two such asset-based pedagogies. While a lot of research focuses on either language specifically or culture, I decided to incorporate a blend of both because in the classroom language and culture intersect in complex ways.


Linguistically Responsive Teaching

LRT focuses on understanding the language learning process and integrating this understanding into teaching practices. It emphasizes knowing students' linguistic backgrounds, identifying language demands, and scaffolding instruction accordingly. By fostering sociolinguistic consciousness and valuing linguistic diversity, LRT ensures that language needs are met across all content areas.


Culturally Responsive Teaching

Similar to LRT, CRT centers on understanding students' cultural backgrounds to enhance teaching effectiveness. It emphasizes cultural competence and maintaining rigorous academic expectations while valuing students' diverse perspectives. CRT encourages critical consciousness and engagement with real-world injustices, promoting students' holistic development.

What narratives already exist?

Research internationally explores teachers' narratives on immigrant education, highlighting varied attitudes ranging from appreciation to indifference and depreciation. While a select few embrace diversity as an asset or a joy, others maintain deficit narratives, struggling with responsibility delegation and lacking trust in students with immigrant backgrounds. Despite shifts in policies towards inclusivity, challenges persist in training, resource allocation, and understanding best practices, underscoring the need for enhanced support and training for teachers navigating cultural and linguistic diversity in classrooms, see studies A and B. While some exceptions existed, the picture was mostly -- it´s a STRUGGLE and challenge to teach students with immigrant backgrounds, failure here, failure there. So given all this context and theory, I set out to change that narrative because I believed from my lived experience and previous research those other narratives also existed.


 Methods: What´s in a thesis, but the methods?

Research Questions:

1.       What are the components of positive narratives of teachers working with students with immigrant backgrounds?

2.      What are teachers’ understandings of linguistically and culturally responsive teaching?

Research Strategy: Qualitative approach, constructionism paradigm with narrative elements

Participants: 7 teachers ranging from their 3rd to 35th year of teaching, both primary and secondary school, with expertise in subjects including music, English, geography, history, philosophy, Spanish language, and literature, some with additional experience in special education or language immersion classes, and a few having taught in small towns or rural areas.

Data Collection: Semi-structured interviews, 8 questions, 25 -50 minutes each

Data Analysis: narrative driven-content analysis (inductive and deductive), trace of the Narrative Dimensions Model 


The Good News: Teaching Students with Immigrant Backgrounds is Joyful and Enriching

Although not a prerequisite for participating in this study, every interview revealed elements of positive narratives among teachers. During interviews, when prompted for positive aspects, participants eagerly shared their joys, successes, and the assets of their students without hesitation. These experiences weren't limited to exceptional cases but were common threads woven throughout their narrative. These narratives consisted of three key components: teacher growth, teacher satisfaction/ efficacy, and inclusive communities. Teachers spoke of how engaging with diverse students enriched their own knowledge of other cultures and helped them evolve and learn as educators. They found satisfaction in overcoming challenges to meet students' needs, witnessing students' progress, and receiving students’ gratitude. Additionally, they emphasized the importance of intentional efforts in creating inclusive environments and involving families. They found joy in the way students included other students and the potential for a greater global citizenship that comes with such international classes.


What can we learn from these teachers? Their Understandings of LRT and CRT!

These teachers were not familiar with the terms of LRT or CRT, but what really matters is that they showed incredible elements of these practices in how they described their teaching methods and approaches. They showed awareness of the sociopolitical issues faced by their students, acknowledging language barriers and socioeconomic pressures. There was a subtle value for linguistic diversity as they spoke of programs that supported multilingualism and mother tongues, even programs where they were not directly involved. Finally, there was some ambiguity in how academic rigor aligned with language scaffolding efforts, with some teachers grappling with the balance between simplifying content for accessibility and maintaining high expectations.


Perhaps most interesting for practicing teachers were the strategies and skills they used to meet the needs of their students. The teachers demonstrated an understanding of their students' language and cultural backgrounds, integrating cultural competence into their instructional strategies. They also identified language demands in classroom activities and utilized scaffolding techniques to support second language learners. These scaffolds were both individual classroom strategies as well as school wide systems. They included:

·         Visuals aids: images

·         Technology-based games

·         Translation applications

·         Concept-based diagrams and outlines

·         Dialogic gatherings

·         Sentence starters for writing and conversations

·         Clear and consistent routines supported by visual signs

·         Imaged-based teaching

·         Math manipulatives

·         Songs

·         Structured debates

·         Push-in support from other teachers

·         Group work with specific roles

·         Cooperative learning

·         Team teaching/ shared teaching

·         Translanguaging

·         Involvement of parents/ siblings

·         Peer mentoring

·         Extracurricular mother tongue classes

·         Multimodal teaching

·         Project-based learning


A Call for Perspective Shift: Challenge Perceptions, Embrace the Positive and Inspire Change


In my exploration of the experiences of teachers working with students from immigrant backgrounds, I sought to uncover the positive stories often overshadowed amid challenges. This study revealed that, upon reflection, all the participating teachers found positives in their work with immigrant students. Contrary to the belief that diversity might compromise educational quality, these narratives showcased how teachers viewed their classrooms as opportunities for personal and professional development. The teachers spoke of enhanced global citizenship, respect for others, or global consciousness fostered in these heterogeneous classrooms. This may not be the idea of quality of education that comes to mind for the public, and precisely because of that, it is important to share these narratives. Teachers’ attitudes and beliefs such as those in these narratives impact students’ cognitive and emotional growth.


By sharing these narratives, I aim to shift the conversation surrounding teaching students with immigrant backgrounds celebrating diversity as an asset that enriches education for all. These stories offer inspiration for educators striving to cultivate inclusive and effective learning environments. This reframing holds transformative potential in educational research.


Link to the full thesis here



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Author: Vanessa Lusa


Vanessa Lee Lusa is a master's student in Changing Education. Her multicultural background sparked her passion for exploring diverse cultures. Vanessa's international journey began in southern Spain during her high school exchange year, and her academic path led her to study public policy and education in her bachelor’s the United States. Since then, she has taught multilingual and multicultural students in bilingual programs both in Spain and the U.S. She has a keen interest in asset-based narratives for immigrant students in traditional classrooms and the benefits of experiential learning for language acquisition and personal growth. Vanessa's diverse experiences and academic pursuits make her a captivating and adventurous individual.

Key words: Immigrant Students, Linguistically Responsive Teaching, Culturally Responsive Teaching, Teacher Narratives, Asset-Based Narratives



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