Diversity and Democracy

Strengthening Immigrant Voices through Museum-Community College Partnerships

According to the report Adult ESL and the Community College, “ESL [English as a Second Language] is one of the fastest growing areas of need in the community college,” with immigrants (many of whom are not fluent in English) constituting up to 25 percent of community college students—a share that is expected to increase in the coming years (Crandall and Sheppard 2004, 5). As the report indicates, adult English language learners enter the classroom with a multiplicity of needs: some lack basic literacy and others possess high levels of education but lack English language skills. Higher education institutions will need to use a variety of pedagogical methods to meet the diverse requirements of this expanding population.

Just as community college demographics are changing, so ultimately will museum audiences. According to the report Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums, 9 percent of core museum visitors in 2008 belonged to a racial or ethnic minority group, while these groups will become the new majority in the United States between 2040 and 2050 (Farrell and Medvedeva 2010, 9). The immigrant population is also expected to grow, from 12 percent of the US population in 2005 to 19 percent in 2050 (Passel and Cohn 2008). With these changes in mind, “it is specifically critical that museums understand […] the ways in which different constituencies engage with, and make meaning of, their museum experiences” (Stein, Garibay, and Wilson 2008, 184).

As the immigrant population increases, higher education institutions and museums can join forces to work innovatively with this potential constituency. To create such opportunities, project director Patricia Lannes collaborated with two Queensborough Community College faculty members, Margot Edlin and Kitty Bateman, to secure a three-year Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership Grant supporting CALTA21, a model initiative Lannes had developed to bring English language learning into the museum setting. Drawing on the premise that visual literacy skills are transferrable to other literacies, CALTA21 uses art as a catalyst for language learning and the curriculum as a bridge connecting immigrant students to museums as sources of empowerment.

Pillars of CALTA21

The CALTA21 initiative aims to build the capacity of museum–community college partnerships to empower adult English language learners, increasing their comfort with institutions of higher education, community-based organizations, and cultural institutions while strengthening literacy and critical thinking skills. The model is supported by two cornerstones: a professional development institute and a ten-unit, thirty-hour curriculum.

CALTA21’s professional development institutes convene museum professionals and English language instructors from higher education and community-based organizations to learn, discuss, and analyze best practices for working with adult immigrant audiences. During each institute, participating partners share information about each other’s organizations and their constituents’ needs and strengths, building a solid foundation for the collaborative process. With an initial two-day meeting, the institute prepares English language instructors and museum educators to implement CALTA21’s student-driven curriculum in the classroom and at partner museums. A third institute day scheduled in the midst of the curriculum allows participants to reflect on these practices and the challenges therein.

The curriculum’s thread, “Identity and Portraiture,” is designed to use adult students’ background knowledge and immigrant experiences as conduits for encouraging their voices. Art addresses complex issues and stirs the viewer’s intellect and emotions, and viewers can respond to it unimpeded by language barriers. Language learners frequently use visual perception to construct knowledge, accessing higher-order thinking skills in their preferred language while practicing communication and meaning-making in the language they are learning. Art images and visual literacy thus become effective and powerful aids in language learning. Through facilitated discussions about art, students observe, find personal meaning, and build vocabulary and collective knowledge. They think critically about what they see, form opinions, and ground their opinions in an image—skills that they can then transfer to the practice of finding meaning in literary texts.

This process does more than build academic skills: it also builds cultural and social capital within students’ new civic contexts. As CALTA21 engages adult literacy students from different cultures, religions, countries of origin, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and literacy levels in intercultural dialogue about identity, it empowers them to voice how they see themselves in the world and the issues that are important to them. Across the curriculum, students engage in cross-pollinating dialogue, validating their own native culture and exploring the cultures of their classmates and of their adopted home.

This initiative also builds museum literacy, teaching students how to join the museum community, take ownership of the discoveries they make there, and share those resources with their families or friends. During the final unit of the curriculum, students demonstrate their new empowerment by guiding families and friends on a museum visit. They leave the course as active participants in their new contexts, able to communicate more effectively in English and to understand the value of cultural resources in a democratic society.

Toward the Future

During the first grant year (2011–12), the project team held two professional development institutes and implemented the curriculum in partnerships across classrooms at the City University of New York (CUNY) and in El Museo del Barrio and the Rubin Museum of Art. In the second year (2012–13), the Godwin Ternbach Museum at Queens College and the Katonah Museum of Art will partner with programs within the CUNY system and Westchester Community College. The third year (2013–14) will be dedicated to disseminating CALTA21 at a national level through a symposium, online distribution of materials, and the establishment of new partnerships.

As museum and literacy program participants adapt the CALTA21 curriculum to meet their respective and shared goals, the team has learned that flexibility is a necessity. For example, scheduling visits that coincide with museum hours and classroom schedules can be challenging, and these issues often must be resolved on a case-by-case basis. Similarly, in addition to meeting with their partners, participating groups would benefit from meeting individually to address their specific needs and concerns. With these needs in mind, the project team is working to make the logistics, curriculum, and the institutes more adaptable.

As the project proceeds, CALTA21 continues to change and grow. The project team is seeking opportunities to expand to new implementation sites and is poised to apply the CALTA21 model in literacy programs and museums nationwide. For more information about CALTA21, visit www.CALTA21.org.


Crandall, JoAnn, and Ken Sheppard. 2004. Adult ESL and the Community College. New York: Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy.

Farrell, Betty, and Maria Medvedeva. 2010. Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums.

Passel, Jeffrey, and D’Vera Cohn. 2008. “Immigration to Play Lead Role in Future U.S. Growth,” February 11. http://pewresearch.org/pubs/729/united-states-population-projections.

Stein, Jill K., Cecilia Garibay, and Kathyn Wilson. 2008. “Engaging Immigrant Audiences in Museums.” Museums & Social Issues 3 (2): 178–96.

CALTA21 Curriculum

The CALTA21 English language learning curriculum consists of ten units conducted in both the classroom and the museum setting:

  1. Portraiture and Photography: How Does a Portrait Show Who We Are?
  2. Looking Back: Where We Come From
  3. Being from Many Places, Belonging to Many Cultures, and Speaking Many Languages
  4. Double Take: Our Multiple Identities
  5. Preparing for an Art Museum Experience
  6. Experiencing an Art Museum
  7. Looking Forward: Imagining Our Future
  8. Identity and Relationships
  9. Getting Ready to Be a Museum Guide
  10. Experiencing the Museum with Your Family and Friends

More information about the curriculum is available at www.calta21.org.

Margot Edlin is associate professor in the Department of Basic Educational Skills, Queensborough Community College, City University of New York, and co-principal investigator, CALTA21; Patricia Lannes is founder and project director, CALTA21; Kitty Bateman is professor and director, Queensborough Community College Literacy Program, and co-principal investigator, CALTA21.

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