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The Impact of Schools
on Immigrant Children

by Joy Munt

"To have true integration you must have integration of hearts and minds. Otherwise you have only a physical presence." Chief Dan George

LIKE ALL STUDENTS, immigrant children should expect understanding in Canadian schools. Often, however, teachers may frustrate their education by making assumptions about life experience and learning process.

At the 1998 Conference for the Western Canadian Association of Immigrant Serving Agencies (WCAISA), held in Victoria in May, ESL instructor Harlon Weidenhammer presented "How Canadian Schools Challenge Immigrant Children". Weidenhammer, a teacher at Mount Royal Institute in Saskatchewan, identified the special needs of immigrant students, the challenges they face, and how these challenges can be met.

He explored the influence of Canadian schools on immigrant children, what educators should learn about immigrant children, and to whom concerned parents can talk. It is important to note that Weidenhammer addressed an audience of people who work with immigrant parents.

Weidenhammer distinguishes between the medium, the purpose, the environment, and the method of instruction as factors influencing a student's school experience.

The medium most North American schools use is English and with this comes a number of cultural assumptions. Teachers tend to assume that all children with English as a first language have similar cultural experiences. Of course this is an unfair challenge to immigrant children as the curriculum is largely designed to teach individuals with a middle-class Judaeo-Christian background.

The purpose of instruction may be a challenge to an immigrant student as what she assumes will be taught in school may differ significantly from what is taught. From her own cultural experiences the immigrant child has formed an idea of what school it. Parents and students alike may have a cultural assumption that does not fit what is actually happening in school.

The school system offers many different social environments. While an immigrant student may feel challenged by the classroom itself, she will also have many social experiences in school that can affect the learning process. Students are exposed to a variety of situations that can be confusing and frustrating. There are socialization processes that occur outside of the classroom and in the halls or school grounds. During these periods of socialization she may come in contact with a variety of beliefs, attitudes, and ideas that conflict or contradict her own cultural perceptions.

Weidenhammer addressed the method of instruction because his school uses the unusual, though increasingly common, transaction method. Transaction methods move away from the approach where the teacher lectures and then tests the students. Rather it focuses more on group and project work. This method can be very challenging to students who have English as a second language.

To counter discomfort and frustration, teachers should familiarize themselves with the past experiences a child has with school and learning. This is especially important with children who are refugees and have gaps in their education. In elementary school children are taught how to organize and to separate according to categories. A child missing this in her education will be at a disadvantage in the North American school system.

Many immigrant children are vulnerable and it is important for a teacher to look beyond immediate behaviour. Children may be experiencing difficulties adjusting to their new surroundings. They may be having trouble merging their cultural experiences with the school system. In some cases, the child could be experiencing physical or mental trauma from her life in a country that may have been hit by war, famine, etc...

Teachers tend to assume that all cultures have similar learning styles. But a child's learning style develops from past experience, it is important that a teacher look for the uniqueness of an immigrant child's style.

An educator should try to recognize and understand a student's attachment to his first language and first culture. In the school system a child is most likely going to feel as though he has to give up a certain amount of his culture to succeed. For some children this will be very trying and difficult and will impact on their educational progress. For example, for a child having a difficult time breaking an attachment, learning English will be much more difficult.

Family expectations and obligations can very according to cultural expectations. It is important for a teacher to realize that for some children there is a lot of pressure from the family to succeed. In some cases the child is depended upon to elevate the family. Also children may have to work to financially contribute to the family.

To respond to the challenges faced by immigrant children, parents could approach teachers, guidance counselors, assistant principals, principals, superintendents, and the school boards.

Weidenhammer suggested ways to approach these people:

In response to Weidenhammer's talk, discussion facilitator John Hagen noted the importance of recognizing that many parents will find it difficult or intimidating to approach educators. Many parents may not know English and depend on their children.

Weidenhammer also tells the parents to never show anger and to invite a cooperative solution. While he may have a good point that anger does not necessarily achieve the desired results he doesn't take into account the approach of other cultures. For example what is perceived as anger may be a cross cultural misunderstanding. What the educators perceive as emotion / anger may not be. Also these are important issues, they are personal and emotional as well as systemic and social. It may not be easy for the child or the parents of the child to step back. There is a point, he said, at which educators have to take responsibility and learn about the people they are educating.

Joy Munt is a visual artist with an active interest in diversity issues. She is a recent graduate from the University of Victoria.

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