Khmer -American youth in an urban migrant education program: Discourses, literacies and possible selves

Theresa Ann McGinnis, University of Pennsylvania


This study traces the journey of a small group of Khmer-American middle school students as they navigate the complexities of urban American life and, simultaneously, draw on a variety of cultural resources (from urban American culture and from their own Khmer cultural inheritance) in constructing layered identities. Within the complex network of their daily lives, the students interact with literacies and discourses across three primary contexts: an urban migrant education program, public schools and home/community. Using the ethnographic approaches of the new literacy studies that examine language and literacy as aspects of and embedded within social practices, this research looks both at the day-to-day practices of the Khmer youth, and the social, cultural and ideological contexts in which these practices are embedded. I reveal how the literacy and discourse practices of these contexts serve in the construction of the youth's identities. The data analyzed in this study provides evidence of how the Khmer youth communicate and express ideas through a range of semiotic modes. Their multiple expressive practices reinforce the critical need of opening up narrow views of literacy in schools to include alternative modes of communication. In addition, I describe how certain standard U.S. ideologies of competition and individual achievement are circulated to the Khmer youth through the discourses of educational institutions. These sanctioned ideologies position the students as “at-risk” and negatively influence the students' sense of selves and possible selves. Overall, the discourse and literacy practices these youth encounter represent assimilationist ideals that disregard the culturally and socially situated nature of identity and literacy. In light of the experiences of the Khmer youth, I recommend the implementation of alternative, progressive pedagogies that include recognition of the Khmer youth's own forms of creative expression and elements of critical language awareness. I argue that the lived realities of the youth in this study require further investigation to insure that issues of knowledge, power and access to information are addressed.

Subject Area

Language arts|Bilingual education|Multicultural education

Recommended Citation

McGinnis, Theresa Ann, "Khmer -American youth in an urban migrant education program: Discourses, literacies and possible selves" (2002). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3052942.