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Chapter 5: Establishing Teacher Allies Through Critical Multicultural Coursework

by Lan Kolano, Leslie Gutierrez & Anna Sanczyk - 2021

Background: Contemporary dominant discourses surrounding (un)documented migration in the United States are commonly divided into two polarized frames: those immigrants who are hard workers seeking a better life, and others who are border-crossing criminals. For teachers in the Southeast, developing an understanding of immigrants becomes critically important as new demographic trends and anti-immigration rhetoric have resulted in the implementation of restrictive laws, policies, and practices. In this article, we move beyond pedagogical strategies that address students’ linguistic needs and explore what teachers know and say about immigration, along with what they know about undocumented and DACAmented students.

Purpose: The purpose of this study was to explore the ways in which exposure to counternarratives of undocumented or DACAmented youth and families altered the frames in which teachers viewed immigration and undocumented and DACAmented immigrants.

Research Design: The researchers used qualitative methods to collect a series of narratives in the form of I-essays from 71 preservice teachers over four semesters. The narratives were then used as a tool of communication in exploring two research questions: (1) What were teachers’ perceptions of undocumented immigrants, given the racialized context in the Southeast? (2) How did counternarratives presented in multiple formats challenge the dominant essentialized view of undocumented immigrants? Narrative data from participants were analyzed using an inductive analysis approach.

Findings: The findings support how the use of critical conversations around immigration and exposure to the lives of youth and families through the use of film and narratives can support the development of teachers as undocumented allies.

Conclusions: We argue that preservice (ESL) teachers need to be knowledgeable about immigration laws, statuses, policies, and practices in order to be prepared to serve their students’ needs and to aid them in mapping out alternative routes/resources. For our participants, their views were challenged to reflect a deeper understanding of immigration, particularly around what it means to be an undocumented immigrant in an area of the United States that has experienced new immigrant growth. This study has significant implications for teacher preparation programs and further research.

Immigrant populations have grown at unprecedented rates in areas of the Southeast (Wainer, 2004; Wortham et al., 2002). Unlike historically identified primary immigrant destination states, these new growth areas are populated by mostly Spanish-speaking newcomer immigrants (Fix & Passel, 2003). These trends, combined with recent anti-immigration policies and laws passed in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and other areas in the South and Southeast, have complicated and politicized the education of new immigrants. Passel and Cohn (2014) reported that in 2012, approximately 42.5 million residents in the United States were born in another country, 11.7 million are permanent residents, 11.2 million are undocumented people (about 9 million live in mixed-status families), 17.8 million are naturalized citizens, and 1.9 million are legal residents with temporary status. In 2012, approximately 3.5% of the United States estimated population (316 million) consisted of undocumented migrants, who made up approximately 26% of the foreign-born population of the country. Consequently, undocumented migrants make up about one quarter of the United States foreign-born population. Approximately 52% of undocumented people were born in Mexico, and the other 48% come from diverse countries and cultures. The top 10 countries of birth of the 11.2 million undocumented populations in the United States are ranked in the following order: Mexico (5,850,000), El Salvador (450,000), India (450,000), Honduras (350,000), China (300,000), Philippines (200,000), Korea (180,000), Dominican Republic (170,000), and Colombia (150,000). While undocumented Mexican migration declined by half a million between 2009 and 2012, the overall number of undocumented people has remained at 11.2 million because of the increase in migrants from other countries (Passel & Cohn, 2014).


These changing demographics have transformed schools on multiple levels, diversifying school populations while creating new academic challenges in the classroom for teachers (Walker et al., 2004; Webster & Valeo, 2011). Research shows that a teacher’s ability to successfully meet the needs of students who are ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse can be influenced by their attitudes and prior experiences with different cultures (Irvine, 2003) and the level and effectiveness of their teacher education training (Nieto, 2005). Research indicates that when teacher educators use methods, including field experience with diverse populations, multiple discussion sessions, action research opportunities, role-play, ethnic others projects, reflective narratives, poetry, and film, preservice teachers report perceived changes in their understanding of multicultural beliefs (Akiba, 2011; Ball, 2009; Ball & Freedman, 2004; Waddell, 2011). Thus far, the literature has opened the debate on the ability of teacher education programs to effectively produce teachers who have deconstructed and reconstructed their belief systems about teaching diverse learners. Given the current social and political climate and anti-immigrant rhetoric that has permeated laws, policies, and practices in the United States, specifically in this Southeastern region, we set out to explore the potential in developing teachers, not just as educators, but as undocumented allies. We asked how one required multicultural education course that is conceptualized with a social justice lens can support the development of teachers as undocumented allies. To do this, we designed a research study that was guided by the following research questions: (1) What were teachers’ perceptions of undocumented immigrants, given the racialized context in the Southeast? (2) How did counternarratives presented in multiple formats (film and workshops) challenge the dominant essentialized view of undocumented immigrants?




According to a 2017 Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report, approximately 11.4 million undocumented individuals are living in the United States; an estimated 342,000 reside in North Carolina, making it a “gateway state” that is currently ranked eighth for the number of unauthorized immigrants. Because of the current political rhetoric surrounding undocumented migration and social movements led by both these aspiring citizens and allies, many educators are paying more attention to how their students’ lives are being affected. For example, a Pew Research Center report indicates that children of unauthorized immigrants made up 7.3% of students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade in 2014, though the share varies by state. Most (5.9%) are U.S.-born children who are U.S. citizens at birth. The rest (1.3%) are unauthorized immigrants themselves (Passel & Cohn, 2016a).


In response to the 2016 presidential election in the United States, many schools, educators, students, and families have expressed concern about how the administration’s three latest executive orders, signed by the president in January 2017, prioritize deportations of undocumented immigrants. These executive orders have heightened fear among undocumented and DACAmented youth. Even after the Supreme Court blocked the administration from ending the program in June 2020, the administration moved forward with more legal justification in a new executive order (Jackson & Hayes, 2020). In fact, in its recent report, The Trump Effect: The Impact on the Presidential Election on Our Nation’s Schools, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted that 90% of the 10,000 K–12 educators surveyed reported that “the school climate has been negatively affected and eighty percent describe heightened anxiety about the impact of the election on themselves and their families” (Costello, 2016, para. 1). In response to the national surge of protests and petitions demanding that cities and higher institutions take a position on how they will protect their residents and students, several cities and higher education institutions declared that their campuses will act as “sanctuaries” for undocumented students; others released statements outlining their position on how they will deal with immigration officials who attempt to conduct any immigration enforcement on their campuses. This anxiety is well founded; the former administration vowed to prevent any city or institution that does not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from receiving federal funding (O’Brien et al., 2019).


From January 2014 to June 2016, a surge of unaccompanied minors (UAMs) from Central America and Mexico arrived at the Southwest border. The federal government placed more than 100,000 UAMs with sponsors all over the United States. However, in 2016, Operation Border Guardian was implemented by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to seek out and deport other recent arrivals who were not granted asylum and who had turned 19 years old since their arrival in 2014. As a result, North Carolina UAMs were targeted by this operation; this received a lot of national and local media coverage because of the accusations that ICE officials picked up these teens in protected “sensitive locations” (school bus stops) identified in a 2011 memo issued by ICE. Six UAMs, who were often referred to as “NC6,” became the local face of Operation Border Guardian, influencing educators to take a stand as teacher-allies. In fact, teachers, students, community members, and local activists were outraged that these teens were unfairly targeted, detained, and carried to a detention center in Lumpkin, Georgia, and their parents were not informed until later that night. In response, there were many protests within communities, and a climate of fear around sending children to school emerged.


In addition, teachers often lack awareness of the depth of undocumented students’ experiences and have limited understanding of sociopolitical context, such as how policies affect undocumented students’ lives. Scholars have asserted that with increased knowledge and experience, educators can combine empathy and understanding within their teaching practices, begin advocacy work, and develop curricular and school programs that support immigrant children (Rodriguez et al., 2020). In this chapter, we move beyond pedagogical strategies that address students’ linguistic needs and explore what teachers know and say about immigration, along with what they know about undocumented and DACAmented students. How do we encourage teachers to confront the societal issues that affect the lives of these communities, which are often ignored or dismissed in schools because of the political nature of these themes? In preparing preservice teachers to engage in culturally relevant teaching (Ladson-Billings, 1999), we argue that it is not enough to simply deepen their awareness on current issues that affect immigrant families; instead, we posit that teacher education candidates must be trained to become teacher-allies to these underserved undocumented youth whom they will likely encounter in their classrooms. In fact, in response to the more recent influx of UAMs from Central America and Mexico arriving at the Southwest border (Passel & Cohn, 2016b), teacher education programs must respond with effective ways to prepare a culturally responsive and diverse teaching force.




Although there has been a significant amount of scholarship over the years on preparing English as second language (ESL) educators to teach immigrant youth because of the steady influx of students from other countries entering schools in the United States, most of this research has focused on how to address their language acquisition needs (Stevens, 2012).


Recently, Buchannan and Hilburn (2016) examined the responses of 82 preservice undergraduate and graduate teachers enrolled in a social studies methods course to the documentary Which Way Home. The purpose was to explore its impact on transforming their generalized understandings of undocumented immigration. The research question that guided the design and implementation of their study was, “In what ways can immigration counter-stories presented through documentary film influence preservice teachers’ perceptions of immigration?” (Buchannan & Hilburn, 2016, p. 2). The authors employed a critical race methodology (Solórzano & Yosso, 2002), with the goal of expanding the preservice teachers’ consciousness toward undocumented immigration. The study involved examining preservice teachers’ pre and post perspectives after they viewed the featured counter-narratives of Central American UAMs as they traveled on an infamous freight train (la Bestia) in hopes of seeking refuge in the United States. The authors used pre and post viewing surveys and conducted focus group interviews to explore whether these counter-stories expanded the common criminalized narrative of undocumented migration.


The authors’ findings index three shifts in the participants’ thinking about immigration (Buchannan & Hilburn, 2016). First, they found that participants moved from having a neutral position and toward a disapproving position about U.S. immigration policy. Second, they challenged their own personal or community perceptions of immigration. Third, they reported being more informed about and/or having a new or renewed intellectual interest in learning more about this social issue (Buchannan & Hilburn, 2016). Accordingly, the authors posited that teacher-training programs should use counter-stories as a transformational tool to challenge dominant discourses that limit preservice teachers’ understanding of the complexity of (un)documented migration (students). These scholars posited that teacher-training programs should employ counter-story narratives to increase preservice teachers’ content knowledge, which they believe will expand and transform their pedagogies.


Other studies have also documented that ESL teachers are often indexed as being more knowledgeable about immigrant students’ plights than general education teachers, which often leads them to have a stronger disposition toward advocacy (Athanases & de Oliveira, 2008; Hawkins & Norton, 2009). Because of the limited research on perspectives of advocacy among ESL teachers, Linville (2016) examined “ways that teachers believe that advocacy is part of their role” (p. 99). She argued that while the professional standards for English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) teachers outlined by professional organizations such as the National Council on Accreditation of Teacher Education and TESOL call for English language teachers to advocate for their English language learners (ELLs), they are often not prepared for or informed about how to implement “advocacy actions” in their classrooms. Linville (2016) posed two research questions that guided the study’s design: (1) “What advocacy actions do preservice teachers identify as an important part of the ESOL teacher role?; and (2) To what extent are there differences in preservice ESOL teachers’ ratings of the importance of advocacy actions based on several factors?” (p. 105). She conducted an online survey of 50 TESOL preservice teachers at two universities, asking students to use a 5-point Likert scale to rate the importance of advocacy actions/statements. Her findings revealed that preservice teachers desired more training in teacher-education programs. Moreover, Linville (2016) recommended that advocacy be clearly defined and limited to the schools and classrooms; this would ensure that it is not confused with activism, which, she explained, has to extend to the community, state, or national level.


In response to the current heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric and current prioritization of executive actions that counter previous deferred or discretionary actions surrounding the deportation of undocumented communities, we examine how implementing critical methodologies in teacher education programs can better prepare future teachers to support the current needs of undocumented students through a deepening of their awareness of how current sociopolitical issues and deficit (un)documented immigration discourses shape student lives, in turn affecting their performance inside the classrooms (Rodriguez et al., 2020). In alignment with a multicultural education framework (Cochran-Smith et al., 2004), we explore the effectiveness of implementing critical methodologies that center commonly marginalized lived experiences of youth who are undocumented, or who reside in households with mixed-status families, as a tool to guide preservice ESL teachers from being language educators to undocumented teacher-allies.




Contemporary dominant discourses surrounding (un)documented migration in

the United States are commonly divided into two polarized frames: one that paints this population as deserving aspiring citizens who are hard workers seeking a better life, and another that tends to construct these communities as border-crossing criminals who should be punished for being in the country without authorization. Consequently, this bifurcated framing tends to create decontextualized and essentialized narratives that may construct this entire population as having a single racialized identity, with shared behaviors and a common goal to come to the United States. This concept frame is analogous to the way that Lakoff and Ferguson (2006) employed it to explain how mental structures are created to construct meanings in a nonneutral manner. These scholars explained that social institutions construct images (mental structures) in humans’ minds, which in turn are referenced to create a better understanding about issues.


Thus, framing often helps shape public opinion about issues that affect them. Lakoff and Ferguson (2006) explained that the manner in which undocumented migration is positioned limits understandings and possibilities for solutions to issues that are more complex and that do not fit in the present restrictive framing. Because of this specific framing of undocumented migrants and the complexity of immigration policies in general, many citizens—teachers included—construct beliefs about and express opinions concerning the destiny of an estimated 11.2 million people based on partial narratives (debate) that are centered on the politicization of the United States and Mexico border. Within a border frame, this type of rhetoric may be used to deflect attention from the multiple factors and actors involved and in turn blame (un)documented people for the country’s immigration problems while simultaneously shaping public opinion about this community. Chang and Aoki (1997) explained that “centering our analysis on the immigrant tells us much about the political economies of race and nativistic racism, which operate to construct immigrant, racial, and national identities” (p. 1398). As a result of a border frame, biased imagery and rhetoric surrounding (un)documented migrants are often couched in discourses of criminality and racist nativism (Pérez Huber, 2009). We use this as a lens for analysis.




All graduate students in this teacher education program are required to take a diversity/multicultural education course. We used this course as the platform to discuss recent debates and policies on immigration, in addition to exploring issues of power, race, privilege, language acquisition, and culturally relevant pedagogy. This specific course was designed with special attention to the use of narrative as a tool to engage teacher education candidates in the process of critical self-reflection and meaning making in an attempt to increase teacher generativity (Ball, 2009). Through this type of writing, students were encouraged to express themselves freely and to attempt to make sense of their experiences through focused writing, which acts as a critical artifact that serves as a way to communicate actions, thoughts, and feelings to “others” (Said, 1978). These narratives were collected in the form of what we call the “I-essay”—a way for students to document their reactions, feelings, and thoughts as they interacted with the course materials (film, readings, discussion). These I-essays were responses to a prompt through which students responded to using their narrative voice. The narratives were then used as a tool of communication in exploring the two research questions: (1) What were teachers’ perceptions of undocumented immigrants, given the racialized context in the Southeast? (2) How did counternarratives presented in multiple formats (films and workshops) challenge the dominant essentialized view of undocumented immigrants?




Participants in the study were 71 graduate teacher education candidates seeking an initial teaching license in ESL. Work samples in the form of I-essays were collected from four sections of one course over four semesters between 2015 and 2017. The overall demographic makeup of this sample of the graduate students was consistent with the teaching force profile: majority White and female, making up 60% of this sample. Approximately 15% of the participants were Black and female, with one self-identified as an immigrant from Cameroon. As Table 1 presents, only three Asian females, one Latino female, and one mixed race (Black and Chinese) female participated in this study. This sample has only six male students, four of whom were White. We also had one Black male and one mixed (self-identified Vietnamese-White) male student in this sample. All graduate students in the study were enrolled in a TESOL master’s degree program designed to help them work with ELLs.  


Table 1. Participant Demographics






Mixed Race



60% (n = 31)




(n = 3)


(n = 1)


(n = 1)


n = 64



 (n = 5)


(n = 1)




(n = 1) 


n = 7




For this study, data were collected over four semesters spanning two years (fall 2015 to summer 2017) from graduate students enrolled in a required multicultural education course at a public university in the U.S. Southeast. This was the first—and for many, the only—course in their education sequence that focused on the specific needs of immigrant students. The teacher education candidates in this course also participated in a 25-hour field-based clinical experience with a newly arrived immigrant student at a partner school. Participants were paired with two or three ELLs specifically chosen by their teachers to participate in this program. The required readings included a foundations text focused on strategies and teaching ELLs; several supplemental books included The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (Fadiman, 1997); Enrique’s Journey (Nazario, 2006); Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey From a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League (Padilla Peralta, 2016); and other articles and book chapters from authors such as Sonia Nieto, Lisa Delpit, Lac Su, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Guadalupe Valdés, and Gloria Anzaldúa. Course requirements included active class participation in the form of activities and small-group discussions, a clinical experience working with ELLs, reflective narrative writing in the form of I-essays, a case study written based on their clinical field experience, and a final narrative essay based on their course experiences.


The I-Essay


Student work samples were collected at strategic points in the semester. All their reactions and responses to these course activities were documented in different forms of narratives. In shorter narratives, which we describe as the “I-essay,” students wrote responses immediately after a class discussion, experience, or documentary viewing. However, most of the data analyzed were collected from the I-essays and students’ final papers. Additionally, the researchers used participant observation and field notes to document student interactions and reactions during the class.   


For this study, we chose to focus on the responses to the documentaries that spoke to the experiences of undocumented youth, which were collected in all three semesters. These include the I-essays collected after students viewed two films, Which Way Home (Cammisa, 2009) and The Dream Is Now (Doneen & Guggenheim, 2013). We chose these two documentaries purposefully and strategically to highlight the experiences and emotions of undocumented youth. Which Way Home, directed by Rebecca Cammisa, follows several unaccompanied Central American children as they struggle to make their way through Mexico, with the goal of ultimately reaching the United States and jumping the border to a new home and life. It follows their journey as they learn to negotiate the danger of riding on top of the “Beast,” while dealing with poverty, potential predators, and life-threatening challenges along the way.


We chose Davis Guggenheim’s documentary The Dream Is Now to showcase the lives of real youth in America, brought to the United States as babies or children, who do not have a pathway to citizenship. After the DREAM Act failed in Congress, President Obama announced an executive action allowing some children of undocumented workers, or “DREAMers,” to stay in the country. The executive action halted some deportation proceedings for those under age 30 and included anyone who was still in school, who had graduated, or who had served in the military. This was a temporary solution and did not give DREAMers permanent legal status. The Dream Is Now captures the experiences of undocumented young people in America who have been denied a legal pathway to citizenship and gives a face and voice to the undocumented. This documentary gave students a glimpse into the lives of undocumented youth who have since become DACAmented.


Undocumented Allies of the Southeast Workshop


As part of the class experience, students were invited to participate in workshops delivered by Undocumented Allies, a student-led organization. Undocumented Allies was born out of a global digital activism course in which social media tools were used to bring awareness to social injustices and to organize and mobilize communities to take action with the purpose of challenging contemporary racist nativist discourses surrounding undocumented migration. This grassroots organization models what a teacher ally “looks like”; the group was cofounded and is co-organized by an educator who works alongside this student-centered group to take local action against essentialized rhetoric and local inequities that shape the lives of undocumented youth. The presentation was designed to debunk myths about undocumented migration (communities) that commonly tend to paint racialized and criminalized images of this population. Group members also taught educators how to use digital tools and platforms to take action. The group facilitated discourse around the real effects of dominant discourses and selective immigration practices surrounding undocumented migration in the city in which they reside. The teacher education students participated in critical conversations with the founders of Undocumented Allies on how they used their newly acquired knowledge to reframe this biased rhetoric by creating digital spaces to inform, discuss, and advocate with these underrepresented communities. In turn, teacher education students were given the opportunity to think about their role as advocates.




We contextualize this research by providing essential background information about our positionalities within the study and acknowledge our collective journey toward social change in our North Carolina communities. We claim our roles as researcher-teacher-advocates and created a space where we could connect with our students. Although we share different racial identities (Asian, Black, and White) with different immigrant backgrounds (two of us are first-generation immigrants from Vietnam and Poland), we are advocates for (un)documented people’s rights, and we index our positionalities as researchers who work in solidarity with participants in their fight for social justice and a comprehensive immigration process that leads to a pathway for citizenship. We have worked alongside undocumented communities and with advocacy groups to expose, and work toward redressing, inequities that affect this population. We do not make false claims that this study is politically neutral or completely objective in scope. Analogous to critical scholars Denzin and Lincoln (2000), we understand that absolute objectivity in research is not realistic because researchers are molded and shaped by their histories, cultures, religious beliefs, and socioeconomic and political environments. We carefully and purposefully designed the course to expose our students to the topics of power, race, language, and immigration issues by engaging them in rich discussions. We acknowledge that our position of power as “professor” is important to note here, given that the primary data in this study came from archival reflective essays. Denzin and Lincoln (2000) best reflect our worldviews by explaining that “any gaze is always filtered through the lens of language, gender, social class, race, and ethnicity. There are no objective observations, only observations situated in the worlds of-and between-the observer and the observed” (p. 19). We acknowledge that our positions as women of color, professors, and advocates for change played at least some role in our collection and interpretation of the data presented here.




This course was designed to use narratives as a tool to encourage introspection on personal beliefs about teaching immigrant students. Data were analyzed multiple times with different goals. The first was to explore the research question: What were teachers’ perceptions of undocumented immigrants, given the racialized context in the Southeast? Narrative data from participants were analyzed using an inductive analysis approach (Hatch, 2002), which involved categorizing, exploring, and interrogating data to illuminate emergent themes regarding ways in which students’ perceptions remained constant, shifted, or changed during the course. As an integral part of data analysis, we conducted rigorous reading and rereadings of data while paying close attention to impressions that both sustained and ran counter to our initial interpretations. In this analysis, the I-essays were read, reread, and examined for indicators of specific activities in the course that students stated as most influential in their evolution of beliefs about ELLs.  


The 71 participant I-essay reflections on the counternarratives presented in the documentaries and Undocumented Allies workshop were analyzed within a critical race theory (CRT) framework. Seen through a CRT analytical lens, the preservice teachers’ responses revealed that the dominant “majoration” narrative of undocumented people did not accurately reflect the complexity of undocumented migration in the United States. In fact, many were surprised by some of the motivations that led undocumented people to enter the country without authorization, as well as the diversity of people and experiences, which indexed a shift in their understanding and positionality. Table 2 indexes the theme development process we employed in analyzing the participants’ reflections.

Table 2. Theme Development and Analysis Matrix

What do we want to know from the participants’ responses?

What theoretical concept are we addressing?

What analytical tools will we use to analyze the data?

What were preservice teachers’ perceptions of undocumented immigrants, given the racialized context in the Southeast?


How did the first-person counternarratives presented in multiple formats (through film and workshops) challenge the dominant essentialized view of undocumented immigrants?


How does the use of first-person counternarratives support the development of teachers as undocumented allies?

Critical race methodology/counternarratives

(Solórzano & Yosso, 2002)


How do counternarratives disrupt dominant essentialized narratives that often perpetuate stereotypes and fail to index the complexity of undocumented migration?


How does the centering of marginalized voices (undocumented youth) humanize undocumented migration and move teachers to shift their neutral positionality to a more participatory one?

We read and reread the preservice teachers’ responses to the documentaries and workshop presented by Undocumented Allies and open coded emergent themes.


After the themes were coded, we compressed them and color-coded them into larger overarching themes that were representative of the overall sample.



After reading and rereading the participants’ reflections, we employed “open coding” (Strauss & Corbin, 1990), paying attention to recurring words, phrases, and experiences to begin to categorize possible major themes. We coded the participants’ responses by creating a chart in which we grouped similar expressions and words so we could visually recognize recurring themes. Conceptual categories from our chart were multidimensional and color-coded so that we could easily reference the participants’ demographic information. We reexamined the themes several times to make sure data were sufficient to accurately reflect and support the majority’s reflections.


Student reflections were analyzed and coded to document the ways that the counternarratives of immigrants presented in class impacted teachers' views over time. The data were analyzed in two phases. Phase 1 of the analyses required the researchers to code each I-essay for (1) participant’s level of understanding of immigration, and (2) whether or not the participant acknowledged any change in their beliefs. Phase 2 of the analysis included the theming of their responses as reflected in the findings. In these essays, students self-identified whether or not they perceived a shift in their own beliefs about undocumented immigrants. As part of each prompt, students were asked to describe how much they understood about the topic or issue (e.g., undocumented minors) and then discuss the ways in which their understanding changed or evolved (if at all). The researchers gave each student a descriptor based on their specific responses. For example, when students described their knowledge about immigration as little or none, their preknowledge was coded as “little.” If they explicitly stated that they knew “some” knowledge, this was coded accordingly. Those who self-identified their level of understanding as “rich, deep, or a lot” were coded as having “deep” knowledge or understanding of the film. Each student’s essays were read and coded using this rating system to determine the point on the continuum where they fell, from little understanding to deep. Each essay was then also assessed to determine the level of understanding that the participant gained. Students answered the question directly by stating whether or not their position on immigration changed. When students wrote that they believed their position changed, the researchers scanned the essays for indications that the change was positive or negative.




A holistic analysis of data from participants’ I-essays showed that the students’ reflections ranged from emerging understanding with limited change to complete overhauls in their cultural beliefs about undocumented immigrants. Of the 71 participants, 48% (n = 34) indicated that they had “some” knowledge of immigration policies, laws, and practices, and undocumented immigrants, while 31% (n = 22) indicated that they had very little or no knowledge of immigration issues. Most of the participants in both little or some groups indicated that they “never really thought much about it in depth.” Approximately 21% (n = 15) of the participants indicated that they had a very deep understanding of immigration issues. These participants were immigrants themselves, had parents who were immigrants, or were married to an immigrant. The data showed that the participants who had little knowledge before the films expressed positive beliefs about immigration and undocumented and DACAmented youth and families; only one student expressed neutral feelings. For those who had some knowledge, six expressed negative views after the films and workshop, eight stated that their beliefs had not changed, and 20 had more positive views toward immigrants and the issues they faced than before they experienced the films and workshop (see Table 3). Those who had a firsthand understanding of the challenges that immigrants faced easily described the ways in which the films and the workshop deepened their understanding or made them “appreciate the population even more.”


Table 3. Documented Shifts in Teacher Beliefs





LITTLE (n = 22)




SOME (n = 34)




DEEP (n = 15)







Following the thematic coding process of the four data sources, three themes emerged from the participant responses to the first-person counternarratives presented in the documentaries and in the Undocumented Allies workshops. Their reflections reveal that (1) they acquired more nuanced understandings of undocumented migration (communities); (2) there was a shift in attitudes toward undocumented migration (people) because of the first-person critical counternarratives; and (3) participants who previously identified as having a neutral (unaware) position on undocumented migration (people) were moved to become more informed and participatory. We named this theme as a positionality shift and transformation: from neutral to intentional. There was also an unintended consequence from watching a documentary; a handful of participants expressed negative opinions about undocumented immigrants after watching the Which Way Home film. This noteworthy finding will also be discussed. 




An examination of the preservice teachers’ I-essays through a CRT lens exposes institutionalized and socialized forms of race and racialized identities that have been constructed to represent undocumented people by dominant power structures. The participants’ I-essay reflections of the first-person counternarratives indexed that the majority of their understanding of undocumented migration (communities) in the United States stemmed from dominant deficit discourses that center on the Southwest border with Mexico. As a result of the commonly essentialized Latino (Mexican) constructed narrative, their comments indicate that their perceptions and images of these communities derive from politicized and racialized discourses. The findings reveal that preservice teachers hold deficit views about immigrants. First, some participants reported that they had believed that immigrants and English learners were lazy and had no desire to work hard and succeed in school. Many participants commented that immigrants and English learners were not a diverse group of people—namely, all of them come from Mexico and speak Spanish, and all English learners are immigrants. Many participants viewed undocumented immigrants as criminals and invaders. They perceived them as being violent and engaged in criminal activities. The following excerpts offer samples of participants’ perceptions that undocumented people belong to the same ethnic group:


My understanding has evolved to realize that immigration is a much bigger issue than Mexicans sneaking across the border as the media portrays it. (AB, WWH, SP16)


When I think about “illegal immigrants,” I think about Latinos; more specifically, I think about Latinos coming to the USA by any means necessary to earn money for their families in their own countries. (MN, WWH, SP17)


Most of the time when someone says undocumented immigrant, I used to always think of Mexicans because that is what is portrayed on TV the most, through the media and through stereotypes. (TW, WWH, SM17)

The last assumption I had was that many immigrants are criminals because they were trying to cheat the system. This goes back to the immigrants not being able to get better paying jobs. (CA, DIN, SM17)


Participants’ I-essay reflections also reveal that the counternarratives “opened their eyes” to the reality that undocumented people have aspirational career goals beyond stereotypical service jobs and desire to contribute to the country, which challenges criminalized images of these communities wanting to steal or cause harm. That many preservice teachers expressed “not knowing” or “being surprised” by the nonstereotypical first-person accounts presented index how homogenizing dominant discourses erases the individuality and diverse experiences of this population. The following excerpts reflect the first emergent theme, which reveals that the participants gained a more nuanced understanding of undocumented people following the documentaries and workshop.

Many are raised in the U.S. and don’t “know” their birth country, and many are highly educated (engineers) and desire to serve our country (Marines). (MN, DIN, SP17)

I love that they showed undocumented immigrants that are striving to become workers in the medical field, engineers, and soldiers that want to defend the country. (SC, DIN, F15)

I admire the aim of this group to share the truth in order to eliminate the racial or criminalizing myths about this population. (RX, DIN, SP16)


Undocumented immigrants are viewed as outsiders who do not deserve to be here, do not contribute to society, and are portrayed in the media as criminals and even inhuman, hence the name “illegal aliens.” (EL, DIN, F15)


I ultimately learned that there’s no legal path to citizenship if you are undocumented, and that leaves you in a cycle that you can hardly ever break. This cycle leaves you in a dead-end, low-paying job which often results in poverty, low self-esteem, and failure. (CA, DIN, SM17)


Through exposure to multiple first-person testimonies of undocumented experiences, preservice teachers were able to move beyond the essentialized dominant narrative that often constructs this population as Latino (Mexican) criminals who are sneaking across the Southwest border to steal American jobs and benefit from social service programs. They also learned that many of the youth are more familiar with U.S. culture and the English language than those of their country of birth. In fact, participants’ I-essays indicated that the counternarratives opened their eyes to the diversity of these communities, the different ways of becoming undocumented, immigrants’ aspirational goals, and the contributions that undocumented people make to build the U.S. economy. Many of the preservice teachers seemed to express more empathy toward the youth because they felt that they were not included in making a choice to come to this country, and their I-essays revealed that they better understood the effects of deportations on all members of the family; for example, in mixed-status households, deportations cause families to be separated, leading to a situation in which a child must live without a mother, or a father is unable to raise his child.  




Through a disruption of dominant biased rhetoric surrounding undocumented migration, participants gained more nuanced understandings of this complex phenomenon, which in turn reflects the second emergent theme that indexes a shift in their attitudes toward these communities. In fact, the preservice teachers expressed empathy after “seeing” the undocumented youth in the documentaries Which Way Home and The Dream Is Now, as well as “listening” to the first-person counternarrative presented by DACAmented youth from the Undocumented Allies workshop. For example, they self-reported a shift in their attitudes (e.g., more sympathetic, sad, disappointed that DACA did not lead to a pathway to citizenship) and having feelings of being more emotionally invested once they had a face and/or name that countered the dehumanizing and criminalized construction of undocumented people. One of the major aims of this study was to analyze the effectiveness of counternarratives in challenging racialized and criminalizing stereotypes of undocumented people and to move participants to connect by indexing our shared humanity. The following excerpts from the participants’ I-essays indeed reflect how these first-person testimonies invoked them to be more critical in their analysis:


“The Dream is Now” documentary brought everything full circle and into

perspective for me. I was educated on the importance of the “D.R.E.A.M Act”

being passed by congress. The many stories shared in the documentary made

the act personal. I was surprised by the number of undocumented young adults

who grew up in the U.S., graduated from high school and college, and can’t get a

job in a career field in which they qualify or join the military due to a social

security number. . . . It is mind-boggling to understand that a person who matured

from elementary to high school isn’t able to receive financial aid for college,

obtain a career job postcollege, or join the military because they aren’t

“documented”; the only thing stopping them from progressing is a nine digit

“social” number. (JS, WWH, SP16)


I want to see people treated fairly. I used to have a real harsh feeling about

people smuggling their way into the country, but now I feel that we need to allow

them to gain citizenship if they are adding to society by being a productive

citizen.  (MT, WWH, SP16)


The young lady who spoke about her journey as an undocumented ally

expanded my knowledge of all the hardships they experience. She described life

being undocumented like a crippled person who has the availability to do so

 much mentally with his/her eyes, ears, and hands. She also spoke on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals law and how it affected her life in a positive way. (BG, WWH, F15)


The movie really made me wonder if we are actually setting these kids up for

failure. The kids have been to school and obviously supported along the way. Now

what? Now what do they do after they have been dropped on their face? (JS, WWH, F15)


The last excerpt demonstrates a sincere concern for the youth; the preservice teacher critically analyzes the DACA program and the lack of tuition equity in different U.S. states. Many states do not offer in-state tuition for undocumented students. Obtaining a higher education is difficult because they cannot qualify for federal monies to finance it. Georgia actually legally prohibits in state tuition for undocumented students. In South Carolina, undocumented students are specifically prohibited from enrolling at any public postsecondary institution (NCSL, 2021). The participant questioning whether “...we are actually setting these kids up for failure” indicates that he or she “sees” the limitations of programs like DACA. This is an example of a critical examination of what can happen to youth following the two-year temporary relief and protection from deportation. We argue that the counternarratives invoke participants to be more critical in their analysis, leading them to question/challenge policies and practices that shape the lives of these youth; this in turn fosters more critical inquiry and a desire for participants to become more informed and to possibly take actions to support these students after acquiring a more deeper understanding of their plights.




The third emergent theme that the preservice teachers’ I-essays revealed indexes that the majority of those who had a neutral (unaware) stance on undocumented migration (communities) shifted their positionality to a more intentional one after they witnessed the first-person counternarratives, expressing a desire to become more informed and/or participatory. Their reflections revealed feelings of shame and guilt regarding not being aware of the struggles of undocumented communities, as well as emotions of encouragement, and some even expressed ideas about how they could bring more awareness to the schools where they were completing their practicums. The following excerpts index their shift from neutrality to intentionality.


I sadly knew nothing about immigration reform. Honestly, at this point, I am ashamed to say that I have never given it much thought. (KH, DIN, F15)


Simply, my ignorance and passiveness are embarrassing. In the desire to not make students uncomfortable by broaching this delicate and horrific situation—by intentionally avoiding the elephant in the room—not only am I squelching any opportunity to understand this situation better, but it also robs my students of an important platform to expose just exactly what they are experiencing. (CN, UAW, F15)


My views on undocumented immigrants were nonexistent. I didn’t really have an opinion on their status. (JW, DIN, S17)


I didn’t feel like undocumented immigrants affected me personally, so I didn’t give the situation much thought. (LS, DIN, S16)


I tended to be pro-America and liked policies that supported American citizens, even though I recognized the seriousness of their situation, their struggle was so foreign to me. (CB, UAW, S16)


For the participants who described their knowledge of immigrants, immigration, and the critical issues of undocumented and DACAmented status as little to none, there was one overwhelming response to how they felt after they viewed the films or participated in the undocumented allies workshop. The teachers wrote consistently about having their “minds blown,” having their “eyes opened,” or “being overwhelmed” by what they learned. Of the 71 participants, 81% (n = 56) used these descriptors in at least one of their I-essays. Most of the participants agreed that they had an increased awareness of economic and emotional challenges and discrimination that undocumented immigrants face in the society and schools, and they expressed that this multicultural course provided a truly transformative learning experience. The following are examples of student statements that describe the ways in which they were enlightened by what they learned.


Many of the things I learned in this class has opened my eyes to the experiences of undocumented immigrants. From the reasons they came to America, to the pathway to citizenship, to DACA and DAPA, there were so many things I just did not know about. From this documentary in particular, I was able to invest myself in the lives of the boys and gain a deeper understanding of what it is really like. (LS, WWH, S16)


Another student shared,


[The experience was] mind blowing for me. I’m guilty of paying very close attention to others’ attire and how well they take care of themselves and making judgement. My views on undocumented immigrants were nonexistent. I didn’t really have an opinion on their status. I just feel sympathetic for them and their families. After learning about how much they endure to get to the U.S. just to work labor jobs and earn money, I am way more appreciative.


Another student wrote about how he was able to connect to his students:


Watching Which Way Home was eye-opening for me to say the least. I have a clearer understanding of their lives and what they have to go through. I had no idea . . . never thought about it. The film helped me connect to the people living in the U.S. undocumented in a way I was unable prior to viewing the film. (PJ, WWH, SP16)


One participant expressed shame and stated,


I didn’t really know much about ELLs when this class first started, but I don’t think I am entirely at fault. I think this is a well-hidden secret of the school system because there are flaws in this system that nobody is talking about. I started out almost completely ignorant about ELLs. I was forced to see things through someone else’s eyes. I had an eye-opening experience while reading “the spirit catches you and you fall down” because I didn’t realize how difficult it could be to live in a world where nobody speaks the same language as you. (KA, DIN, SM17)


It is noteworthy that for a small minority of the participants (n = 6), the film reinforced some negative stereotypes they held. These participants were particularly angered by the mothers of the children in the documentary Which Way Home. They were unable to understand why or how the mothers would allow their children to endure such hardship and risk their lives to enter the United States. They made statements that showed a lack of understanding of the contextual reasons that led these undocumented minors to embark on this journey. These students were challenged by their peers in class discussions and encouraged to engage in continued self reflection.




Because of the new racial constructs and illegal misnomers that are perpetuated in dominant immigrant discourses, uninformed United States citizens (un)consciously refer to what journalist Lippmann (1922), in his book Public Opinion, called “pictures in our heads” to make assumptions about (certain) (un)documented immigrant groups. Lippmann (1922) argued that public opinion is shaped by dominant discourses, which represent ideologies of a select group of people in power who use propaganda to persuade the masses. He asserted that most people form opinions based on the limited knowledge provided by these groups in power because most citizens usually do not have time or background knowledge to truly understand or question dominant narratives that are often positioned within narrow or oversimplified frameworks. For teachers in this region, developing an understanding of immigrants becomes critically important, as new demographic trends and anti-immigration rhetoric have recently resulted in the implementation of restrictive laws, policies, and practices.


We embarked on this research study to explore whether one course that used a social justice lens could help teachers build their understanding of immigration and the lives of undocumented youth in the United States. Using data collected from 71 graduate teacher education candidates’ narratives, this study documents the emerging development of their beliefs as they were exposed to several different experiences in the form of documentaries and presentations that focused on the lives of undocumented youth in the United States. In essence, students in this course were required to examine current immigrant narratives and learn counternarratives about undocumented immigration in the form of films and guest speakers, and then to write about it. Exposing the teacher education candidates to films that documented the lives and experiences of undocumented youth allowed them to articulate their learning and describe how they integrated the knowledge gained from class about immigrants and immigration within their existing knowledge base. The data collected through their narratives revealed for some an awakening of their need to develop a more in-depth understanding of undocumented immigrants. For others, the methods and strategies used in this course began to build the foundation for teachers to become undocumented allies.




Definitions vary regarding what it means to be an ally, and allyship occurs at different levels depending on the context and investment of the supporter. Similar to Linville (2016), we recognize the need to establish perimeters on where and how allies are expected to advocate. Thus, we have consciously outlined specific expectations of what we consider a teacher ally. First, we would like to clarify that we are not asking teachers to participate in activism, as Linville (2016) defined it, which involves organizing outside of schools at the community or national level. We assert that a teacher ally should be committed to advocacy within their classrooms and raising consciousness at their schools. Accordingly, we define a teacher ally as a caring educator who:


is conscious of their own identity, privileges, and biases while acknowledging the historical underprivilege of these marginalized undocumented students whose identities intersect with other forms of oppression, such as race, poverty, sexual orientation, and/or religion;

understands how power and privilege function at the school and societal level;

takes the initiative in becoming informed about themes that affect undocumented students, such as immigration laws, policies, and practices at the national and local levels;

knows the rights of undocumented/DACAmented students;

provides a welcoming and empathetic environment by consciously creating safe spaces within classrooms and implementing a culturally responsive pedagogy that empowers and affirms students;

is approachable and lets the student know that they are available to listen;

allows students to self-advocate by understanding that they may be fearful to come to school because of local raids or arrests, and they may choose to participate in events such as protests if they feel that their human rights are being violated;

assists undocumented/DACAmented students in navigating their educational paths by being knowledgeable of resources that are available for them to pursue a higher education; and

educates and works with other school members to foster schoolwide safe spaces and support networks for their students.


These nine expectations/tenets of a teacher ally are based on our experiences as educators who have worked, and continue to work, with undocumented and, more recently, DACAmented students; on research-based informed best practices that align with a multicultural and social justice education framework; and on a collective analysis of recommendations offered by undocumented student advocacy organizations. We recognize that allyship is an ongoing learning process and that there is a continuum of evolution on the part of an ally, who belongs to the dominant majority culture (U.S. permanent residents/citizens) and understands their role in supporting, advocating for, and working toward eradicating oppression. Accordingly, we by no means suggest that preservice teachers, or experienced teachers for that matter, will adopt all of these tenets after being exposed to a variety of first-person testimonies such as critical counternarratives, or be moved to take action at a particular time; instead, we offer these suggested expectations as a map to guide preservice ESL teachers, who are more likely to work with this population of students, on how to be effective undocumented teacher-allies.




This research study has implications for current teacher education programs in general, and for ESL teachers more specifically, given that these educators will generally be in settings where they are directly working with immigrant youth. We argue that preservice (ESL) teachers need to be knowledgeable of immigration laws, statuses, policies, and practices in order to be prepared to serve their students’ needs and to aid them in mapping out alternative routes/resources. Regardless of an educator’s experience, or lack thereof, we recommend that, as a starting point on their journeys as teacher allies, teachers consult undocumented students on how they want to be supported, and then proceed to work with them (consistently) to achieve their various goals and address their diverse needs. We also advise preservice teachers and seasoned educators alike to do their research and consult online advocacy resources, such as Teaching Tolerance (a project designed by the Southern Poverty Law Center) and Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC). E4FC, an organization that was designed by and for undocumented youth with support from allies in 2012, suggests the following 10 ways that educators can offer their support:



Engage With an Open Mind



Create a Safe Space



Learn About Relevant Institutional Policies & Legislation



Find & Advocate for Scholarships and Financial Support



Build Your Own Educator Network



Connect Students to Undocumented Community Leaders and Role Models



Involve Parents



Access Reputable Legal Information & Assistance



Build Agency and Power


10.  Create Spaces for Storytelling and Creative Expression


E4FC empowers undocumented young people by centering their voices and leadership in offering multiple resources that address their holistic needs. Our participants’ views were challenged to reflect a deeper understanding of immigration, particularly around what it means to be an undocumented immigrant in the states where they grew up. Through our work with preservice teachers over one semester, we were able to challenge existing perceptions and beliefs about this population in an effort to work in solidarity to co-construct new knowledge and action goals that can be applied locally. We argue for the use of a social justice framework in multicultural education courses to value all stakeholders (specifically teachers) invested in combating issues surrounding (un)documented migration by acknowledging and implementing their multiple perspectives and diverse ways of learning and knowing to work toward change.




Like all research studies, several limitations in this study should be noted. All the teachers were enrolled in a teacher education program designed for those interested in teaching ESL. The participants had an interest in serving this population and were seeking licensure in this area; thus, the study cannot be generalized to teachers in other content areas. Because of participants' general interest in serving these students, any shifts—minor or major—in beliefs could be a result of their already favorable feelings toward immigrant youth and their families. Second, although the data indicate that the majority of students achieved positive shifts in their positionality, a small group actually used the films as evidence to reinforce negative stereotypes of undocumented immigrants. The stories they watched amplified or fossilized their cultural folklore statements and maintained deficit views of undocumented or “illegal” immigrants. Overgeneralized beliefs about “lack of parental support” and “patterns of brokenness” were clearly not the intended outcomes of the films shown. However, these are the constructs with which students entered and exited the course. Finally, we used the reflective narratives that were guided by prompts in the form of I-essays. Because the data sources were self-reflections, it is possible that students were not completely open or honest in their responses. Although many of the preservice teachers ended the course reflecting on their gained knowledge of these issues, how this will manifest itself in the classroom or in the future is unclear. We encourage others to explore the long-term impact of teacher education courses such as this one on teachers when they enter diverse schools and classrooms. Additional research should be collected during the student-teaching semester and in the first years of teaching to understand how beliefs about specific populations of students manifest themselves in schools and classrooms.  




Under the former administration, undocumented and DACAmented students faced increased challenges and trauma, with uncertainty about the future of their protected status in this country. The challenges faced by immigrants—both documented and undocumented—were exacerbated by the former administration in ways that negatively impacted the lives of hardworking families. The United States needs to create immigration reform that addresses both short-term and long-term goals and that will support all children of immigrant families caught in the middle. Furthermore, the data from this study revealed three new findings that support the urgency for a critical multicultural curriculum in teacher education programs. First, to meet the dynamic needs of the diverse immigrant student population, a paradigm shift is necessary in preservice teacher preparation programs at the national level. Second, we must acknowledge that future teachers will enter classrooms with a variety of experiences, knowledge, biases, and (mis)understandings about undocumented communities, as well as U.S. immigration policies, laws, and practices that shape some of their students' livelihoods. Exposing preservice teachers to counternarratives and films and having critical conversations concerning real undocumented or DACAmented youth and families constitute one attempt to reveal and support change in these perceptions and understanding. After the application of a teacher-ally model framed in critical multicultural coursework, ESL preservice teachers expressed that they felt more knowledgeable and encouraged to serve as supports and educational guides for their prospective undocumented and DACAmented students. Thus, we argue for the use of a social justice framework in multicultural education courses in order to value all the stakeholders invested in combating issues surrounding (un)documented migration by acknowledging and implementing their multiple perspectives and diverse ways of learning and knowing to work toward change.




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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 13, 2021, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23746, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 4:31:41 AM

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About the Author
  • Lan Kolano
    University of North Carolina at Charlotte
    E-mail Author
    LAN KOLANO, Ph.D., is professor of education and chair of the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K12 Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research focuses on the academic, language, and identity development of immigrant learners, and on the fostering of critical multicultural efficacy in teacher preparation programs. Her most recent publications include “Rising Up in Solidarity: Southeast Asian Immigrant Youth Activism in North Carolina,” which was published in the Handbook of Social Justice Interventions in Education (2020). “Transforming Preservice Teacher Perceptions of Immigrant Communities Through Digital Storytelling” was recently published in the Journal of Experiential Education (2021).
  • Leslie Gutierrez
    Johnson C. Smith University
    E-mail Author
    LESLIE GUTIERREZ is an interdisciplinarian who holds a Ph.D. in English with concentrations in Africana Studies, TESOL, and Spanish. She is a proud alumna of Spelman College and has taught at both the secondary and postsecondary levels. She is currently an assistant professor of Spanish and the co-director of the Center for Languages, Rhetoric, and Cultures at Johnson C. Smith University. Her research interests are undocumented migration in the United States; second-language acquisition and teaching (Spanish and English); and Afro-Latino cultures and lived experiences. She has expertise in digital storytelling and activism, and in protest music and movements within African and Latino diasporas.
  • Anna Sanczyk
    University of North Carolina at Charlotte
    E-mail Author
    ANNA SANCZYK received a bachelor’s degree in English philology in Poland and a master’s degree in English linguistics in Norway. She has taught ESL in schools and universities in Poland, Norway, and the United States. She received a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2020. Her research interests include language teacher identity and agency, critical pedagogy, and culturally responsive pedagogy. She has recently co-authored “Transforming Preservice Teacher Perceptions of Immigrant Communities Through Digital Storytelling” in the Journal of Experiential Education (2021).
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