#seniorseminar: Alexandra Palmeri & “Bilingual Education and How it Impacted Latinx Identity in an English Dominant Society, 1964-2015”

Wed, 01/31/24
Alexandra Palmeri

From a young age, I have been interested in history. There is so much to learn about the world and people. But before coming to FSU, I did not consider history as a minor, much less a major. I was part of a Freshman Interest Group for Pre-Law students which enrolled me in a history course with Dr. Robbins. I have had great history teachers growing up, but this was the first time that I learned how dynamic history truly was. It is not simply about isolated events happening throughout time, but rather how those events are linked.

Since I needed a minor or second major to complete my Criminology degree, in my mind, History was the only logical choice. By the end of the fall semester of my second year, I added History as my second major. I was so excited as I left the advising appointment, I called almost everyone I knew. I graduated with both majors and a certificate in May 2023. My plan right now is to take a gap year and apply to law schools up north, where I have family. I have always wanted to pursue criminal law. I realize that as I go through law school, this focus may change, and I am open to exploring what law school has to offer.

Why did you choose this specific senior seminar class?

I took a Central American, Mexican, and Caribbean history class with Professor Herrera the semester prior to my senior seminar with him. Although I am Latina, I was never taught the history of Latin American regions without focusing on their links to the U.S. There was so much I was missing out on and did not even know it. When the professor mentioned his Latinx History seminar course, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to explore a part of my identity in a way I had not before. The other factor that made me choose this class was knowing the professor and his teaching style. Since taking a senior seminar is required to complete the History major, I felt that choosing a topic I was genuinely interested in would allow me to succeed.

What is your project about?

The title of my project is “Bilingual Education and How it Impacts Latinx Identity in an English Dominant Society.” I focused on the educational policies impacting bilingual students from the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the passing of Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. The project focused on how Spanish and English bilingualism is fundamentally linked to a child’s sense of their Latinx identity. This is especially important when considering that the child is in a predominantly English-speaking community, making it difficult to reinforce their Spanish-speaking culture outside of the home. I focused on Florida because of the large and growing Latinx population.

I use the term Latinx to refer to the community of those who identify as Latina, Latino, Latinx, and/or Hispanic to prevent the erasure of those who do not conform to the traditional Latina/o identification. Although putting all of these different cultures into one group may seem to erase the individual complexities of each subculture, those within the community have built it into a collective identity, celebrating differences and embracing similarities, the most prominent being language. It is thus necessary to examine the use of language to investigate cultural identity. The struggles with cultural identification that bilingual children face is emphasized by the separation of language education in the U.S.

How did you decide on your senior thesis topic?

When I started school in Florida, it became clear that there was a culture clash between my Spanish-speaking identity and the English-speaking that was being reinforced in school. Once I got older, I didn't really speak Spanish as much as I did when I was younger and lived in a Spanish-speaking country. I felt like a part of my Latina identity was withering away. I felt that my fluency in Spanish was a key to accessing a whole half of my identity which was not getting reinforced outside of my home.

Discussing the assigned readings in the senior seminar reminded me of this, and I wanted to know why this happens. Although my initial topic idea was quite rough, I spent some time doing research and discussing my ideas in class and during office hours. That helped me outline my final project: the history of bilingual education in the U.S., and how it impacts Latinx identity in a society geared towards English speakers.

How easy was it to get started with the project?

At first, starting the project was not easy. I started out with a few key concepts which I wanted to investigate to explore their correlation to each other: the Spanish language, Latinx identity, and how an English-dominant society affects them. It was through weekly discussions in the course with my professor and peers that it became clear how I needed to orient myself to take a more historical approach to the research. ESOL Programs and students learning English in the U.S. became recurring themes which prompted me to take a closer look at the country’s bilingual education history. My initial research findings combined with the course materials on Latinx identity and Spanish interacting with English helped me see where I was heading in the research process.

What sources are you using for your project and why?

I used a variety of primary sources, including newspaper articles, art by Latinx artists, and state and federal government records. The newspaper articles gave me an insight into public sentiment towards the growing Latinx community at the time, important for establishing how the English dominant community interacted with the Latinx community. The articles were gathered from different regions in Florida through the Newspaper Research Guide provided by the library. Visual art by Latinx artists, including paintings, a game, and a performance, offered insight into the complexities of individual cultural identification and the notions of their societal context. This was important when establishing how an individual in the Spanish-speaking community viewed themselves in a society which was built around the English language.

To find these sources, I was steered towards El Museo del Barrio’s online archive and from there found different artists. State and federal government records helped establish the history of bilingual education in the U.S., and how it responded to the waves of students from other countries joining the school system. This established how the American school system caters to English speakers over speakers of other languages by having their education separated until a level of English proficiency is met. These documents were found looking into the Congressional Archives and Florida Legislative Archives.

My secondary sources consisted mainly of scholarly articles and dissertations. These helped to establish the work done in the field, investigating the relationship between English Language Learners in the American school system and how they viewed their experience. The sources also introduced several theoretical lenses including pedagogical approaches to language acquisition and the complexity of Latinx identity, which were used to explore the depth of my primary sources. As my research topic became more refined, my professor was able to suggest further relevant texts.

What was the biggest surprise you uncovered while you were doing research?

Aside from the fact that I was genuinely enjoying myself when I found a key piece of information, the biggest surprise I uncovered was the sheer number of educational policies in the U.S. These policies subtly influence a student’s experience. This highlighted the importance of education and the role which the classroom and school environments play in the lives of students. Since educational policymaking is left mainly to the state and local governments, the national government intervening in education shows how the nation responds to a changing cultural context. Even without the federal government overseeing education, the acts were passed to ensure equitable access for all different kinds of students, even across language barriers. This shows how important education is when it comes to creating a society which embraces and promotes diversity, welcoming participation from students who would otherwise feel segregated because of the language barrier they must overcome daily. While doing my research, it became clear how important it is to cultivate a school environment in which students feel that their experiences are being used to help them learn for allowing them to determine who they are in society based on the complexities of their identities.

How did you stay on top of things?

I spent a lot of time thinking about my project, discussing it every chance I got. However, once the submission deadlines started getting closer, I knew I needed to rethink my time management. I divided the tasks I needed to do for my project, and that helped me prioritize. Some days I would knock out a couple of the bigger tasks, but other days I would do a few of the smaller and easier ones. However, it was important to put some work into the project every day. It was important to me not to overwork myself, because I wanted to submit a well-rounded project and not just a paper.

How hard was it writing such a long paper?

It was difficult writing such a long paper. As a History major, I have written many papers, but none were as long as this one. The other papers were also research based, but the contribution to literature was not a key component. In a way, all those smaller papers were preparing me for the big one.

A writing strategy that has always helped me is to write out my thesis and then the main points I needed to make and the evidence supporting them. However, for this paper, it was a bit more complicated. There were several sections, like the literature review, I needed to include which I had not done before. The separation of the sections helped break up the work, the challenge was that each called for a new line of thinking and writing.

The best advice I got for writing the paper was to just start. At that point, I had completed most of the research, the topic was familiar, so now it was time to get comfortable and start typing. At first it was rocky, but once I started writing down what I thought should go in each section, the more coherent ideas started to snowball into what became my first draft - after some editing.

Was giving the presentation a challenge?

It was a nerve-wracking experience. Although I was comfortable with everyone in the class in a casual discussion-based setting, public speaking is not a strong suit of mine. I wrote out my speech in order to hit every major point I wanted to mention and to keep myself on topic. In the end, there was nothing to it, I was just presenting my work to the class, answering clarifying questions, and listening to feedback. Presenting gave me the confidence that my writing for the final draft was going in the right direction and just needed some reorganizing and elaboration on certain details. Getting additional feedback from both my professor and peers allowed me to strengthen my work. By this time, I was working on my final draft and the comments brought up points which I needed to address in my writing to create a more complete project.

Overall, would you say the process of completing your project was more fun or stressful? Looking back at it, it was definitely fun to go through the process of researching a topic I had chosen for myself. Getting the answers to a question and then pursuing more questions based on that first finding and incorporating all the information into one project was compelling. However, at times the process was quite stressful. Working on such a large project incrementally and mostly outside of class based on big deadlines made it easy to fall into a pattern of putting off a small task until it became clear that I needed to move into a higher gear. A contributing factor to the stress was needing to keep up with the other courses I was taking, working part time, and studying for the LSAT.

During the stressful moments, I would make a list of everything I needed to get done, and then prioritize the tasks. That allowed me to take things one at a time, setting up breaks in between tasks or after a certain amount of time if a single task was more time-consuming. Taking those breaks broke up the tasks so that I would not feel too overwhelmed and dividing them into more manageable pieces allowed me to see the progress I was making.

What advice would you give to students who are about to take their senior seminar?

Time management is imperative. The sooner you work out a schedule that fits with your course goals and responsibilities outside of the class, the better it will be. Although this one project takes up a whole semester, it is not as much time as you might think to turn out such an intensely researched work. Picking a topic which genuinely interests you helps make the process engaging and at times fun. When you uncover pieces of information that just fall into place with other pieces of information, you start to see what you are contributing to the literature, and it is exciting. However, it is time consuming. Do not get stuck on one task, go to office hours, ask your questions, and get the clarifications you need.

When you go to sit down and start writing your first draft, just start typing. It is intimidating to start writing something of this magnitude but do a little bit every day, and you will get into a groove. Take it one section at a time, start with the easiest, and just get all your thoughts on paper. As you do this, you will start having more questions that need answering, and these points of clarification will help make your paper stronger. All the work that you did leading up to the writing process is there, now it is time to show off. Remember to edit before submitting! Go to class, take all the feedback you can get, and review it thoroughly. At some point, tunnel vision will set in which makes it hard to see what you are missing, and what could make your work more impactful. Your peers and professor have great insights that you may not have thought of, and which could lead you to discovering a key piece of information.

If you could go back to the beginning of the last semester, what would you do differently?

If I could go back, I would update my time management technique a lot sooner. I decided to postpone taking the LSAT in April for example. Had I taken that decision sooner, I would have had less stress during the semester.

Is there anything else that you'd like to share about the senior seminar?

Despite the times when it was stressful for me, this was an incredibly rewarding experience. During the process of researching and writing, I felt that I was stepping out of my comfort zone and expanding myself academically. So much time and effort went into this project, looking back at it, it is something I am very proud to put my name on. The entire experience made me a better researcher, a better writer, a better student, and a better historian.