LINGUIST List 31.3586

Fri Nov 20 2020

Review: Applied Linguistics: Helmer (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 08-Jun-2020
From: Laura Dubcovsky <>
Subject: Learning and Not Learning in the Heritage Language Classroom
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Kimberly Adilia Helmer
TITLE: Learning and Not Learning in the Heritage Language Classroom
SUBTITLE: Engaging Mexican-Origin Students
SERIES TITLE: Bilingual Education & Bilingualism
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Laura Dubcovsky, University of California, Davis


Learning and Not Learning in the Heritage Language Classroom. Engaging Mexican Origin Students, by Kimberly Helmer recounts the first year of a new charter school founded under the place-based learning premises (Gruenewald & Smith, 2008). Following an ethnographic perspective, the author attempts to explore the visible tension between engagement in and resistance to the learning experience, particularly noticeable among students of Mexican origin. In Chapter 1, “Beginnings and Endings,” Helmer describes the school setting and the philosophical criteria that shape the school pedagogy, summarized in the “Habits of Heart and Mind,” and the “Ten Common Principles” (Coalition of Essential Schools, 2018). The author emphasizes the serious commitment made to connect the school curriculum to the surrounding area, as “Learning takes place not only on school grounds, but also in neighborhoods, local museums, businesses, gardens, libraries, theaters, state and national parks, utility plants, universities and so forth” (p. 12). Moreover, the school welcomes students’ background, language varieties and culture to the classroom. Overall place-based learning draws upon local history, geography, ecology, politics, economics, and arts dimensions.

In Chapter 2, “From Cecilia Paulson to Downtown High school, research questions, methodology and theoretical frameworks,” Helmer intertwines her personal experience during the year-long observation, with objective steps expected in a research study. On the one hand, she refers to her personal contact with teachers and students, participation in school events in and out-of- the- classroom, and school interviews. On the other hand, she poses a set of research questions, describes the focal participants, and collects data from multiple sources to triangulate the information. The author highlights micro-ethnographies (Heath, 1983), critical ethnography and applied linguistics (Pennycook, 2001), and interactional sociolinguistics and symbolic interactionism (Hornberger, 2003), as the three main methods used for her analysis, which seamlessly align with the school’s “place-based learning” founding framework. These overlapping perspectives not only broaden the scope of her analysis, but they also deepen the understanding of macro and micro factors that influence the classroom exchange. Then the chapter pinpoints relevant traits of teachers’ personalities and their educational experience, as well as students’ attitudes, interests, and social behavior in the classroom. Drawing from a variety of sources, the data collection comprises classroom observations, field trips, professional development meetings, oral interviews, written reports, video logs, audiotapes, photographs, and other artifacts. The author insists on building a “dialogic analysis” that considers the language used in the classroom by teachers and students (p. 40).

Chapter 3, “Hablais como Pachuco,” focuses on the first semester of the Spanish for heritage speakers’ class. The chapter provides the historical context of language policies aimed at integrating, and often assimilating, English language learners into the public-school system (Combs, 2006). Helmer follows a socio-linguistic approach to contrast the Spanish spoken by the Mexican-origin students with the academic Spanish used by the dominant English-speaking teacher in charge of the class. Through multiple examples, the author shows how the focal students display a negative demeanor in the Spanish class, causing disruption and distraction, as has long been documented in the literature with the term as “performance strikes” (Shor, 1992). Helmer explains how the asymmetrical power relationship contributes to most students’ lack of interest in learning, increasing resistance and rebellion, which ultimately cause classroom management problems. Additionally, teachers and institutions typically maintain a negative attitude toward minority learners, either by neglecting or disrespecting their first languages. While almost the entire educational community helps strengthen the stigma among second language students, good teachers know how to ameliorate the heavy burden of marginalization, by complementing effective teaching practices with caring and personable approaches (Salazar, 2010).

Chapter 4, “It’s not real: It’s just Spanish class,” Helmer makes a distinction between teaching Spanish as a foreign and as a heritage language, and encourages Spanish teaching preparation programs to equip candidates with solid knowledge and effective strategies to work in the two settings. Aside from different goals, topics and activities, Spanish teachers need to be particularly aware of the student population that attend each course. Above all, the author focuses on the broad range of heritage students, who differ in language(s) experience, proficiency levels in their first language, schooling and types of programs, etc. (Lynch, 2008). Helmer underlines the intersection of identity and language, as a relevant entry point to better understand the still unsolved achievement gap between mainstream and language minority students (Norton, 2013). She emphasizes that the complex personal, social, and imaginary layers involved require that the notions of language and identity are situated, negotiated and reciprocally constructed in the heritage language classroom.

In Chapter 5, “The Tao of teaching,” Helmer analyzes the learning experience in the humanities class following the two major educational agents. First, she compares the students’ involvement, genuine interest and active participation, with the former defiant attitudes of apathy, aggression and rejection demonstrated in the Spanish for Heritage speaker class. More importantly, in the humanities class learners start to develop a distinctive sense of belonging and membership to the learning community, showing incipient academic awareness (Mendoza-Denton, 2002). Second, Helmer turns to the teacher and examines relevant features of her personality and professional ethos, as shown during the class presentations, in interviews and in field notes. She also explores the teacher’s strong preparation, both in pedagogy and content- knowledge, that translates into a solid curriculum, with clear objectives, coherent lesson plans, and efficient strategies. Consequently, students in her class feel respected and supported by the careful reading material and demanding long-term projects. Several classroom episodes illustrate students’ appreciation toward the (“favorite”) humanities teacher and her class, which starkly contrast to the negative remarks toward the Spanish teachers and the (“not real” and “a waste of time”) heritage language class.

Chapter 6, “Place and project-based Spanish heritage language teaching and learning” claims that the same principles of content-based instruction (Tedick &Cammarata, 2010) and project-based learning across the curriculum (Holm, 2011) need to be implemented also the Spanish for heritage speakers’ classroom. As a matter of fact, Spanish speaking students should be offered meaningful and highly demanding tasks that incorporate academic content in each disciplinary area to maintain, develop and strengthen their first language. Heritage language classes must provide plenty of opportunities to practice the language, transfer knowledge from one language into the other, and use a variety of genres and modalities to improve and raise levels of literacy and critical thinking in heritage and second languages. The author suggests a “pueblo-based” pedagogy (p. 174) that relates situated practices with projects, service learning and content instruction, offering authentic material and collaboration, in a communicative and safe environment.

In closing, Chapter 7, “Then and now” summarizes the growth of the student population and faculty members, as well as physical and structural changes experienced from the school’s creation to the present time. Some interviews show institutional factors that have contributed to students’ resistance and engagement throughout the years, while other comments elaborate on teachers’ challenges and accomplishments, and others reflect on the gradual transformation of the original vision and goals. Helmer includes additional literature about the creation and sustainability of charter schools, which becomes a relevant topic in the current educational environment. Finally, the author underscores major findings of her study, such as the complexity involved in language minority students’ identity, the benefit implied in allowing different registers and dialects in the classroom, and in taking up a positive perspective toward heritage speakers, valuing their language and culture. She claims that these findings will help overcome the engagement/resistance dichotomy, enabling students to assume strong involvement in the educational process and gain social and academic agency (Stritikus, 2006).


“Learning and Not Learning in the Heritage Language Classroom” is written in a narrative style, by which Helmer introduces teachers and students as the protagonists of her story, while following the development of events in a chronological order. The author is a powerful storyteller, who will attract lay and specialized readers with her colorful anecdotes. She weaves personal and academic accounts vividly, and provides laughter, suspense, and climatic moments along the chapters. Although highly engaging, the book did not fully accomplish its goals of better understanding the “learning and not learning” among Mexican-origin students in the heritage language classroom. As the author recognizes, there is still a huge need for exploring the academic gap among Latino students at the high school level. Despite examining a secondary school, Helmer chooses a charter institution, which by definition is smaller and comprises more particular students than the average public schools’ size and population, preventing a valid comparison to the current educational system.

As rich and thick as Helmer’s ethnographic study is, to better understand the school’s philosophy and educational beliefs, the book needs a stronger structural formalization, as the literature review is interspersed along the book and the set of research questions is not fully answered, for example. More importantly, the study does not delve into a deeper analysis of minority students’ attitudes toward the school learning experience. As much as the inclusion of students’ voices in the forefront is fully appreciated, relevant issues on critical language and literacy, culturally responsive environments, disciplinary and instructional languages, and meaningful activities are almost diluted throughout the chapters. Beyond structural and thematic limitations, the book contributes to shedding light on a major concern in academic literacy for English learners at the secondary school level. Above all the reading will facilitate the continuing conversation among concerned teachers in multilingual educational communities.


Coalition of Essential Schools. 2018 See pub/ ces_docs/about/phil/10cps/10cps.html (accessed 17 March 2006)

Combs, M. 2006. The IC Americanization Program, Proposition 203 and Structured English Immersion (SEI). Lecture, University of Arizona, Tucson.

Gruenewald, D. & G. Smith (eds). 2008. Place-based education in the global age: Local diversity. New York, Routledge.

Heath, S. 1983. Ways with words. Language, life and work in communities and classrooms. London: Cambridge University Press.

Holm, M.2011. Project-based instruction. A review of the literature on effectiveness on prekindergarten through the 12th grade classrooms. InSight: Rivier Academic Journal 7(2): 1-13.

Hornberger, N. 2003. Linguistic anthropology of education (LAE) in context. Linguistic anthropology in education. In S. Worthom & B. Rymes (eds). Westport, CT, Praeger: 245-270.

Lynch, A. 2008. The linguistic similarities of Spanish heritage and second language learners. Foreign Language Annals 41(2): 252-281.

Mendoza-Denton, N. 2002. Language and identity. In J. Chambers, P. Trudgill & N. Schilling-Estes (eds). Malden The Handbook of language variation and change. Malden, MA: Blackwell: 475-499.

Norton, B. 2013. Identity and language learning: Extending the conversation. 2nd edition. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Pennycook, A. 2001. Critical applied linguistics: A critical introduction. London, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Salazar, M. 2010. Pedagogical stances of high school ESL teachers: Huelgas in high school ESL classrooms. Bilingual Research Journal 33:111-124.

Shor, I.1992. Empowering education: Critical teaching for social change. Chicago, Il: The University of Chicago Press.

Stritikus, T. 2006. Making meaning matters: A look at instruction practice in additive and subtractive contexts. Bilingual Research Journal 30(1): 219-227.

Tedick, D. & L. Cammarata. 2010. Implementing content-based instruction: the CoBal.TT framework and resource center. World language teacher education: Transitions and challenges in the Twenty First Century. In J. Davis (ed). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing: 243-274.


Laura Dubcovsky is a retired lecturer and supervisor from the Teacher Education Program in the School of Education at the University of California, Davis. With a Master’s in Education and a Ph.D in Spanish linguistics/with special emphasis on second language acquisition, her interests tap topics of language and bilingual education. She has taught a pre-service bilingual teachers’ course that addresses communicative and academic traits of Spanish, needed in a bilingual classroom for more than ten years. She is currently helping in- service bilingual teachers for professional development and in parent/teachers’ conferences. She also volunteers as translator at Davis Joint Unified School district, the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, YoloArts, Davis Art Center, and STEAC, in Davis, California. She is a long-standing reviewer for the Linguistic listServe, the Southern California Professional Development Schools and the Journal of Latinos and Education. She published “Functions of the verb decir (‘to say’) in the incipient academic Spanish writing of bilingual children in Functions of Language, 15(2), 257-280 (2008) and the chapter, “Desde California. Acerca de la narración en ámbitos bilingües” in ¿Cómo aprendemos y cómo enseñamos la narración oral? (2015). Rosario, Homo Sapiens: 127- 133.

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