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NewsJun 29, 2021

Face-to-face interviews challenge anti-immigration attitudes

Spanish teacher Maureen Magnan ’20 teaches empathy through ethnography

Lesley's Doble Campus

Five years ago, Maureen Lothrop Magnan ’20 had a problem. The presidential campaign that Donald Trump would eventually win was well under way, and negative rhetoric about undocumented immigrants was in the news. Then she started hearing it in her own classroom, which, at the time had a number of undocumented students.

Magnan knew disparaging this anti-immigrant speech wouldn’t actually “recast” the minds of the students in her class or teach them empathy, but then she read about something that might: ethnographic interviewing, a “fancy word for an active listening and observing interview.” Researchers Gail Robinson-Stuart and Honorine Nocon had used the method with university students to encourage positive attitudes toward speakers of a different language.

Closeup photo of Maureen Lothrop
Dr. Maureen Lothrop Magnan

Magnan, who concentrated on Multicultural Education and Second Language Acquisition for her Educational Studies: Individually Designed PhD program at Lesley, decided to try this interviewing technique with her students. She would teach her high schoolers active listening and open-ended questioning, and then ask them to interview an immigrant in the community. A survey conducted before and after the project would help her evaluate if the students’ perception of immigrants had changed. The experiment became the focus of her PhD research.

Sticking with Spanish

Magnan says she wasn’t good at many subjects in school, but Spanish stuck with her. In college, she studied abroad in Spain, then worked in an orphanage in the Dominican Republic before returning to Spain for her master’s degree. Back in Massachusetts, she became a social worker while pursuing another master’s degree, this time in social work, but she felt like she was always too late to help her clients.

“It was so reactive,” says Magnan. “The crisis had already occurred.”

She thought, “Man, I need to be on the other side of this. I need to be proactive. I want to teach.”

Changing tack, Magnan earned her master’s in education instead, and since then has taught first-graders through seniors. She currently teaches Spanish and is the language coordinator for Sharon Public Schools.

Language barriers

Magnan was a teacher at Dedham High School when she began her active listening project. She started by inviting a well-liked teacher at the school from Guatemala who had recently become a U.S. citizen to speak to her classes. The emotional response surprised Magnan.

“It was eye-opening for them. I could see kids tearing up. Kids that were anti-immigration like, ‘Oh, maybe she had a good story.’ I was like, what is happening?”

In the coming weeks, Magnan shared data on immigration, first-person narratives, short stories, and movies that portrayed the immigrant experience in America.

Then she began teaching the students active listening — how to make eye contact, how to use body language to convey interest, how to put people at ease during interviews, and how to ask good questions.

“They practiced this skill of just literally being present for someone else and not having an agenda except how much can I get them to talk and tell me about themselves and their story,” says Magnan.

Students chose a variety of people to interview — from their peers to business owners. And because this was a Spanish class, all interviews would be conducted in that language.

Bias backpacks

The project had an effect on everyone involved.

“They had to go into their interviews and take off their backpack of bias as much as they could. We took off our literal backpacks to symbolize it,” says Magnan.

The students came out of their interviews amazed at how candid and excited their subjects had been to speak with them.

At the outset, Magnan’s survey showed that about half of the students had a negative opinion on different aspects of immigration. Afterward, “97% of the kids changed their tune on immigrants once they saw them as human beings with a story.”

It took some students longer for the empathy to kick in, but Magnan witnessed a change in almost everyone’s behaviors and an end to the negative speech that prompted the project.

"The whole study is the power of eliciting people’s stories."
Maureen Magnan ’20, PhD in Educational Studies: Individually Designed

Some students took their interactions beyond the interview. After learning, during their interview, that a Spanish-speaking peer walked to school each day, a student gave him a bike that had sat unused in her garage. Another student invited a Spanish-speaking peer to Thanksgiving dinner. Magnan did the same.

“It created this amazing familial feel to the class,” she says.

Magnan titled her thesis, “Creating Cross-Cultural Understandings in the Language Classroom through Ethnographic Interviews with Immigrants,” and detailed her experience of seeing how students’ perspectives shifted through the interview process.

The experiment had such a transformative experience on her students, that she enlisted language teachers in another district to implement ethnographic interviewing projects in their classes.

The results mirrored those in her classroom, where she continues to teach ethnographic interviewing each year.

“You can do this about any sort of controversial subject,” says Magnan. “The whole study is the power of eliciting people’s stories.”