Refugee education: Improving opportunities through research partnership

June 21, 2017

When education researcher Carrie Symons joined the faculty at Michigan State University, she knew she wanted to increase activism in her work. So it didn’t take long before she reached out to the Refugee Development Center (RDC) in Lansing.

Leaders of the center—which provides services to nearly 2,400 refugees a year—share her mission: to improve literacy and language development for young people learning English.

Symons started volunteering there, offering some of her expertise for teaching emergent bilinguals and learning about the community’s needs. She and her husband later hosted a fundraiser for the RDC at their home. And then Symons received a grant from the American Educational Research Association (AERA) to fund the center’s first outside evaluation of its youth education programs.

Symons and her team spent a few weeks during summer 2017 immersed in observing the RDC’s summer school program for 70 of Lansing’s young immigrants.

“We know that schools alone can’t be responsible for their success,” said Symons, noting that nearly 600 refugees are resettled in the city each year. “We want to know what students are learning about the world and the community through this program.

“We also want to create the foundation for a long-term partnership that ties research with practice.”

GLOBE Camp & global changes

The summer school, or Gaining Learning Opportunities through Better English (GLOBE) Camp, has been offered for over 10 years. Middle and high school students experience classroom lessons and field trips with a focus on growing English skills while sustaining their own literacies and cultures. They also learn about peer relationships and the local culture.

“When you’re in the middle of developing a program, you don’t always have time to step back and see how you’re doing,” said RDC Director Erika Brown-Binion. “Based on knowledge about curriculum development and program design, the MSU researchers can take a fresh look at what we are doing really well and where there might be some areas for improvement.”

AERA funded the partnership as an Education Research Service Project, which encourages researchers to offer their expertise on a pro bono basis to organizations in areas where research can matter.

Christina Ponzio, a doctoral student in the Curriculum, Instruction and Teacher Education (CITE) program, is working with Symons. They produced an asset inventory report, with findings that can inform curriculum and instruction.

Carrie Symons works with immigrant and refugee youth in Lansing.

In addition to the research, the MSU team voluntarily taught an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class for the camp participants.

A Toolkit for Teaching

As an expansion of the partnership, Symons is now leading new research intended to create a Teaching Toolkit for the RDC staff. This project will help the center facilitate language development across all its programs, not only the summer camp.

Symons is partnering with MSU faculty colleague Peter De Costa of the College of Arts and Letters to conduct the research and provide professional development sessions. They have funding through the MSU Diversity Research Network Launch Awards Program.

“Change happens person by person,” said Symons, who hopes to expand, not limit, opportunities for refugees and immigrants in the United States. “I don’t want to look over my shoulder and wish I would have done something more.”

Reading lab and beyond

The collaboration continued in summer 2018 when Symons facilitated an eight-day Reading Lab with 60 youth from the RDC. While Symons taught morning reading classes, she was observed by a group of K-12 educators, colleagues and doctoral students. Then the group spent each afternoon exploring how to enact linguistically responsive instruction in their own classrooms.

She continues to study how teachers learn to best serve emergent bilinguals.

In fall 2018, her work resulted in an invitation to participate in an international course on the topic of migrants and refugees. Symons was one of 25 scholars—and the only assistant professor—from around the world at the Thirteenth International Summer School on Mind, Brain and Education from Oct. 16-20 in Erice, Italy.

Her presentation made the argument that research-practice partnerships and the laboratory approach to learning how to teach immigrant-origin youth, as implemented in her recent Reading Lab, can disrupt deficit perspectives, humanize teaching and learning, and help cultivate teaching practices that improve reading comprehension and language development for youth immigrants.

Campus connections

During summer 2017, the College of Education’s Office of International Studies in Education hosted a major conference focused on addressing inequalities in the context of growing mobility and dislocation for populations around the world.

The MSU Residential College in the Arts and Humanities also partners regularly with the Refugee Development Center, and hosted an on-campus portion of the GLOBE Camp for the first time in 2017.

Learn more about what drives Symons to work with immigrant youth in this Faculty Voice on MSU Today