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Investing in teacher learning about immigration can pay off in more classroom instruction about this important topic. 

By Sara Burnett, Eileen Gale Kugler, and Claire Tesh 

The United States is, by definition, a nation of immigrants, a place where preschoolers bring home Pilgrim art projects as they learn about our earliest European settlers. In later years, students learn about waves of European migration, are taught that it is the foundation upon which our nation is built. Traditional history books describe these immigrants as willingly stirred into an immense melting pot — one homogenous American culture that celebrates its shared heritage on the Fourth of July. Over the years, our immigration policies have occasionally been questioned in educational texts, but, all in all, the perspective taught in our schools is that our immigration laws and policies are fair and necessary to protect existing American citizens.  

In the past several decades, however, immigration trends have shaken this basic narrative. First, fewer Europeans have entered, with Mexicans dominating the migration flow, along with immigrants from Asia, Central America, and other regions around the world (Migration Policy Institute, 2015). And, significantly, the number of unauthorized immigrants has risen dramatically, representing about a quarter of the total foreign-born population in the United States in 2012 (Pew Research Center, 2012). While students from these new immigrant families took their places in American schools, few American classrooms delved into the policies and laws surrounding their arrival or continued residence in this country.  

Today, immigration is one of the most significant issues affecting schools and neighborhoods across the country, yet many teachers feel ill-prepared to teach about immigration in a comprehensive way. Most educators have learned about immigration in a national, historical context, with few studying it as a current issue, as it affects the nation or their own locality. They can’t keep up with ever-changing legislation, national and local enforcement policies, executive orders, and court decisions. 

While students from new immigrant families took their places in American schools, few American classrooms delved into the policies and laws surrounding their arrival or continued residence in this country. 

The American Immigration Council is committed to empowering teachers with the tools to teach about immigration factually and critically. Experience tells us that educating children and adults about immigration in a nonpartisan, fact-based way is essential to easing tensions and misunderstanding about immigrants, including those who are students in our schools. We developed a pilot program for educators on Long Island, N.Y., to demonstrate that when teachers have effective materials, professional development, support from immigration experts, and a well-designed program, they will engage students in meaningful education about this challenging topic.  

An essential part of the training is not just explaining current policies and providing fact sheets. Rather, the program is designed to engage educators in interactive learning, demonstrating strategies and modeling lessons that can be implemented in their classrooms to inspire dialogue and critical thinking surrounding immigration policy and law.  

Teach Immigration 

The two-year Teach Immigration program developed by the American Immigration Council and key partners provides high school teachers with free and current educational materials on immigration law and policy and pairs them with volunteers who are immigration lawyers. Together, the teacher and lawyer teams coteach at least two classroom lessons and then help students find their points of view by producing student-created materials that connect to what they have learned. 

We began this program on Long Island in 2010 with another national nonprofit education organization, Street Law, Inc. Like many areas of the country, immigration issues have significantly affected students, families, and communities on Long Island. On Nov. 8, 2008, a series of attacks against Latino residents of Patchogue, N.Y., led to the murder of Marcelo Lucero, a 37-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant who had lived in the Long Island village for 13 years (Sanchez & Rodriguez, 2013). Moreover, an analysis of 2013 U.S. Census data shows there are 526,000 immigrants living on Long Island, making up 18% of the region’s population and 20% of Long Island’s economic output, underscoring the exigencies for awareness and understanding (Fiscal Policy Institute, 2015).  

We carefully designed the Teach Immigration program to respond to changes in the national and local debates on immigration, as well as to meet specific needs of participating teachers and students. Now in our sixth year with two completed program cycles of providing a platform for thoughtful dialogue and cultural awareness, Teach Immigration has an established record of increasing knowledge and changing attitudes about immigration law and policy, as sorely needed in 2015 as it was in 2010, with little sign of easing up. 

The program launches in the spring with a teacher training designed to give educators practical lessons and resources to teach about current issues in immigration and establish the essential sensitive and critical groundwork that leads to meaningful classroom discussions. With administrative approval, teachers apply to be a part of the program and begin creating lessons with other immigration experts.  

By midfall, we invite teachers and students to participate in a student forum where students select topics in immigration they want to learn more about from experts and, in small facilitated groups, engage in structured deliberative dialogue. Students emerge from the forum and their classroom lessons equipped with the knowledge and tools to create projects that educate others about immigration in their schools and communities. Some student leaders will participate in paid summer internships working with a Long Island-based nonprofit with an interest in immigration. 

Teacher training 

In June 2015, just three days after the last official day of school, the American Immigration Council launched our third cycle of the Teach Immigration program featuring a new group of dedicated Long Island educators, social workers, and administrators who participated in a daylong immigration training. The engagement and commitment of these educators was palpable. 

We focused on unpacking key concepts and issues in immigration that are integral to fostering informed and honest classroom discussions. As teachers gathered for the training, many spoke of their recent commencement ceremonies and beamed with pride on their immigrant students’ achievements, even though some of their schools have made it difficult for immigrant students to enroll and, in a few cases, prevented it. These actions prompted the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education to jointly issue a stern warning to schools found to violate a child’s right to free public education (Mueller, 2014). According to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, Long Island’s Suffolk and Nassau counties received the third and fifth highest amount of unaccompanied minors relative to other counties nationwide in 2014 through February 2015 (Newsday, 2015). 

We began by facilitating an Immigration Status Privilege Walk (American Immigration Council, 2015a), where participants literally walk through the complex benefits and limitations conferred with varying immigration status. We debriefed on what it felt like to be excluded and included, and how everyone to different degrees is affected by their immigration status.  

Next, teachers shared stories of separated families and interrupted educations in their school communities. Throughout the day, they cited examples of how forming relationships with students and their families helped address student needs, while also recognizing the importance of staying informed on immigration issues so they could speak about them in a way that engenders positive school climate and attitudes on immigration.  

To address this latter concern in our training, we looked at how we could use writing to explore the multiple reactions to executive action (American Immigration Council, 2015b). We gave educators a variety of responses as captured in the media to President Obama’s November 2014 executive action on immigration. We asked teachers to write from the perspective of another individual:  

  • A 52-year-old Salvadoran who has worked in construction in the U.S. for 20 years but had lost his original refugee protection long ago due to legal complications and would not qualify for new status.
  • A husband and the father of two children born in the U.S., who came from Mexico in 1997 and faced deportation before the Executive Order.
  • A 17-year-old who crossed the border to join his mother eight months ago, too recent to be included in the change.
  • The 81-year-old grandfather of a young sheriff’s deputy who was killed by a man who had been deported multiple times and feels the president’s action “encourages more lawlessness.”

The educators examined the factors that might cause these individuals to react favorably, adversely, or both. They could imagine and insert more detail as needed to create a sketch for this person. While recognizing that the writing was now more fiction than not, we shared aloud and discussed what shaped their beliefs and attitudes about immigration. By weaving nonfiction accounts taken from article clippings into creative writing, educators were able to write their way into understanding multiple perspectives that surround this immigration issue and later use this as a critical writing and thinking lesson with students.  

To deepen understandings and empower students to discuss immigration issues further with students, our partner, Lena Moreale Scott from Street Law, trained teachers on deliberation, a strategy that provides a thorough understanding of both sides of an issue and helps students become familiar with using evidence and logic in reaching conclusions. Educators discussed how this differs from a debate or an argument about the issues.  

When we talk about a contentious issue ripe with misinformation such as immigration, cultural sensitivity, understanding, listening, and respect must be valued and routinely practiced. 

School culture, introspection 

Finally, to foster a positive school climate, we spoke to educators about the need to reflect on our assumptions and identities of ourselves and others and consider practical ways to let students and school professionals build fuller understandings of who they are and what they bring to the classroom. 

While implementing engaging and relevant curriculum on immigration is critical, creating a positive school culture also is essential, as a student who does not feel respected and valued at school will remain disconnected from learning (Zins et al., 2004). When we talk about a contentious issue ripe with misinformation such as immigration, cultural sensitivity, understanding, listening, and respect must be valued and routinely practiced. 

This respect extends to family members who can be vital supports for student success. It is critical to engage families as partners, valuing them for their unique insights and experiences, rather than criticizing or pitying them for what they may lack (Breiseth & Robertson, 2011). 

Building a school culture where all students and families feel valued is not just about being nice and it’s not about understanding the details of every culture.  It is about respecting every individual, creating opportunities to learn about them, and valuing their unique strengths. 

The educators were able to explore the overt and subconscious assumptions about others, assumptions that stem from their own culture. These result from a complex web of interconnected experiences and influences, including where they grew up, their family structure, gender roles, and socioeconomic status, in addition to the critical factors of race, ethnicity, and religion.  

One exercise we used to begin to develop self-awareness in the Teach Immigration project was created by Linda Christensen (2003) based on a poem by George Ella Lyon called, “Where I’m From.” Encouraging educators to write their own similar poem is a dynamic way to help them look inward. They come to understand their own roots and how these affect their expectations for students and families in their school. As a result, they better understand the similarities and differences of cultures and can break down long-held assumptions about what is right. Many later use this activity with students, enabling them to share important elements of their background. 

Above all, opportunities to reflect and share on culture, diversity, and on the immigrant experience, no matter how distant, help create an enduring human understanding that can enhance the discussions they may lead on immigration law and policy. 

Result: Increased knowledge 

We ask teachers and students to take pre- and post-participation surveys indicating their knowledge about immigration law and policy. When the project began in 2010, 40% of the participating teachers had never taught about these topics. Half the teachers said they did not teach about them because they lacked resources, and they were unsure how to fit the topic into their curriculum. This changed considerably over the course of the program with many teachers electing to participate again because the program supported curricular goals, and they were pleased with its effect. Said one teacher:

“The quality of education from the Teach Immigration project about current public policy matters and initiatives [has] kept me involved with the project. Immigration is an American institution, and the controversy surrounding this issue often makes it difficult to address. Building tolerance and encouraging deliberation is essential for American democracy to serve the people. Students benefit from this in many ways.” 

Before our program began, only 8% of students who participated in the forum said they had spent a significant amount of time (defined as two or more class periods) studying immigration. After the program ended, 78% made that assessment. When asked how knowledgeable they felt and how comfortable they would be carrying on an intelligent discussion about immigration law and policy, only 8% said they felt quite knowledgeable before the program began. That number jumped to 71% after they participated in the classroom lessons and student forum. Given increased and credible exposure to topics such as current events on Long Island, current policy debates, immigration history, law, policy, citizenship process, deportation, visa types, and due process, these numbers are not surprising. 

Educating children and adults about immigration in a nonpartisan, fact-based way is essential to easing tensions and misunderstanding about immigrants. 

Result: Changed attitudes 

Perhaps the most telling results are the changes in attitudes about immigration. At the onset, 15% of students surveyed said they would not talk about immigration with other people in their homes; 10% said discussions would turn into shouting matches. At the end of the program, 35% of students said they thought they could have a civil conversation about immigration at home and that their views would be respected and listened to. Only 5% thought such discussions would become shouting matches.  

When asked if they could have a civil discussion about immigration with peers at school, 58% said they could have a discussion before the start of the program. After the classroom lessons and student forum, 88% of students said they could have a civil discussion at school where points of view are expressed and people feel they are respected and listened to. Before exposure to the program, over 10% said a discussion about immigration with peers would be “one of those shows on television where everyone gets really upset, yells, and argues with each other.” After the program, no student noted that as a possibility. 

Conclusion 

As teachers left the June training, many were enthusiastic about trying new strategies in their classrooms. One teacher wrote that she was “looking forward to using some formats as models for the classroom. [The training emphasized] excellent critical thinking and writing. Teaching our students to deliberate about immigration policy was very relevant and helpful with developing curriculum.”  

Another told us that what benefitted him most was “meeting like-minded individuals and receiving truly applicable activities that meet K-12 academic goals.” Still another teacher said, “You are reminded that when we talk about immigration issues, we are talking about real people!” 

Throughout this work, we consistently hear from educators about the need for increased professional development to teach not just a growing number of immigrant students but on how to teach about immigration past and present to all students. It is an “everybody issue,” and the failure to address it responsibly and respectfully causes real harm. It is also a missed opportunity for real learning.  

Students likewise are engaged in immigration and want to learn more. Some are recent immigrants, some arrived as young children or are second-generation immigrants, others have friends or neighbors who are immigrants, and still many others just want factual information. Failing to empower them to discuss immigration with intelligence and sensitivity seems a civic disservice that ignores the role of our schools to arm students with facts and critical thinking skills that help them engage in meaningful discussions. 

Preparing teachers to incorporate immigration in curriculum and discussions requires collaboration, strong communication, and an investment in time and energy, but the results are well worth the effort.  

References 

American Immigration Council. (2015a). Immigration status privilege walk. http://bit.ly/1Lz3O5Y 

American Immigration Council. (2015b). Writing a way in: Multiple perspectives on executive action. http://bit.ly/1jOm4Mm 

Breiseth, L. & Robertson, K. (2011). A guide for engaging ELL families: Twenty strategies for school leaders. Washington, DC: Colorín Colorado. 

Christensen, L. (2003).  Reading, writing, and rising up. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools. 

Fiscal Policy Institute. (2015). New Americans on Long Island: A vital fifth of the economy. http://bit.ly/1LiEhfl 

Migration Policy Institute. (2015). Data hub. http://bit.ly/1QZTZvT 

Mueller, B. (2014). Requirements keep young immigrants out of Long Island classrooms. The New York Times. http://nyti.ms/1KKEMKa 

Newsday. (2015, July 17). Where detained immigrant children are released to sponsors. Newsday. http://nwsdy.li/1VFot7G 

Pew Research Center. (2014, November 17). U.S. foreign-born population 2012. Hispanic Trends. http://pewrsr.ch/1j9bu1R 

Sanchez, R. & Rodriguez, C.Y. (2013). Hate crime killing triggers federal oversight of town’s police. CNN. http://cnn.it/1OYKm2U 

Zins, J.E., Bloodworth, M.R., Weissberg, R.P., & Walberg, H.J. (2004). The scientific base linking social and emotional learning to school success. In J. Zins, R. Weissberg, M. Wang, & H.J. Walberg (Eds.), Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say? (pp. 3-22). New York, NY: Teachers College Press. 

SARA BURNETT (teacher@immcouncil.org; @ThnkImmigration) is an education associate at the American Immigration Council, Washington, D.C. EILEEN GALE KUGLER (EKugler@EmbraceDiverseSchools.com) is a consultant and executive editor of Innovative Voices in Education: Engaging Diverse Communities (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012). CLAIRE TESH is senior manager of education at the American Immigration Council.  

Originally published in December 2015/January 2016 Phi Delta Kappan 97 (4) 15-20. © 2018 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.