International students in middle school: Marginal or model?

International students raise everybody's level
International students raise everybody’s level

So many schools in the US profess the importance of producing global citizens. Learning new points of view, becoming “marketable” in an internationally-facing economy, and engaging in different languages and cultures all make up the ideals of a “global curriculum.” Our students, however, sorely lack global competence.

At the same time, our schools are full of speakers of many languages. My own daughters’ school has speakers of Spanish (Latin American and Iberian), Russian, Somali, Oromo, Amharic, Arabic, and Telugu that I’ve heard myself. (Who knows how many more there are?) Their experience spans multiple continents.  All these students are wells of knowledge for everyone at the school; the only problem comes from how to draw it out so all can drink.

Today’s global citizens

The kids from all of these different countries already embody these global ideals. They are truly multi-cultural. They bring in one culture as they absorb America from the cafeteria, the locker room, and their iPods. They are all expected to know a second language–English–at a very high level.  Their English class expects way more than, say, the school’s Spanish class, as it pushes these students to use the language in multiple, challenging contexts, with the high-flung goal of allowing them to compete with native speakers.

Rather than set these kids up as a model, unfortunately, our school and society marginalize these international students. The hijabs of the Somali girls make them “strange,” and kids don’t know how to interact with the Latinos who sit together and speak Spanish at lunch. The Russian kids don’t want to talk about their families’ different traditions, and the Arabs keep quiet so no one hears their accent. Many of them go off to ESL or ELL classes during the day–which is considered remedial, not supplementary. ESL and ELL aids help “accommodate” the kids or their parents. If you hear any language besides English on the playground, you will only hear it in hushed tones.

The wrong model

The monolingual, monocultural kids function, whether we like it or not, as the model. Clearly, we need to teach English and American norms to kids from all countries so they can function and succeed. At the same time, we barely push those kids who lack fluency in a language besides English or display ignorance of any culture or values besides those of the US.  The monocultural kids are already at the top of the class.

We misplace the stigma. Instead of just getting the international kids “up to speed,” we ought to emphasize among the monolingual, monocultural student body that they do not measure up to the high level set by these bright, flexible, intelligent students. (Studies have shown that fluency in more than one culture and language improves cognitive and academic performance.) Our schools should do more to lift up and highlight the unique knowledge and wisdom of these children. As much as our education pushes knowledge of English language and American culture, all would benefit from learning from their multicultural, multilingual example.

Drawing from the well of international students

Our schools could offer much more as they prepare our children for global citizenship if they drew from the very student body of the school.  If I want my child to learn Telugu, why does the school not offer a forum for her to learn from her Indian friend? Taking kids out of “normal” class for ELL classes is important, but why not other languages for other children? If my children learn about world or US history, why do these children’s experience not make up part of the curriculum? Why don’t the kids from the Spanish table at lunch help out the Spanish class? Why do my children not learn in literature class about the beautiful, unique importance of Somali poetry? or Arabic music in choir class?

Students should be rewarded for broad cultural and linguistic heritage, and ignorance should be educated. Grades and assignments should reflect global citizenship. Language arts should include knowledge of another language and international genres of literature. History should include deep knowledge of other countries. Speech and communications should reflect the ability to communicate in other languages.

Will the monocultural and monolingual students cry “no fair!”? I hope so. I hope they realize that it is not fair for them to be consigned to ignorance. We should influence them with grades and peer pressure–the main incentives in middle school–to dive deeply into another culture. Then the global citizen from Russia will get a better grade than the kid born in the US, or the one who is embarrassed of his Chinese accent will outshine the one who doesn’t even try to speak another language. Not only will this produce better global citizens, it more accurately reflects our globalized economy and society.

How do you think schools could draw from the multicultural, multilingual knowledge of all of their students, to the benefit of all?

Photo credit: Éole / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

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7 thoughts on “International students in middle school: Marginal or model?

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