It’s the personal stories that are often lost in the conversations we have about immigrants and refugees. One personal story may seem insignificant; however, when the stories of nearly five million English Language Learners are absent from the education narrative in the United States, so is the context through which we can learn to know our students, to build empathy, and to truly understand what our students — especially newcomer students — need to be successful.
A Story Can Shift Practice
Emily Francis’ immigrant story is compelling standing on its own; however, it becomes even more powerful if we ask what this story — and the many others like it — can teach us about how we can best reach newcomer students and any student who doesn’t quite fit in.
As you read about Emily’s experience, think about the similar struggles and barriers your students face in the classroom each day. Allow Emily’s story to illuminate some of the ways that educators can identify their students’ needs and support newcomers with a few simple pedagogical shifts.
More importantly, keep in mind how a growth mindset and asset-based way of thinking is required to see the gifts that every student brings, particularly those from other cultures, languages, and countries.
When we remember the power of stories from others unlike ourselves, we can put ourselves in their shoes, developing empathy for different perspectives and different paths in life. We can learn about the funds of knowledge our students and their families posess, or the rich backgrounds, skills, and assets diverse populations bring to school. We can move beyond the challenging socio-political rhetoric and focus on the realities in our classrooms — the realities of the world our immigrant students bring to us every day.
Early last fall, I had the opportunity to sit with a team of sixth grade teachers at a middle school serving a large number of low-income Latino and African American students. Many of those students were at least two grade levels behind in reading. Their low literacy levels were wreaking havoc on their ability to learn content, engage in higher-level thinking, and build background knowledge.
A year earlier, in their PLC, this team decided that the solution was to use culturally responsive teaching (CRT) as a way to improve student learning and increase achievement.
When I visited with them, they were a bit perplexed why things hadn’t changed, because they’d instituted fun “call and response” chants at the beginning of class and created multicultural bulletin boards about music from different cultures and social justice topics. They’d spent time having “courageous conversations” about implicit bias. They’d tried this for a year, but reading scores didn’t improve and they couldn’t understand why.
My entire way of teaching changed dramatically when I went to a Barnes and Noble and picked out a book entitled, Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap by Dr. Alfred W. Tatum. From that moment on, I engaged in a new kind of personal professional development.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
This Won’t Be Easy
Important conversations never are. But our students — and colleagues — learn as much from what we do (or don’t do) as what we say (or don’t say). The events that transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia are likely weighing heavy on your students’ hearts and minds, just as they are on yours. You haven’t had the opportunity to learn their names, set up a structure, or lay the foundation for learning this year, but you can still create a space for your students to begin to unpack race, face history, and grapple with the lasting legacies of the past.
How do we help students to move beyond their own perspectives to understand the lives of others? How do we challenge them to deeply understand another person whose life and experiences differ greatly from their own? How do we cultivate empathy, compassion, and even love across the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, and disability?
These questions lie at the heart of social justice education.
To create a truly equitable society, we must be able to empathize with experiences we may never share. We must break down “empathy walls” to transform our society. But how do we do so?
Theater in the history classroom provides one possible answer.
I always challenged myself to be outside of my comfort zone as an educator. I thought I’d seen most everything during my 30 years tenure in public education in Colorado as a teacher, principal, and literacy coordinator. That was until I retired from Colorado and moved to Alaska for a change. Goodbye comfort zone!
Here in Alaska, like most other states in the nation, change occurs continuously in education as well as in most other aspects of our lives. However, changes in Alaska reflect some facts of which most people are unaware.