American classrooms today reflect extraordinary diversity. Children originating in every country and every continent on earth are learning to become American. Today, a quarter of our students come from immigrant families. They are our littlest and newest Americans. Yet, though they pledge allegiance to the American flag, these millions of children find their place in our country challenged.
White supremacists are marching at universities, politicians are spewing anti-immigrant rhetoric, social media are amplifying divisive messages, and hate crimes against minorities are up. But to what extent are children from immigrant families aware of what’s going on? Are our schools immune from the hatred we see in the public square? How should they respond?
To gain some insight into the extent to which immigrant children register the antipathy directed toward them, we conducted a study, beginning in 2012, of newcomer children — 12 years old, on average — in Boston and Northern California arriving from five points of origin in Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America. We wanted to understand how they are adapting to schools and to their new society. One of many questions we asked was a simple fill-in-the-blank: “Most Americans think that most [people from the respondent’s birthplace] are _________.”
Sixty-five percent of children filled in the blank with a negative term. The most frequent word was “bad,” though many children wrote in more elaborate responses: “Most Americans think that Mexicans are lazy, gangsters, drug addicts that only come to take their jobs away,” one 14-year-old boy wrote. Not only did many respondents choose words associated with criminality but many also chose terms related to contamination (“We are garbage,” another 14-year-old boy said) and incompetence (“We can’t do the same things as them in school or at work,” said a 10-year-old girl).
We found also that the kinds of words students chose was related to their families’ countries of origin. While a little less than half of Chinese youth completed the sentence with negative terms, 75% of Mexican and 82% of Dominicans and Haitians did so. We repeated the task annually for five years, and these percentages changed little. Young people’s perceptions of other Americans’ negative attitudes about them remain linked to their immigration status.
The rate of U.S. immigration today (13%) remains below what it was in the last great wave (15%). Meanwhile, undocumented immigration has declined year after year since peaking in 2007. It’s important to note that most immigrants are documented. Still, though, the reality is that 4.5 million school-age children, while themselves U.S. citizens, have at least one parent who is undocumented. In every part of the country, teachers are likely to encounter students who are fearful that a loved one will be deported.
How should schools respond?
Research into teaching and learning has taught us that to engage students, we must first get to know them. To do so, we can start by listening to their stories. Yet in today’s climate, too many immigrant children are being made to feel invisible and, in effect, have been silenced. Of course, they have much to say, and we all have a lot to learn from them — if we care to listen. Immigrant stories are narratives of resilience, grit, and optimism. They are quintessentially American stories that invite classroom dialogue about themes that can be found throughout our nation’s history and literature. Indeed the story of migration is the story of our shared experience of humanity.
As politicians and social media embody an ethos of discord, divisiveness, and even hatred, classroom teachers must model an ethic of civility. Simply put, bullying and intolerance are anathema to the give-and-take required for students to flourish. Young people can thrive only in classrooms where the basic ground rules include empathy, respect, and a willingness to listen to one another.
In the American tradition, the obligation of every school is to foster a democratic ethos where immigrant children come to feel they are full members in the community. As John Dewey once argued, schools are places where democratic ideals come to life. In the broadest sense, citizenship is about our responsibilities to each other, the rights and rules of engagement, and the public good. Research has shown that immigrant youth themselves describe citizenship as a shared obligation to society, a responsibility to give back, and above all to be kind. These are lofty but essential goals, and they are more necessary than ever in our uncivil times. At a time when it seems everyone is screaming, the classroom must be a place for listening.
Citation: Suarez-Orozco, M., Suarez-Orozco, C., & Strom, A. (2017). A lesson in civility: The negativity immigrant students hear. Phi Delta Kappan 99 (4), 80.