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Immigrant Students and Literacy: Reading, Writing, and Remembering

reviewed by Lee Gunderson - March 27, 2007

coverTitle: Immigrant Students and Literacy: Reading, Writing, and Remembering
Author(s): Gerald Campano
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807747327 , Pages: 160, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

I am passionate about the study of immigrant students and their success in schools in North America, so Immigrant Students and Literacy, written by Gerald Campano, a Filipino-American teacher and researcher, as a part of the Practitioner Inquiry Series edited by Cochran-Smith and Lytle, was a wonderful treasure to discover. It was difficult to put the book down because it is filled with so many important concepts, notions, and issues; many that this Norwegian-American-Canadian immigrant reviewer believes are essential for teachers and researchers to know.

Immigrant students do not do well in schools in the United States and Canada. I have argued that if teachers do not consider culture in their teaching then, "immigrant students will continue to fail because culture is part of identity, and identity relates to how well a student does in school and in society" (Gunderson, 2000, p. 693). Campano's book describes his work as a teacher-researcher in a school in California. He notes, "One of our first challenges as teacher researchers is to inquire into and often question our own taken-for-granted assumptions about teaching and learning" (p. 12). Campano addresses many of the standard negative assumptions about immigrant students in nine relatively short but revealing chapters. He notes in chapter 6, for instance:

Contradicting stereotypes of children in segregated neighborhoods, my fifth graders did not write about merely narrowly provincial concerns. They did not lack background knowledge, and they were not disadvantaged, as a result of not having middle-class experiences, in their abilities to think abstractly or systematically contrary to what some 'specialists' on children in poverty would erroneously claim. (p. 72)

Campano contextualizes the research that underlies the book by observing that he first began to explore "the epistemic significance of my own cultural identity" (p. 12) after reading Affirming Diversity by Sonia Nieto (1996). His exploration "involved revealing aspects of my family history that had been buried beneath layers of assimilation" (p. 13). It is vital for teachers to know and to acknowledge that they themselves are members of different cultures and that teaching and learning procedures are part of a cultural system. Indeed, teaching and learning are imbued with features of Eurocentric notions advocated by school boards, superintendents, teachers, and politicians. Unfortunately, many teachers seem convinced they are not a part of a culture and that teaching is objective and culture free. Schmidt and Ma (2006), for instance, quote a teacher as saying, "I'm an American; I don't have a culture" (p. 5).

I argue that many teachers "are the shadow diasporas, consensually self-validated as groups, but only vaguely" (Gunderson, 2000, p. 693). Many human beings who have become so assimilated into "American" culture that they have forgotten their own roots teach students in ways that seem designed to ignore or denigrate other cultures. Campano's book reveals how he as a teacher learns to honor his own first culture and the first cultures of students in his classes.

Campano's approach is to empower students to explore in written fashion their own cultures and experiences as members of their cultures in their communities in their adopted country. Campano includes different samples of writing from his grade five students from Mexico, Thailand, and the Philippines to reveal their thoughtful analyses of their own lives as members of multiple cultures: their first cultures and their various new cultures. Campano's explorations and his students' written discourses are extraordinarily didactic. They show that his students, those who would in the normal course of events in a school system be labeled as low achievers, think and question issues in complex ways through their own cultural lenses and experiences. They provide the reader with evidence that his teaching works. It is not a cookbook, however. He does provide a final chapter that describes his "systematic improvisation" approach. He argues that "...my ability to effectively teach the children is predicated on my ability to learn from them" (p. 112). He also provides a "rough sketch" of a typical day with his grade five students. Some readers will find this book less prescriptive than they may have hoped. I, however, believe the author shows how students from diverse cultures can and should be included in student-centered learning that values them as human beings in ways that canned curricula cannot.

A significantly important message in this book, one that may not be as obvious as the importance of including students' narratives in instruction, is that the cultural background of the teacher is important, but primarily as a reference for her/his own teaching. Campano demonstrates that a teacher does not have to be a member of a student's culture to be an effective teacher with that student. Students from various cultures do need to see members of their own cultures in different roles and the role of teacher is one that students should see. It's clear to me that the hundreds of thousands of teachers across North America who have never considered their own cultural backgrounds as being important should begin to do so, even those referred to above, the shadow diasporas. They may find it difficult to peel off the multiple levels of assimilation that have obscured their own cultural backgrounds. The process will reveal to them the value of cultural background and how it affects their views of teaching and learning.

This review cannot be complete without commenting about one disappointment about the book. It is unfortunate that the author has chosen to leave the classroom. It is unfortunate that future Ma-Lees, Priscillas and Carmens will not have access to his enlightened and enlightening teaching and learning approach. However, it is my hope that Gerald Campano will have an even greater impact on such students through his teaching of teachers-to-be and his research and writing. In my opinion, this book is an important must-read for both teachers in training and teachers in the field.


Gunderson, L. (2000). Voices of the teenage diasporas. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 43(8), 692-706.

Nieto, S. (1996). Affirming diversity. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.

Schmidt, P.R., & Ma, W. (2006). 50 literacy practices for culturally responsive teaching: K-8. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 27, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13933, Date Accessed: 1/21/2022 10:26:50 PM

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About the Author
  • Lee Gunderson
    University of British Columbia
    E-mail Author
    LEE GUNDERSON is a Professor and former Head of the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia where he teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in second language reading, language acquisition, literacy acquisition, and teacher education. He has served as a pre-school teacher, a primary-level elementary teacher, a reading specialist, a principal and vice-principal in a bilingual school, and a teacher of the learning disabled. Professor Gunderson received the David Russell Award for Research, the Killam Teaching Prize at the University of British Columbia and has been awarded the Kingston Prize for contributions to the National Reading Conference. He has served as Chair of the Publications Committee of the International Reading Association and is founding Chair of the Pippin Teacher's Professional Library. Professor Gunderson is a Past President of the National Reading Conference. He has conducted long-term in the area of immigrant students and their academic and literacy achievement and is currently researching the notion of critical ESL mass in elementary classrooms. His most recent book titled English-Only Instruction and Immigrant Students in Secondary School: A Critical Examination was published by Erlbaum Associates in 2007.
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