Shifting metaphors: Of war and reimagination in the bilingual classroom

Melisa Shawne Cahnmann, University of Pennsylvania


This critical ethnographic study is about how bilingual students, their teachers, and other authority figures use language to either exacerbate or make productive use of existing tensions between official discourses of assimilation and unofficial discourses of pluralism and resistance in and around the bilingual classroom. While much has been written about bilingual education, few ethnographic studies look across micro- and macro-level contexts to understand how bilingual youth and adults co-construct war-like antagonism and/or moments of reimagination where full biliterate, bicultural, and critical development is made possible. As a ‘critical’ study, I examine the relationship between social structural constraints on the bilingual educator and her students in a class stratified society and opportunities for individual and collective agency to resist and transform these constraints, developing potential for critical biliteracy. Critical biliteracy refers to the degree bilingual students and teachers address the relationship between language, identity and power. The primary research question that guided this study was “What is involved in order for bilingual students and their teachers to challenge traditional distributions and access to the language(s) of power?” Of special interest has been the potential impact literacy education in two languages could have in low-income, urban settings where the majority of Latino youth (Puerto Rican youth in particular) and their families have tended to live. Through participant observation, document analysis, interviews, and a poetic approach to inquiry, I identified multiple dimensions of student and teacher resistance to exclusionary, official discourses and insistence upon student voice. I found both adults and youth framed discussions of language use and value in terms of conflict over identity, role and responsibility. I found reimagination occurred when perceptions of roles were fluid and responsibility for communication control was shared. These chapters analyze classroom discourse within the continua of biliteracy framework (Hornberger & Skilton-Sylvester, 2000) and suggest educators, policy makers, and researchers alike think outside the dualistic frame of failure and success to understand the struggle involved in bilingual education contexts. My hope is that this study will shed light on the challenges involved for the bilingual teacher and her students to co-create biliterate spaces of learning.

Subject Area

Bilingual education|Multicultural education|Linguistics|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Cahnmann, Melisa Shawne, "Shifting metaphors: Of war and reimagination in the bilingual classroom" (2001). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3031647.