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Education students to learn about Somali population through immersion program

RELEASED: May 10, 2010

Dr. Kate Reynolds Dr. Aram deKoven
Dr. Kate Reynolds Dr. Aram deKoven

EAU CLAIRE — A new intercultural immersion program will help education majors at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire better understand the challenges of urban immigrant life in the United States by immersing them in the Somali population in the Twin Cities.

A group of 15-20 future teachers will participate in the "Domestic Intercultural Immersion Community of Practice: Embracing the Somali Immigrant Experience in Midwestern Public Schools," which will be facilitated by Dr. Kate Mastruserio Reynolds, associate professor of foreign languages and coordinator of the Teaching English as a Second Language program, and Dr. Aram deKoven, assistant professor of education studies.

"In order for these students to understand the intersection of diversity and immigrant experiences, we will immerse them in a rich and unique new immigrant community in the Midwest — the Somalis of Minneapolis and St. Paul," Reynolds said. "We will give them a jumpstart in understanding the Somali culture and immigrant experiences so they can serve as a cultural bridge and ease transitions for Somali learners in their K‐12 public classrooms."

The Somali population is distinctive because they embody the real-life complexities of diversity, deKoven said. The Somalis are black immigrants who live in two languages and are learning English as a second language in the public schools, he said. They also are Muslim, making them a religious minority in the United States, he said, noting that their religion influences their daily life interactions and customs, such as how genders interact in the classroom and how they dress. Many Somali children are homeless and live in shelters, so the socioeconomic issues also are profound, he said.

"Increasingly, Somali immigrants are migrating into Wisconsin communities such as Barron, but teachers and the communities know so little about their culture, traditions, language and lifestyles that they are greatly challenged to include Somalis productively into school life or the community," Reynolds said.

While several Somali families live in Eau Claire, there is little recognition of the population in the community or at UW-Eau Claire, Reynolds said. As a result, the students participating in the immersion program will have no prior course work or interaction with the population, as they might with the Hmong or Hispanic populations in the area, she said.

"Even though our students have some exposure to some minority language groups, the Eau Claire Area School District and the other area schools are considered low-incidence in the number of non-native speakers in the schools," deKoven said. "For example, the Hmong in the ECASD represent only 13 percent of the population. We'll visit a school with a large population of immigrants and non-native speakers of English because it's typical of urban ESL settings and because it is so different from our students' perspectives of non-native speakers."

In the Minneapolis School District, non‐native English speakers, of which Somalis are the largest population, represent 54 percent of the district population. The number of Somalis in designated "Somali sites" — schools with additional resources geared toward the needs of the Somali populations — is considerably larger.

"When we talk about the realities of urban, high-incidence settings like in Milwaukee or Minneapolis, our pre-service teachers do not truly understand the complex dynamics and interpersonal and instructional tools they will need to thrive and assist learners in these environments," Reynolds said. "This program will bridge these gaps."

Participants will gather information about Somali culture, traditions and religion from presentations, readings and observation, Reynolds said, noting that the immersion experience will include a home stay with a Somali family.

"We want our students to become aware of how learners' race, background, knowledge, experiences, culture, religion and gender impact school environments," Reynolds said. "We want them to understand the complexities of urban immigrants' lives and to discover first hand the challenges and joys of first-generation immigrants to the United States."

The intercultural immersion program will be conducted in January 2011 in conjunction with a teaching assistant class or the TESOL practicum. The four-week program will include three weeks of meetings with faculty to learn about the culture. Students will spend five days in the Twin Cities observing the instruction of non-native English speakers in high-incidence school classrooms, partnering with a Somali student and staying with a Somali host family. The students also will visit Somali art and cultural exhibits as well as Somali businesses and restaurants, and they'll hear lectures, participate in discussions and read about a variety of topics that relate to Somali history and experiences in the United States. When they return to campus, they will meet with faculty to discuss their experiences and will complete a paper about their experiences.

Reynolds and deKoven said the immersion project will help future teachers better prepare for the challenges of including all immigrant groups in their classrooms.

"We want them to develop a sense of equity in public education for non-native English speakers and a willingness to advocate on behalf of non-native English speakers and their needs," deKoven said. "They will develop an understanding of the privileges of white, middle class Americans who are not immigrants."

The "Somali Intercultural Immersion Experience" was selected for funding through UW-Eau Claire's Domestic Intercultural Immersion Project Development Differential Tuition grant in the amount of about $8,000.

For more information, contact Dr. Kate Mastruserio Reynolds at 715-836-4067 or reynolkm@uwec.edu, or Dr. Aram deKoven at 715-836-2304 or dekovea@uwec.edu.

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JB/DW

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