Occasional Paper Series #39

Experiential Knowledge and Project-Based Learning in Bilingual Classrooms

Adriana Alvarez

Culturally and linguistically diverse children deserve sophisticated and dynamic biliterate learning opportunities that integrate the children’s life experiences and keen intellects. Dynamic learning in early childhood classrooms, including progressivist pedagogical approaches like project-based learning, has been shown to facilitate academic achievement as well as high-level learning capabilities including critical thinking, agency, problem solving, and negotiation (Adair, 2014; Bell, 2010; Hyson, 2008; Katz & Chard, 2000). Too often, culturally and linguistically diverse children are offered learning opportunities that fall short of helping students achieve their potential or of validating their life experiences (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005; Nieto & Bode, 2008; Valenzuela, 1999). Instead these children receive reductionist instruction characterized by limited, dull activities such as drills, isolated tasks, repetition, and memorization of material (Banks, 1991; Delpit, 1995; Gay, 2010).

Culturally and linguistically diverse children not only receive low-quality instruction; in addition, integral aspects of their lives such as language, culture, and home experiences are often regarded as lacking and needing to be “fixed” (Garcia & Guerra, 2004; González et al., 2005; Valencia, 1997). These deficit orientations infiltrate and taint curriculum and instruction, harming and suppressing students’ identities and learning opportunities (Delpit, 1995; Nieto & Bode, 2008; Valencia, 1997; Valencia & Black, 2002; Valenzuela, 1999). Most problematic is that these deficit orientations can be internalized by students, creating a harmful cycle, especially when it is the children’s own teachers who have lowered expectations for them because of the students’ cultural, familial, or linguistic differences (Delpit, 1995; Kohli & Solórzano, 2012; McCollum, 1999; Romero, Arce, & Cammarota, 2009). Under these circumstances, it is more difficult for teachers to learn about students’ lives outside school and about their families.

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About the Author

Adriana AlvarezDr. Adriana Alvarez is Assistant Professor in Bilingual/Bicultural Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests center on biliteracy development and pedagogy with a focus on social justice, strength-based approaches, and family engagement. She received her PhD in Educational Equity and Cultural Diversity from the University of Colorado Boulder. She was a K-2 bilingual teacher for eleven years in the border community of El Paso, Texas.