National Writing Project

Book Review: Immigrant Students and Literacy: Reading, Writing, and Remembering

By: Stephanie Paterson
Date: June 7, 2010

Summary: Stephanie Paterson, co-director of the Great Valley Writing Project, which is in the same Central California region where Gerald Campano taught and did his research, finds his book an inspiration in the ways it links inquiry, pedagogy, and social justice issues.


"What happens when I invite children from immigrant and refugee families to generate literacy practices from their own experiences?"

—Gerald Campano

I live and teach in the Central Valley of California where Gerald Campano's book, Immigrant Students and Literacy: Reading, Writing, and Remembering is set, and for the past nine years I have worked at California State University, Stanislaus, a largely Hispanic-serving institution. A great number of my students are first-generation college students, so I consider it my good fortune to have stumbled upon this text.

In the style of educational theorist Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary and anthropologist Ruth Behar's The Vulnerable Observer , Campano blends genres. His book is part memoir, part ethnography, and part educational treatise on the subject of immigrant students and literacy.

Like Rose he is critical of the dominant "deficit ideology" that marks so many English language learners, and like Behar, whom he cites, he is not afraid to speak autobiographically about his own educational experiences.

"Growing up, I lacked the institutional support to explore the Filipino side of my identity," Campano writes. "To be 'academic' and to be 'ethnic' seemed mutually exclusive endeavors."

Campano assembles a rich panoply of student voices, writing and artwork, verbal snapshots, and personal memoir. He offers a range of theoretical perspectives brought to life by the skillful way he juxtaposes cultural theory with vignettes of classroom life.

The book has a three-part structure. Part I "looks inward" as Campano examines his own identity, Part II includes case study vignettes of individual students, and in Part III, Campano discusses how his research has shaped his professional self-understanding. Campano offers that "[p]erhaps more than anything else, the book may be a meditation on the significance of relationships."

Finding Hope in 'Savage Inequalities'

The book opens with a close reading of a mural depicting "five ethnic quilts" (Chinese, African American, Filipino, Hmong, and Mexican) that was created by students, teachers, and parents from a midsize city in the Central Valley. Central to the mural is an American flag and the caption "We the People United in Diversity."

Campano believes, however, that the upbeat message of the mural masks a disparity between its image and the actual opportunities that exist for children in this school and schools like it.

He offers a teacher-researcher's look at what Jonathan Kozol has called the "savage inequalities" of schools in lower socioeconomic urban areas (read NWP's book review of Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools). At his school 95 percent of the students receive free lunch; many of their parents work two low-wage jobs. The children are often "latch key kids" with the burden of many family responsibilities. In these and other ways, Campano says, the conditions at this school resemble those of many urban schools and neighborhoods.

He presents a record of the lives of his former fifth grade students who, emblematic of so many others, too often remain invisible and too often slip through the educational cracks.

But this book is no downer. Campano offers hope and the possibility of real change brought about from a pedagogy that enables teachers "to build on the rich experiences and legacies students bring to school."

He presents a record of the lives of students who. . . too often slip through the educational cracks.

"Our social identities, we are coming to learn, may always be in the act of becoming more fluid and composed through the ever-evolving affiliations of our lives," he writes.

Commenting again on the mural, he writes, "The apparently fixed categories on the mural downplay . . . the possibilities for intercultural cooperation and transformation especially in a school where the students speak more than 14 languages, claim multifaceted identities, share a vibrant youth culture, and inherit rich literary and activist tradition."

The core of Campano's text is an examination of the lives, learning experiences, and writings of some individual students.

One, Celso, like Campano a Filipino, writes of his deceased father's "secret box" with its family artifacts. Campano sees this writing experience as beginning a process of recovery and creation that may help the boy, as a young Filipino "trying to negotiate the educational system and cope with life more generally."

Ma-Lee, a Hmong student with ambivalent feelings about living in Hmong America, joined with others in an informal multicultural discussion group that Campano organized. Later, in an essay in which she provides her classmates with a description of day-to-day Hmong culture, she also writes "I don't want people to make fun of me and my culture. I know everyone wants to live in freedom. If someday my dreams come true the world that I live in will be radiant and never be dim with prejudice. This is what I believe in my heart."

Campano makes abstract educational issues concrete. In this way, he works as an educational topographer, mapping the landscape and widening the lens for viewers by offering critical reading of his students' tales, illustrating how the personal is always already political.

"Giving Students a Voice"

Campano's book reminds me of an article by Laura Nichols entitled Giving Students a Voice: Learning Through Autobiography" (PDF) . Nichols describes a course she teaches in "Social Stratification." In her class, students write journal entries exploring the connections between course concepts and their life experiences.

"[First generation] students understand that race, class and gender intersect in complex ways to affect people's lives. They describe being squeezed between working class and middle/upper class values and expectations . . . . Both insiders and outsiders, pushed and pulled, they provide insight into the assumptions and purposes of higher education by talking about what it is like on the margins" (Nichols 37).

Campano also sees the potential of the classroom as a place where his students are able to understand and navigate "lives on the margin." But he goes a step further. He writes: "The promise of the classroom may be to provide a respite for children to allow them to gain insight into their experience, and to allow opportunities for creating meaning out of potentially numbing contingencies."

Modeling the Power of Inquiry

For the past seven years I have co-directed the Great Valley Writing Project and have facilitated teacher inquiry groups, pursuing answers to questions that stem from classroom teaching. For our teacher-consultants, this is the perfect book because Campano describes a population we're intimately familiar with, and he beautifully models the power of inquiry.

The Great Valley Writing Project has focused attention on how we can better meet the needs of the large English language learner population in our area. I hope to see this book featured in our next English language leaner book study.

I think all teachers, however, would benefit from reading this book. This term I've ordered the book for a graduate seminar in ethnographic methods of teacher research because of the way Campano models rich ways of reading. Depending on the circumstances, he'll make use of young adult fiction, canonical works like Little Women, folk tales and myth, passages from ethnically based authors, the poems of Shakespeare, song lyrics, and community dichos.

He says there is "an improvisational component to teacher inquiry where we have background knowledge and a plan, but we must also respond creatively and thoughtfully to the contingencies of the classroom."

Like Campano, I "hope this book contributes to a relational (re)turn in educational research, policy, and practice." Like Rose, I hope in reading this book teachers will be reminded that the work we do has a powerful public and political dimension and that educators may become provoked to write letters to the editor and op-ed pieces and to go public with important educational issues.

Campano's book is crucial right now when narrow approaches to teaching through mandated scripted programs dominate in so many districts. Campano writes, "As the limitations of 'scientifically-based' teaching practices and one-size-fits-all curriculum are becoming exposed, there has been renewed interest in the importance of learning communities in diverse contexts."

The stories Campano tells of his students' diverse lives and learning styles provide a powerful rebuttal to the notion that all students should be taught in the same way.

Campano reminds me why I entered this profession. He gives me a name for the kind of teaching I strive for—he calls it a pedagogy of improvisation that works "toward more just social and educational arrangements by affirming the very experiences that brought us to inquiry in the first place, those of our students."

About the Author Stephanie Paterson is the co-director of the Great Valley Writing Project and associate professor of English at California State University, Stanislaus.

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