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Ed. Magazine

Equity at Bilingual Schools

Alum looks at the role learning more than one language can play in bettering democracy
B&W Bridge Representing "Bridge Across Differences"

What can we learn about equity from schools that are bilingual? To explore that question, Matthew Knoester, Ed.M.’01, a professor of educational studies and chair of the educational studies department at Ripon College in Wisconsin, decided to study two schools that immerse students in more than one language. The result is his new book, Learning to Cross Divides: Examining Critical Multicultural and Bilingual Schools, which he co-authored with Assaf Meshulam, a senior lecturer at Ben Gurion University. Prior to moving over to higher education, Knoester taught elementary and high school students. He recently spoke to Ed. about the two schools (one in Wisconsin and one in the south of Israel), inequality, and how his kids felt having dad at their school doing research. 

Matthew Knoester
Matthew Knoester, Ed.M.'01

What made you want to write this book?  
Bilingual education in the United States is growing, and moderately so in Israel/Palestine, as more people realize that being bilingual opens doors to new opportunities. This book closely analyzes schools that take this task seriously.

How are the schools you studied “two-way” bilingual?   
The schools serve large groups of students who are dominant in the majority language: English in the United States and Hebrew in Israel/Palestine, and in the minoritized language: Spanish in the United States and Arabic in Israel/Palestine. Placed together, these students can teach and learn from one another. We carefully describe the strategies, accomplishments, and struggles of these schools.

Both schools practice something you call “critical education." What is that?  
Critical education, as I understand it, is education that is highly sensitive to the production and reproduction of social inequalities. It includes pedagogy that attempts to interrupt that (re)production. The word “critical” can be traced to the critical theory of the Frankfort School and to Paulo Freire’s idea of critical consciousness. An example might be of students studying both historical and current forms of segregation, racism, other marginalization, and systems that perpetuate these social ills. The schools described in this book were intentionally created to make this kind of exploration part of the curriculum.  

You write that bilingual education can "enhance democracy." In what ways?  
Both of the schools are situated in highly segregated and unequal locations: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the south of Israel/Palestine. The schools were founded to intentionally bring students and families together that otherwise would likely be separate. And the curricula of the schools, including the bilingual focus, is meant to provide opportunities for students to learn from one another, which is why we decided the title of the book should be Learning to Cross Divides. Segregation in the United States and in Israel/Palestine continues to be a serious problem, and we argue it is a problem for democracy because without direct knowledge of and relationships across racial and economic divides, people are more likely to believe stereotypes and false portrayals of one another. The prevailing political environment includes politicians and media that continually perpetuate false and negative portrayals, especially of people of color and other marginalized groups. This heightens tensions and inequalities and prevents groups from trusting one another and ultimately working together to solve social problems.  

Who is this book for?  
This book is for anyone interested in bilingual education and education for a more equitable world. We hope the book will be read by educators, educational scholars, parents who may be thinking about these issues in relation to their own children, and policymakers.

Your children attend the bilingual school in Wisconsin?  
Yes, my two children attended one of the schools profiled in this book and my co-author sent his three children to the school in Israel/Palestine. My partner and I wanted to send our children to a bilingual school because we learned a second language later in life and it was a struggle. We thought learning a second language at an earlier age had advantages in terms of how deeply the language could be learned and we wanted to have shared experiences as a family in bilingual settings. The school also has an anti-racist and social justice focus, which resonates with our family’s values.

What was it like doing research at their school?  
In terms of the research, being a parent at the school certainly created openings for conversations with teachers, administrators, parents, and students that might not have happened otherwise. I have been a very involved parent on various committees at the school and was also a long-term substitute teacher at the school during my sabbatical, so I found doing the kind of ethnographic work that the book is based on felt more natural than if I had not had previous connections to the school.

Did your kids mind having dad there?  
My children did not seem to mind that I spent a lot of time in their school. Although, I do remember one incident in which my daughter yelled at me on the way home because I gently scolded her in front of her friends while I was a substitute teacher, and she felt humiliated. I was much more careful interacting with her at school after that.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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