This study focuses on the education of students who have been adopted internationally and are now learning English in school. Teachers typically have little training for—or experience with—working with these learners. Largely an unstudied area, this dissertation aims to shed light on how teachers develop teaching practices for this population.
The present study takes as its theoretical framework a sociocultural perspective on second language acquisition (Lantolf 2000), a social semiotic approach to language (Halliday and Matthiessen 2004), and a critical discourse analysis perspective (Fairclough 1992). I specifically examine the literacy practices (Barton 2001, Gee 2008, Street 1995) of adopted Ethiopian students' teachers with attention to student identity, agency, and literacy development (Dyson 1993, Ibrahim 1999, Luke and Freebody 2000, New London Group 2000, Peirce 1995).
During an eight-month period of ethnographic fieldwork (Emihovich 1989) I researched how white, English-speaking teachers and other school staff in three Vermont schools discursively constructed their Ethiopian students. I endeavored to examine how faculty assumptions about students shaped classroom literacy practices, implicating student identity and learning (Harklau 2000, Hawkins 2005, McKay and Wong 1996, Norton 1997, Thesen 1997, Toohey 1998, Willett 1995).
Analysis reveals that teachers and other faculty drew on culturally dominant discourses about language, ethnicity, race, class, and health in developing understandings about their adopted students. While articulating the best of intentions toward their Ethiopian learners, teachers unknowingly took up assimilationist, colonialist, “model minority,” classist, and medicalized perspectives about their students that, in turn, informed their educational decision-making. In other words, faculty members positioned adopted Ethiopian learners in ways that constructed them as certain kinds of students (Gee 2008), and, based on those representations, teachers structured literacy activities that afforded them differential learning opportunities.
I discuss at length the implications of this study for public education and research. There is a need for teachers and other school professionals to assume perspectives on learning grounded in theories of power, identity, and a contextual understanding of language. Education reform that fosters professional collaboration within schools is necessary. Finally, future education research from sociocultural and critical perspectives focusing on internationally adopted students is warranted.