Since 1975 Public Law 94-142, currently known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, has mandated that the decision regarding the placement of a student who is classified as both an English language learner and in need of special education be made collaboratively between parents and individual education plan team members. In reality, however, the voices and judgments of educators and school professionals are valued above those of the parents. The largest emergent bilingual special education population is comprised of Latinx students. Due to cultural factors within the Latinx community, mothers are often tasked as the primary point of contact between the school and the family. However, Spanish-speaking Latinx mothers are often silent at these meetings, never revealing their experiences or feelings as mothers of these children; never expressing how they feel about the role that language and disability plays in their children’s lives, and never voicing how they feel about their children’s program placements. In an attempt to bridge this gap, my dissertation focused on the mothering experiences and ideologies of Latinx Spanish-speaking mothers whose emergent bilingual children are also labeled as disabled.
Given the level of involvement needed during a child’s elementary education, in my dissertation, I conducted an ethnographic study of several Latinx mothers of emergent bilinguals labeled as disabled (EBLADs) in grades two through six within one community. The purpose of this study was to explore the experiences these mothers have endured as well as uncover the values they hold regarding their children’s disability labels, linguistic development and overall education. As such, this project utilized a multipronged theoretical framework rooted in intersectionality, disability studies, linguistic human rights and a sociological approach to storytelling known as Testimonios. This was a qualitative study consisting of Spanish-language interviews with mothers and EBLAD children, home observations and the collection of artifacts related to the child’s educational history. Lastly, the study concluded with a gathering of the participants where they met each other for the first time, shared a recollection, ate dinner together and engaged in open discussions. The resulting data were analyzed using thematic and narrative analysis, and social semiotic multimodal analysis. This study resulted in a greater understanding for the ways in which these mothers contribute to the education of their children in ways that often go unnoticed and unappreciated by educational systems and their proxies.
The findings from this study have implications in early childhood, teacher education and educational policy. This study presents the ways in which this subgroup of mothers supports their children’s academic growth in order to maximize student learning. It also showcases the ways in which linguistic decisions made during the early evaluation stage impact a child’s at-home linguistic development and a parent’s ability to support that child academically. Schools and administrators should also use the findings of this study to reflect on the services they provide to mothers so as to ensure that they meet an actual need (i.e. mental health support, ESL) rather than a projected need (i.e. math training). With regards to teacher education, this study highlighted the importance of home language learning for children labeled as disabled in an effort to encourage more bilingual placements, or at least more home language support, for these children. It also presented the ways in which children use linguistic fluidity regardless of the schools’ evaluation on their capacity to be bilingual. Lastly, this study offered ways in which a research method like descriptive inquiry, which is most often used to understand children and teacher practices, can also be used to understand the impact of educational policies and practices on families within the home and in the community at large. Aside from the final dissertation, I also used the data from this study to prepare multiple papers for presentation at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) annual conference, among others. I have also adapted the dissertation into a book which I hope will take this work out of the academy and into teachers’ hands. It is my belief that research that is kept away from teachers is research that is limited in its impact. My hope is to also be able to disseminate more of my work in more mainstream and more accessible platforms like Rethinking Schools.
My second major research project, which is currently in the latter stages of data collection, extended on this prior work by attempting to uncover teacher attitudes regarding the capacities of students who are at risk of being labeled as an English Language Learner, a student with a disability, or both. In particular, I am interested in how teachers describe students that they consider disengaged, absent, and even difficult, as well as the evidence that they cite. The study is taking place in a suburban school district that is currently preparing for a racial integration initiative. The school itself consist of a student body that is predominantly students of color while the faculty are overwhelmingly White women. As part of this study 5 teachers took part in the summer institutes on the descriptive processes where they learned to engage with student work using the processes developed by Pat Carini and the teachers at the Prospect School in Vermont. After returning we have been meeting monthly to discuss the work of students. This descriptive inquiry group is part of the teachers professional learning communities, as such the teachers get professional credit for participating. The group also includes four additional teachers who did not attend the summer institutes but whom expressed interest in the work. They read Carini’s From Another Angle as an introduction to the processes. To date, five teachers have presented and three more will present students during the remaining school year. This project contains both qualitative and quantitative components. The quantitative component consists of surveys that are completed by the participating teachers after each session. The qualitative component consists of narrative interviews, audio recordings of the sessions and pertinent artifacts as they relate to the work that was presented. While the work is still emergent, preliminary analysis indicates that there are ways that the processes can be used across racial and ability lines to develop structures that allow us to see students as whole beings even while they are racialized and pathologized in other parts of their educational experience. The findings from this project will be shared at both regional and national conferences, while a wider audience would be reached through publications in national and international peer-reviewed journals. Given the emerging ideas, this pilot project could be developed into a full-scale project with the potential to receive external funding from sources such as the Russel Sage Foundation or the Spencer Foundation. A larger scale project school support a school training their entire staff in the descriptive processes, the impacts of which would be followed.
Still, while this most recent line of inquiry has been fruitful, I find myself constantly pulled back to work with mothers of EBLADs and their families. For many years the needs of EBLADs have been parsed across the special education and bilingual education community with neither group wanting to lose students to the other. Special education professionals wrongfully warn about the dangers of bilingual education and EBLADs in a bilingual setting while bilingual education advocates actively seek to keep bilingual children out of special education. While these sentiments originate from real concerns regarding overrepresentation and disproportionality, it is equally as important that the educational community consider the ways in which to improve student outcomes regardless of the placement, regardless of whether the label is appropriate or not. As the demographic make-up of the United States continues to shift into a more multicultural, multiracial and multilingual community educators must ensure that their practices meet the needs of children who are placed into multiple minoritized communities. In order to do this successfully, it is not enough to look at academic growth through assessment or even student or teacher feedback. Teaching candidates and pre-service teachers must be taught not only the benefits of progressive practices like descriptive inquiry, about the impact of open and child-centered communication but also ways in which to effectively connect with the families of EBLADs. Mothers also need to be invited into the discourse; they must not only be given seats at the table but also microphones to amplify their often-silenced voices. The ultimate goal for my career is to uphold a research agenda and a teaching practice that works in service of these needs.