National Writing Project

Karen Vocke Addresses the Unique Needs of Migrant Students

Date: November 6, 2008

Summary: Author and teacher Karen Vocke, keynote speaker at the 2009 RSN conference, has been working to help migrant students and their families ever since her experience at Head Start in 1982.


Karen Vocke helps make America's "invisible people" more visible, at least in the classroom.

Transient lives and limited English skills can make migrant workers and their families easy to overlook, but Vocke, an associate professor in the Department of English at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, and the author of "Where Do I Go From Here?": Meeting the Unique Educational Needs of Migrant Students, takes a deep look at this too often neglected, but increasingly significant, educational niche. (For more, read a review of Where Do I Go from Here?).

Vocke, who will deliver the keynote address at the 2009 Rural Sites conference in Kalamazoo, Michigan, has spent much her professional life finding ways to help migrant students and their families across the United States, alerting teachers to the special needs of this population. Migrant children struggle with lost school time because of frequent moves, limited ties to the community, and various types of discrimination.

Vocke has watched the demographics of the migrant population change. "Now we have many states experiencing large influxes of workers for the first time. Many now work in industries outside of agriculture, like meat processing and forestry. Also more and more families are `settling out,' that is, remaining in a community rather than migrating."

Advocacy and social justice are two important pillars of her work. Her book aims to equip teachers with the resources and the pedagogical strategies to facilitate the language acquisition, communication, and literacy of students whose primary language is Spanish.

Life-Changing Moment

Vocke remembers the day her life changed and the education of migrant children became her cause. It happened one day in 1982 while she was working as a teacher in the Toledo, Ohio area. She had a summer job in a Head Start program for the children of migrant workers.

"As part of the program the instructors visited the camp where these families lived. I was to give a talk to these families about what our program had to offer, but I was nervous about my Spanish," a language she had been studying seriously since high school. "I looked out at the faces of adults and children so attentive and appreciative of what we were trying to do, and I forgot my self-consciousness about my Spanish. I realized it's not about me, it's about them."

Ever since that experience, she's been committed to the cause of migrant worker literacy.

Vocke went on to work with La Raza Unida de Toledo, a social service agency, and later to volunteer with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Toledo.

The question we always came back to was, `What do they want to know?'

"I was working with adults here. We had a Community ESL program that emphasized survival English. The question we always came back to was, `What do they want to know?' How, for instance, do you talk to your doctor or ask about items at the grocery store?"

Teaching Transient Students

Vocke now works with teachers trying to find ways to serve children in the migrant population. The needs of these students go beyond those of the general ELL population.

"First off, there is the fact of transiency. These children change schools sometimes three times a year," said Vocke.

She says that too often she has seen teachers, believing that these students won't be around long, assign them a seat in the back of the room instead of making the most of the student's time in school.

That's exactly the opposite of what should happen, says Vocke. "I urge teachers to immediately provide a new arrival with a buddy and to use small groups in class. What we've learned in recent years about cooperative learning can go a long way in making these children feel welcome."

"That, a smile, and a few words of Spanish," she says.

Vocke urges teachers not to be misled by the conversational communication skills of these students. "Many speak English with some proficiency. But it takes seven or more years to become fluent in academic English, and the fragmented nature of the education these kids experience adds another layer of difficulty."

Connecting with Families

Despite this challenge, Vocke believes that teachers can play to the strengths of these students and their families. "These folks are resilient; that's a requirement of the transient life. They are committed to hard work and strong family values."

She urges educators to go the extra mile to establish relations with families. The adults in these families want to be involved in their children's education, but most are working all the time. "You'll need to find a time that parents can come to family conferences. In schools at which I've worked we've held parental conferences on Saturday and even at 6 a.m."

What we've learned in recent years about cooperative learning can go a long way in making these children feel welcome.

NWP teachers who attend the Rural Sites Conference this spring will find that Vocke is a writing project compatriot. She is currently the ELL liaison to the Third Coast Writing Project and has directed mini-institutes at that site. She had her first writing project experience at the Toledo Writing Project summer institute in 1997, and in 2001 she was acting director of the Eastern Plains Writing Project.

At the RSN meeting Vocke will be assisted by a contributor to her book, Lynn Welsch. Welsch, from the Third Coast Writing Project, will also be a presenter.

"Lynn teaches in a classroom made up of 40 percent ELL students, many migrants. And she has found ways to use the multiple literacies of digital storytelling to bridge the communication gaps in her classroom," said Vocke.

Thinking ahead to the conference, Vocke expects that the issues the conference takes up will go beyond basic literacy.

"We need to concern ourselves with funding, legislative, and academic issues, with cultural and medical concerns. If we are to be successful in working with these students, our approach must be holistic. These young people need to approach stability in their lives if they are to take advantage of the resiliency which is so much a part of their culture."

Related Resource Topics

© 2023 National Writing Project