We're trying to make school better for these students who are multilingual and highly capable, but not receiving a high-quality education because the school system is not designed for them to succeed.
Jenna Cushing-Leubner
Monday, April 27, 2015

Learning in More Than One Language

Jenna Cushing-Leubner

Tapping into multilingual students' language resources

Jenna Cushing-Leubner is exploring what's possible when multilingual students bring their language skills, cultural identities, and community knowledge into the classroom. As a native English speaker, the University of Minnesota Ph.D. student says she's fortunate to have had abundant learning opportunities in school. However, these opportunities aren't always available for students who live their lives in languages other than English -- which is why she calls the need to promote multilingualism a social justice and economic mobility issue.

Schools disservice students with bilingual abilities by focusing on learning only in English, making it difficult for students to recognize non-English experiences as legitimate knowledge, Cushing-Leubner says. She hopes to see more schools further develop these students' rich language resources. Her research on Spanish for Spanish Speakers classes demonstrates how nurturing multilingual students' skills can lead to innovative, student-driven community change.

A Background in Supporting Bilingual Education

After working in Austria and the Twin Cities as an ESL and bilingual teacher, Cushing-Leubner was drawn to the Second Languages & Cultures program. "It was the right time, the right people, and I was in the right place," she says. "There's really exciting work happening in the Curriculum & Instruction department right now." She speaks English, German and Turkish, and is now learning Spanish. She learns from the youth she works with, and also traveled to Costa Rica to formally study Spanish to be able to conduct research more effectively.

Cushing-Leubner, who's spent three years working with Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, does action research and ethnography. "It's a different research paradigm in that the questions emerge as you're there," she explains. She first partnered with the school to help teachers support learning opportunities for multilingual students who were no longer eligible for ESL classes. The students weren't passing state benchmarks, were at-risk of not graduating, and lacked access to higher-level courses because they were stuck in remediation courses.

For two years, she checked in with Roosevelt teachers to see what made the students light up in school, then helped teachers tweak lessons based on their findings. "We were trying to make school better for these students who are multilingual and highly capable, but not receiving a high-quality education because the school system is not designed for them to succeed," she says.

Although native English speakers develop their academic English throughout school, students with Spanish-speaking backgrounds aren't encouraged by schools to further develop their academic Spanish, she says. Foreign-language Spanish courses don't challenge or interest many multilingual students. She wanted to help them build their native language skills -- which is what her current research is about.

Developing Spanish Literacy in Spanish-Speaking Students

Roosevelt, which is made up of more than 50 percent Latino families, saw a need for Spanish classes for those with Spanish-speaking backgrounds. They hired Jennifer Eik, a teacher-candidate Cushing-Leubner had previously supervised, to teach a Spanish class specifically for Spanish bilingual students with a range of proficiency. The class was meant to develop students' academic language in Spanish and have them critically examine relevant issues in the Spanish-speaking world.

Demand for the class was high -- during its first year (2013-14), they had to create three class sections. Cushing-Leubner collaborated with Eik on lesson plans, provided resources and observed classes for research. Because the program was such a new and radical idea, they lacked textbooks, resources and support while developing the class, but had plenty of autonomy.

They created a class strongly focused on ethnic studies, encouraging students to explore their own identities. One unit had students examine indigenous groups in Central and South America. Many students had backgrounds in countries like Ecuador, El Salvador and Mexico or relatives who spoke indigenous languages. Another unit emerged out of talking with students, who learned about the civil rights movement in history class but had little knowledge about collective action and social change created by Chicanos/Latinos. Thus, they spent several months learning about movements in Chicano/Latino workers' and education rights.

"The kids were on fire about it," Cushing-Leubner says. "They were so interested and did some cool, self-guided explorations. From that, we got a glimmer of what could really happen in this space." Eik and Cushing-Leubner realized the class's potential to positively impact students' engagement and learning after noticing students who struggled before the class now taking ownership of their learning and feeling more confident and capable of succeeding in school. They wanted to tell others about pedagogies and learning styles of the class to show the program's possibilities and provide framework for other schools.

Due to its focus on developing Spanish literacy skills, the majority of the class is in Spanish. "We still value Spanglish because that's the language that many of the kids interact with their loved ones in," she says. "People might make sense of the world with a combination of two languages." Demand for the class was so high that it will have three levels by the 2015-16 school year, and Roosevelt now leads the state in its offering of Spanish classes for Spanish-speaking students.

Creating Community Change

This year, students became researchers in a new part of the course called Youth Participatory Action Research. A unit about linguistic identity turned into a larger conversation between students about multilingualism, exploring multilingual rights and what it means to be multilingual. The students drew on the Chicano/Latino civil rights movements they had learned about, and wanted to bring in knowledge from their communities as well.

Cushing-Leubner taught them research skills, coding, conducting interviews and narrative analysis. After collectively writing interview questions, the youth spoke to multilingual speakers in their communities, recording and transcribing the interviews. Based on the stories they collected, the students came up with a list of linguistic rights that multilingual people deserve to have, which includes the right to speak whatever language they want to speak, the right to request an interpreter, and the right to not be categorized by color of skin or language.

While developing their Spanish oral and literacy abilities, the youth -- many of whom were labeled at-risk of not graduating from high school -- demonstrated college-level skills like coding and qualitative analysis. Cushing-Leubner says the students "broke down school walls" by bringing community knowledge into the classroom instead of just using textbooks. They actively conducted research that they cared about, shared their findings with others, and made intentional rhetorical choices so their friends and family would understand the list of rights.

With the goal of making school a more multilingual and inclusive space, the students organized a summit at Roosevelt and created separate sessions in English, Spanish and a combination of both, to make it accessible for all. They presented the list of rights and the community stories they'd gathered. Then the students encouraged the audience to write how they would commit to making spaces more inclusive for multilingual people. The youth also presented a toolkit about community organization to other schools and created children’s books based on the rights.

Cushing-Leubner serves as a tool and resource for the youth, recording and disseminating their activities so their success is being shared. She recently presented her community-based research in Texas. "We've worked on multiple projects together and she is one of the most powerful intellectuals with whom I've collaborated," says her advisor, Martha Bigelow. "Her academic work consistently exceeds my expectations."

After defending in spring 2017, Cushing-Leubner plans to continue her community engagement work in academia. "I would love to be at an institution like the U that has a strong, thriving teacher licensure program," she says. She hopes to connect her school partnerships with teacher education to pave the way for more teachers to help nurture multilingual students' language skills. This includes not only Spanish-speaking communities, but those that speak languages like Amharic, Somali, and Hmong as well. "Can you imagine how cool school would be then?" she says.

- Lyra Fontaine