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Lisa Patel speaks for the ‘Youth Held at the Border’

By Kaila Braley

At about 7:30 one morning in 2006 there was an immigration raid at the Michael Bianco Inc. textile factory in New Bedford, Mass., causing about 250 Central American women to be arrested and detained.

Before the women were sent to detention centers in Texas and Arizona, they and their families were detained in the basement of a Catholic church until they would be flown, within 36 hours of the raid, to the centers.

In that basement, there were the women from the factory, young children and elderly people. But there were just about no kids between 13 and 20. Where did these children go?

That’s what Lisa Patel, author of “Youth Held at the Border” and professor at the Lynch School of Education, came to FSU to talk about. According to Patel, it is the responsibility of educators to understand what is happening in the lives of their students in order to make sure they don’t just vanish.

She began her March 6 presentation to an audience of mostly education students, by saying, “Education reproduces inequality more than it does anything else.”

Patel went on to explain that because the educational system values the English language as a “code” that indicates intelligence, English as a Second Language students become discouraged and marginalized.

For example, Patel spoke about how students who haven’t even learned English well enough to read the MCAS are expected to take the test anyway. These students have to learn the English language as well as the content, and need to be understood by their teachers in order to succeed, she said.

These students often begin “studenting” rather than learning, she said, meaning they only write what the teacher wants them to say, or remember only what will be on the test, but don’t actually learn the material.

Even the language of talking about race and migrant families is damaging, according to Patel. “Who we call ‘illegal’ really varies.” She mentioned how Martha Stewart was arrested and went to jail, but we don’t call her “wholesale illegal, but when we talk about immigrants who are here who don’t have documentation status, that’s when we call them ‘illegal.’ ... That whole entire person is ‘illegal.’”

Patel said there is “insufficient vocabulary to figure out race,” so sometimes “it’s hard to talk about. But at the same time, ... when we look at who’s in what reading groups, who’s in prisons, who’s in detention centers, we see the racial disparity in the nation, so we got to think about ways to talk about this.”

She then asked the group, “So how can we do better?”

She said that it is up to future educators to fight the way the educational system reproduces inequality. “Teaching fundamentally is relational,” she said. “We need to understand the lives of young people.”

Patel said we have to stop talking about closing the achievement gap, because we should have different goals than trying to get “everyone to act like the person in the middle when there’s not really a person there.”

Instead, educators should start addressing the opportunity debt, avoid using the dominant culture’s definition of intelligence and broaden that definition to include the ways other cultures define it.

When Patel provided the answers she had received from her immigrant students on the question of who is smartest person they know, many of them picked people in their lives who exhibited social or empathetic intelligence, such as one girl who, Patel said, named her dad as the most intelligent person she knew, because he “knew how to make everyone feel special.”

She encouraged the future teachers in the room to ask questions like that of their students so they can understand where their students come from, rather than “automatically knowing what they should be learning based on what you learned in school, because usually that doesn’t encompass all that they need it to.”

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