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Troubling Messages: Agency and Learning in the Early Schooling Experiences of Children of Latina/o Immigrants


by Jennifer Keys Adair, Kiyomi Sánchez-Suzuki Colegrove & Molly McManus — 2018

Background/Context: Early childhood education in the United States is currently suspended between the belief that young children learn through dynamic experiences in which they are able to create and experiment, and the belief that young children’s emerging literacy and math skills require formal instruction and assessments to ensure future academic success. This balance is difficult because each approach requires different allowances for children’s agency.

Purpose/Objective: This study investigates how district administrators, school administrators, pre-K–3 teachers, and bilingual first graders within a school district serving Latina/o immigrant families think about the role of agency in early learning.

Setting: Data was collected in Lasso ISD and El Naranjo Elementary School, located on the U.S./Mexico border.

Population/Participants: Lasso ISD is predominantly Latina/o with 85% of its population self-identifying as Latina/o and experiencing financial stress. Over 35% of children at El Naranjo are labeled as English Language Learners. We interviewed five administrators, nine teachers, and 24 children.

Research Design: The research method used is a variation of multivocal, video-cued ethnography (VCE). Following VCE’s pattern of data collection, we made a film of a typical day in a first-grade classroom where children of Latina/o immigrants used agency in their learning. The film was used to elicit perspectives on how much control young children of Latina/o immigrants should have over their learning in the early years. Focus group data was analyzed comparatively across participant groups and district hierarchies.

Findings: The data reveals an inverse relationship—termed agency diffusion and deficit infusion—between participants’ ideas about the amount of agency students should be afforded in the classroom and the deficit ideas they articulate about children of immigrants and their families. Our findings suggest that even in supportive, academically successful districts, deficit thinking at any level can justify narrow, rote types of instruction that ultimately impact the types of messages young children receive about learning and being a learner.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Pre-service and experienced teachers may need help with discriminatory, deficit attitudes toward the families they serve as well as pedagogical skills to offer more agency to children, in the culturally relevant forms that make sense in the classroom. In developing guidelines and policies at school, district, state, and federal levels, agency should be a necessary component of classrooms considered (and labeled) as high quality. Children’s perspectives are important ways to determine whether policies and practices are really effective.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 6, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22155, Date Accessed: 11/17/2017 12:44:39 PM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer Adair
    The University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER KEYS ADAIR, PhD, is Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education at The University of Texas at Austin. Her work focuses on the connection between agency and discrimination in the early learning experiences of children of immigrants. As a young scholar fellow with the Foundation of Child Development and a major grant recipient of the Spencer Foundation, she is working with parents, teachers, administrators, and young children to improve the learning experiences of young children from marginalized communities. Her areas of expertise include early childhood education, immigrant parent engagement, project-based learning, and the importance of young children exploring racial and cultural differences. She has received many awards for her research and published findings in a wide range of journals including Harvard Educational Review, Teachers College Record, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood Education, Young Children, Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education and Race, Ethnicity and Education.
  • Kiyomi Colegrove
    Texas State University
    E-mail Author
    KIYOMI SÁNCHEZ-SUZUKI COLEGROVE, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Bilingual Bicultural Education and Early Childhood Education at Texas State University. Her work centers on the curricular and pedagogical preferences of Latino immigrant parents and the relationship between home and school in the early grades. Using videocued ethnography, she studies how parents’ ideas, beliefs, and experiences compare across schools, communities and contexts. Her research privileges the voices and ideas of Latino immigrant parents and demonstrates ways in which administrators, teachers and policymakers can learn from and develop reciprocal relationships with immigrant families. Her areas of expertise include early childhood education, Latino immigrant parent engagement, and bilingual education. She has published findings in a range of journals including Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood Education and Asia-Pacific Journal of Research in Early Childhood Education.
  • Molly McManus
    The University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    MOLLY MCMANUS, MA, is a doctoral student of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research explores the ways that early childhood contexts affect schooling experiences and the development of young immigrant and otherwise marginalized children. She is also interested in the experiences of parents as they navigate complex sociocultural and bureaucratic systems to support the development, education, and well-being of their young children. Before her graduate studies, she worked as a Spanish–English bilingual second-grade teacher in Oakland, California.
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