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W&M education, sociology professors unite to study English language learners

  • Jennifer Bickham Mendez and Katherine Barko-Alva
    Interdisciplinary collaboration:  Intersecting in their areas of teaching and research, Sociology Professor Jennifer Bickham Mendez (left) and Katherine Barko-Alva, assistant professor of English as a second language/bilingual education, continue to find ways to work together and help each other across disciplines.  Photo by Jennifer L. Williams
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Intersecting in their areas of teaching and research, two William & Mary professors continue to find ways to work together and help each other across disciplines.

Sociology Professor Jennifer Bickham Mendez and Katherine Barko-Alva, assistant professor of English as a second language/bilingual education, connected soon after Barko-Alva came to W&M four years ago.

Currently, they are analyzing data for a joint research project. Bickham Mendez had been paying attention to English learners in K-12 settings as an offshoot of her research on the immigration of Latin Americans to Williamsburg, and with Barko-Alva’s expertise, they were able to launch programs to support students and parents while laying the groundwork for collecting data.

“Katherine brings all this wealth of knowledge from the education point of view,” Bickham Mendez said. “So it was like a match made in heaven. All the things I don’t know, she knows.”

Barko-Alva quickly counters.

“And the things that I am not familiar with, Jennifer has them,” she said.

They are studying how English learners in a high school develop a sense of belonging and how they can be supported better as they transition to a new context.

In this case, students were from Central America and Mexico who had come to the U.S. one to two years earlier and at the time were ages 15 to 19. The data includes classroom observations in ESL high school classrooms, informal interviews with teachers and semi-structured interviews with 10 high school students.

Research questions included asking how English language acquisition fits into students’ strategies for making social connections at school, and how does ESL instruction in which English learners take a separate class from their native English-speaking counterparts influence students’ efforts to make social connections that help produce belonging.

“Among our preliminary findings what we have found, at least for our English learners who are coming from another setting into a new learning environment, is the importance of community and family,” Barko-Alva said. “And we’re trying to tease out how those two constructs can be embedded to help them understand how schooling in the U.S. works, how they can be successful.”

Bickham Mendez and Barko-Alva will present their research at the annual meetings of the Latin American Studies Association later this year in Guadalajara, Mexico. Their plan is then to submit the paper for publication.

This project is just a part of what the two have worked on together, as they have frequently shared students in their different classes and have formed a strong mentoring relationship, according to Barko-Alva.

“Having a female researcher, full professor, who has gone through the academic and professional process of establishing a research agenda,” Barko-Alva said. “Someone who is bilingual, invested in our community, and who is also selfless, kind and willing to take on and collaborate with someone who is new to area and was in the process of learning to navigate William & Mary, to me, has been a blessing. It’s been such a wonderful learning and collaborative experience.”

Bickham Mendez said Barko-Alva’s contributions to the project have been absolutely invaluable because, for example, she had never done research in a school setting, so learning the nuances of working in K-12 ESL contexts was key to their collaboration.

“I have learned so much from Katherine,” Bickham Mendez said. “This is truly where teaching and research come together in so many different ways because we share both teaching and research interests. So really there were so many different ways that we could collaborate. Katherine will be in my class in a few weeks as a guest speaker.”

Two programs in local schools are part of the work. Bickham Mendez teaches a course where her W&M students provide weekly tutoring and mentoring for students at James Blair Middle School. A number of Barko-Alva’s ESL education students are in the class and will work with emergent bilingual learners there.

Barko-Alva went to middle and high school events to support Spanish speakers and started a bilingual family academy that will meet regularly in the evenings in collaboration with the local English for Speakers of Other Languages and world languages K-12 department. The first one took place last year and featured approximately 60 participants.

“I approach community partnerships, and I know Katherine does too, with what can we do?” Bickham Mendez said. “What can we as educators, researchers, concerned community members do? And then the research comes later. The research grows out of that.”

Diego Rodriguez Cabrera ’19, who was an ESL student himself in K-12, took classes with both faculty members and worked in the school community program.

“As a student, it is rare to find meaningful and tangible experiences when attempting to apply theory to real-world situations,” Rodriguez Cabrera said. “However, when a student can find such experiences, it is truly transformative.

“I believe this class was crucial for my decision to continue in the fight for a fair and just educational system. It provided me with tangible experience and scholarship that I will continue to investigate so I can truly make an impact in education.”

Barko-Alva, who was an English language learner after emigrating with her family from Peru, communicates tremendous passion for supporting and learning from K-12 students and their families as they make their transition to the U.S. school system. She also involves her W&M students in school setting experiences so that they can learn from them.

“You need trust,” Barko-Alva said. “You need to build trust with the community — a learning dialogue and relationship. Because you can’t expect to go inside a classroom and say: I’m a researcher, let me collect data, and then leave the classroom. This mutual and ongoing relationship needs to be authentic, collaborative and didactic.”