Iraqi Refugee English Learners in the United States: A Multiple Case Study

Karam, Fares, Education - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Kibler, Amanda, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Deutsch, Nancy, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Brighton, Catherine, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Trent, Stanley, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

Framed within sociocultural perspectives of language learning, identity, and literacy, this dissertation aims at better understanding the school experiences of four adolescent Iraqi refugee English learners in the United States. As more waves of school-aged refugee children with little or interrupted schooling arrive into Western English speaking countries, there is a need for new ways to respond to these students’ needs and help them develop the educational and social skills that they need to adapt to their new environments. Within the United States context, we know little about refugee students’ school experiences. This study addresses this gap by asking the following two research questions: 1) How do four adolescent Iraqi refugee English learners negotiate social school contexts?, and 2) How do four adolescent Iraqi refugee English learners negotiate academic school contexts?
Data collection occurred between the months of October and December of 2015 and included video recorded classroom observations, student and teacher interviews, and student artifacts of their work both at school and outside school. This study adopted a qualitative design with an ethnographic perspective to answer the research questions. A hybrid inductive-deductive thematic analysis-based strategy was adopted to analyze the data using qualitative data analysis software. Member checking, triangulation, engagement in the field, and reflexivity were measures that were adopted to increase trustworthiness.
Findings suggest that participants in this study negotiate academic and social contexts of school through using language in creative and agentive ways. For example, participants use writing, verbal resistance, silence, and multimodal and multilingual out-of-school literacy practices to negotiate discriminatory practices and limited peer social networks in social school contexts. They also resist or negotiate engagement in school-based literacy practices, using language to make connections to out-of-school literacy practices that they are invested in. In negotiating academic and social contexts of school, and through using language in an agentive manner, participants construct their identities as multilingual and multi-literate adolescents that can navigate life in real and online contexts. The four participants in this study negate the stereotypical image of the helpless refugee and highlight the importance of language and student agency as tools to adapt and succeed at educational and social resettlement.
Those findings have theoretical and pedagogical implications. On a theoretical level, negotiated engagement has emerged as an agentive and respectful approach to encourage student engagement in school-based literacies. This approach can be practically applied on a pedagogic level through a contextual approach that includes extending invitations for the students to learn, respecting the possibilities that are available for them to enact various identities and forms of knowledge, investing in learning with, about, and from them, ensuring their right to speak, and planning flexible and inclusive learning opportunities. Refugee specific implications include problematizing the issue of silence in the classroom and framing it as response to trauma and resistance, challenging commonly held beliefs about culturally relevant approaches (e.g., who decides what is relevant?), and addressing discriminatory practices against refugee students.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Refugees, Arab, English Learners, Negotiated Engagement, Adolescents
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