If You Make It There, You Can Make It Anywhere:
Teaching Immigrant Students in New York City

Margaret Smith Crocco with Della Barr Brooks and Kimberley Woo

Immigrant families often settle in large urban areas, among them New York City. The New York public school system, the largest in the nation, enrolls over one million students each year, approximately 30 percent of whom were born outside the United States. ìThis dramatic influx of immigrants has placed enormous stress on the educational system.î1 As teacher educators in New York City, we believe this setting provides not only great challenges, but a unique laboratory for developing programs in teacher education to meet these challenges.

Large numbers of immigrant students place special demands on a school system. These demands stem from such factors as the poverty and poor educational background of many immigrant students; the strain on school resources already suffering from national and state cutbacks; shortages of properly trained English as a Second Language (ESL) and bilingual teachers; the lack of instructional materials in a variety of languages; and the challenges of acculturation especially for those students coming from rural and less developed nations.2 Further complicating the situation is the fact that immigrants from the same regionóeven those who speak the same languageóoften differ significantly from each other and cannot be considered to represent ìoneî culture.

New York City teachers are challenged to tailor curriculum and instruction so that they meet the needs of a wide array of cultural backgrounds, language groups, and learning styles. That such diversity exists to a lesser extent throughout New York State was underscored during the spring of 1997, when the Education Commissioner proposed for the first time that the Regents exams be translated into four languagesóSpanish, Haitian Creole, Russian, and Chinese. According to The New York Times, 26 April 1997, ìAbout 6 percent of the stateís 800,000 high school students are classified as having limited proficiency in English, but more than 16 percent of New York Cityís high school students fall into that category.î3

Children often serve as the front line of linguistic and cultural adjustment for immigrant families, and schools become the primary vehicles for the process of acculturation. However, for many immigrant parents, schools can also be alien institutions with rules, practices, and expectations that appear opaque to them.4 While parents appreciate the importance of schooling for their children, they may remain fearful that their native culture will be erased, and prefer the creation of a dual cultural identity for their children.5

The education of immigrant children may be affected by still other factors affecting school attendance and the time available to study. ìPrincipals and teachers in Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, and New York City reported that many immigrant families from western hemisphere countries take children out of school for weeks and months at a time for visits home.î6 Moreover, older immigrant students often carry significant family responsibilities; for example, girls of 13 and 14 may be required to care for younger siblings, and boys of 16 may work 30 hours a week in order to support their families.7

In the face of the many demands that stem from the new immigration, schools of education must grapple with how to prepare the next generation of teachers to succeed in settings characterized by wide student diversity. This article describes how adapting teacher education to new classroom contexts is being carried out in the Program in Social Studies at Teachers College of Columbia University.

Most pre-service teachers in the masterís program do their practice teaching in the New York City public schools. A profile of these pre-service teachers shows them to be predominantly young, middle class, and white European in ethnic background, with the number of male and female students about equal. Students of color represent only about 10 percent of each yearís class. Bridging the gap in school and life experiences between these pre-service teachers and their students is a major challenge.

The Program in Social Studies that has evolved over the last ten years is based on the twin pillars of caringóunderstood as respect for all students and concern for them as human beings,8 and competenceóunderstood as deep understanding of subject matter,9 and especially history, since it represents the core of the New York State curriculum in social studies. The program is also based on the following considerations:

> an emphasis on active learning

> the use of instructional materials other than textbooks

> the incorporation of studentsí life experiences into the classroom

> the involvement of community resources

Research and Context

The Program in Social Studies at Teachers College takes seriously the admonition that teachers should not see their students as ìother peopleís children.î10 The philosophy of the Program rests on the belief that immigrant and inner-city students should be held to the same high academic standards that middle-class teachers expect for their own children. From another perspective, National Council for the Social Studies (1994) has endorsed this viewpoint by naming its curriculum standards for all of the nationís students ìExpectations of Excellence.î11

As John Dewey recognized early in this century,12 immigrant students learn better when the local community is incorporated into the curriculumófor example, through fieldwork which takes the community, its history, and its institutions as subject matter, and its inhabitants as cultural informants. In this way, students find their own experiences mirrored in school at the same time they are gaining a window onto the mainstream culture.13 This approach reinforces the dual identity that immigrant parents typically desire.

However, Michael Olneck notes that historically schools have not been very responsive to immigrants: ìThe degree and manner in which schools have acknowledged and accommodated cultural differences varies over time and locale. Accommodations by the public schools have, however, been generally limited and conflictual.î14 In New York City, only scattered efforts focused on immigrant education have been made, due to fiscal constraints and political conflicts over the new immigration, bilingual education, and public schools.15

One example of a targeted response to immigrant education in New York City is Liberty High School in the Bronx. This institution was established in 1993 as a ìnewcomer schoolî offering such special features as intensive language and academic remediation, assistance with cultural adjustment, and social and health services.16 Two other secondary schools targeting immigrant students spun off from Liberty High School in 1995. The High School of World Cultures has the special mission of serving ninth grade students who have completed eight years of formal education in their home countries. Liberty North High School opened its doors to students from Hispanic and Southeast Asian countries, as well as Albania and Russia, who have never attended an American school. Together, these schools serve only slightly more than three percent of each yearís new cohort of immigrants in New York City.17

Some immigrant students attend smaller alternative and restructured high schools, or the separate ìhousesî that have been subdivided as units within larger New York City high schools. Otherwise, most immigrant students attend the comprehensive institutions that have been the mainstay of secondary education in New York City since the first half of this century. The average school population at the secondary level has risen above 2,000 studentsótwice the number recommended by educational researchers for a thriving educational community.18 Furthermore, the classic New York City social studies pedagogical strategy, ìthe developmental lesson,î taught to classes of 35 students (the number mandated by Board of Education policy) in 40-minute periods, remains the norm.

In a review of the research on culturally diverse students and learning styles, Irvine and York indicate that pedagogy built on active learning principles, group work, and cooperative learning, with a diminished emphasis on recitation, has a powerful impact on academic success. They prescribe community involvement, a focus on the whole child, linkages between classroom content and student experience, and culturally compatible communication and learning patterns.19

ìCulturally relevant pedagogy,î according to Gloria Ladson-Billings, ìmust provide a way for students to maintain their cultural integrity while succeeding academically.î20 Her book The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African-American Children describes the classroom as a ìcommunity of learnersî in which teachers believe students capable of academic success and view teaching as an art form ìalways in the process of becoming.î21 Assessment should be multifaceted and open to recognizing diverse forms of excellence.22

An Evolving Program

Rethinking the Program in Social Studies resulted in the creation of new courses and the alteration of existing ones. Four courses are pivotal to the transformation of the program: (1) Alternative Models of Social Studies Curriculum, (2) Diversity and the Social Studies Curriculum, (3) Women of the World: Issues in Teaching, and (4) New York City as Learning Lab. The courses on Diversity and Women of the World are new, while the other two have been revised.

Both of the new courses combine readings with field experiences that offer the chance to test theories in light of local educational realities. The Diversity course includes among its readings An Introduction to Multicultural Education by James Banks and Borderlands/ LaFrontera by Gloria Anzaldua. Students also read and analyze primary sourcesósuch as The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBoisóthat are appropriate for use in the secondary classroom.

Women of the World serves as a corrective to the meager background in womenís history demonstrated by many students by offering global snapshots of womenís experiences past and present. The required readings, which are extended by two student research projects, include Women in Modern China and the United Nationsí Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as fictional works such as Nectar in a Sieve, Bread Givers, and So Long a Letter. Students also read theoretical texts by Gerda Lerner, Peggy McIntosh, and Emily Style that help to explain the reasons behind womenís invisibility in the school curriculum.

The research performed in both courses relates to fieldwork and is oriented towards authentic forms of assessment. In the Diversity course, students in teams conduct action-research projects related to ethnicity, race, immigration, bilingualism, sexual identity, or gender as they pertain to social studies. Students have examined, for example, body image among Hispanic and Puerto Rican young women; the value of social studies writing in ESL classes; and the treatment of gay and lesbian history in New York City high schools.

Women of the World requires two student projects: an oral history that involves women of two generations in order to get at social change and continuity in womenís lives; and a research paper on a subject of student interest. Among the topics pre-service teachers have chosen to study are the status of women in contemporary Norway, the practice of sati (suttee) in India, a job counseling center for women in northern New Jersey, exotic dancers in New York City, Algerian track star Hassiba Boulmerka, prostitution in Thailand, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, battered South Asian women living in the United States, handicapped women, women as senior citizens, female slaves in South Carolina during the mid-19th century, and Puritan women in colonial Connecticut.

In the Alternative Models of Social Studies Curriculum, students use artifacts and archaeology, oral history, local and community history, visual imagery, museums, technology, role play, and simulation to gain a richer understanding of the materials that comprise the nationís cultural and historical legacy. The course includes such readings as After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection; An Alternative Agenda to Male-Dominated History; Artifacts and the American Past, and Oral History: A Guide for Teachers (and Others).

The summative form of assessment asks students working in teams to ìput it all togetherî by creating a mini-curriculum that applies various interdisciplinary approaches to one aspect of the New York State social studies framework. Many students have used the resulting lesson plans during their spring teaching placements.

New York City as Learning Lab has three goals: (1)to explore the concept of ìcommunityî within classrooms; (2) to model, through field experiences, ways in which students can incorporate outside resources into their classrooms; and, (3) to produce a work of authentic assessment in the form of a handbook containing descriptions of communities and how their places, peoples, and institutions can be integrated into the secondary curriculum in social studies. The course begins by examining the assumptions students make about what defines ìnormalî community structure. Unpacking these assumptions to get at the culturally-coded nature of such views is a first step in bridging the distance between these pre-service teachers and the students they will teach.

Putting It All Together

Mark Chenault is a masterís candidate at Teachers College who teaches at Manhattanís West Side High School, an alternative school with around eight hundred students, most of them Puerto Rican or immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Costa Rica, Haiti, and Cuba.23 He describes how his students view social studies in this way: ìThe study of social studies has become for many urban students a routine memorization of isolated dates and facts. They ask whether their history has been set aside in favor of the European conquerorís point of view. As one student put it, ëWhy do we always learn about all these white folks?íî Mark concludes with the comment that he finds this ìa reasonable question, with not a single white face in the classroom.î

Mark is convinced that his students ìneed an understanding of how they have come to be where they are in the world.î He tailors his teaching to making connections between studentsí lives and the curriculum. A favorite project involves having students conduct oral histories with relatives or community members to learn about their countries of origin. Students create archives that contain the transcripts of their interviews along with maps, photographs, and drawings of these regions. The thematic question guiding this research involves how geography affects diverse populations around the world.

Students have responded enthusiastically to this project. By discovering and creating official ìschoolî knowledge to which they are personally connected, they have begun to acquire a new appetite for social studies. They have also improved their reading and writing skills, which has had a positive impact across all school subjects.

Mark has been asked by his schoolís administration to enlarge this project to new groups of Caribbean students of both Spanish and Creole-speaking backgrounds in order to improve their academic performance. His attitude nicely captures the intention of the curricular transformation project at Teachers College, when he comments: ìThis kind of social studies can play an essential role in developing communal consciousness, self-esteem, and self-knowledge.î For immigrant and other children in the nationís schools, these are goals to which all educators can subscribe.


1. Lamar Miller and Lisa Tanners, ìDiversity and the New Immigrantsî in Brown v. Board of Education: The Challenge for Todayís Schools (New York: Teachers College Press, 1996), 73-74.

2. L. McDonnell and P. Hill, Newcomers in American Schools: Meeting the Educational Needs of Immigrant Youth (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1993).

3. ìBoard of Regents is Urged to Test in Five Languages,î The New York Times (April 26, 1997): A1, 28.

4. Delgado-Gaitan and H. Trueba, Crossing Cultural Borders: Education for Immigrant Families in America (London: Falmer, 1991); H. Trueba et al, Cultural Conflict and Adaptation: the Case of Hmong Children in American Society (New York: Falmer, 1990).

5. M. A. Gibson, Accommodation without Assimilation: Sikh Immigrants in an American High School (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988; Treuba et al.

6. McDonnell and Hill, 62.

7. Ibid., 73.

8. Nel Noddings, Caring (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984).

9. Lee Schulman, ìKnowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform,î Harvard Educational Review 57 (1987): 1-22

10. Lisa Delpit, Other Peopleís Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995).

11. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: NCSS, 1994).

12. John Dewey, The School and Society; and the Child and the Curriculum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

13. Emily Style, îCurriculum as Window and Mirrorî in M. Crocco, ed., Listening for All Voices: Gender Balancing the School Curriculum (Summit, NJ: Oak Knoll School, 1988).

14. Michael Olneck, ìImmigrants and Educationî in James Banks, ed., Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 310-327.

15. McDonnell and Hill.

16. Ibid., 74.

17. Ibid., 75.

18. Francisco Rivera-Batiz, ìImmigrants and the New York City Public School System,î Institute for Urban and Minority Education Newsletter V (1993-94).

19. Jacqueline Irvine and Darlette York, ìLearning Styles and Culturally Diverse Students: A Literature Reviewî in James Banks, ed., Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 484-98.

20. Gloria Ladson-Billings, ìMulticultural Teacher Education: Research, Practice, and Policyî in James Banks, ed., Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 747-763.

21. Gloria Ladson-Billings, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African-American Children (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994).

22. Gloria Ladson-Billings,îMulticultural Teacher Education.î

23. Annual School Report for West Side High School, 1993-94. New York: Board of Education, 1994.

Teaching Resources

These are the resources for the Program in Social Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University, referred to in this article.

Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands/LaFrontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1991.

Bâ, Mariama. So Long a Letter. Portsmouth, NH.: Heinemann, 1989.

Banks, James. An Introduction to Multicultural Education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1994.

Bingham, Marjorie and Susan Gross. Women in Modern China. St. Louis Park, MN: Glenhurst Publications, 1980.

Davidson, James and Mark Lytle. After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. New York: McGraw Hill, 1992.

DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Johnson, Mary. An Alternative to Male-Dominated History: Material Culture and Womenís History. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1983.

Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Patriarchy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Markandaya, Kamala. Nectar in a Sieve. New York: Signet, 1982.

McIntosh, Peggy. Interactive Phases of Curricular Re-Vision: A Feminist Perspective. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1983.

Schlereth, Thomas. Artifacts and the American Past. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History, 1989.

Sitton, Thad, George Mehaffy, and O.L. Davis, Jr. Oral History: A Guide for Teachers (and Others). Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. New York: 1949.

Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers. New York: Persea Books, 1975.

Margaret Smith Crocco is associate professor of social studies and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Della Barr Brooks is a doctoral student and instructor in the program of social studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. Kimberly Woo is assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.