What I Want My Students To Understand About The Immigration Experience

I’ve worked hard to develop engaging lesson plans about immigration.  It’s a topic about which I feel a lot of passion, and I have been thinking recently about exactly what it is that I want students to learn about the immigration experience.  Of course, to try to pigeonhole the struggles and triumphs of millions of people into one neat little lesson plan is ridiculous, but I do have a few goals that I want to accomplish. 

This is what I want my students to understand about the immigration experience.

Immigrants face the same struggles that we all face.  

When I teach the poem “Elena” by Pat Mora or read excerpts from The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan with my classes, they realize that all parents struggle to communicate and connect with their children, and that all children want to distance themselves from the identity imposed on them by their parents.  When we study “Prospective Immigrants, Please Note” by Adrienne Rich, we talk about the fact that all change or progress also contains some risk and uncertainty.  Some themes are universal, and a good first step towards feeling empathy is to realize how much you have in common with someone who seems different.

There are struggles that are unique to immigrants that many of us will never face in our lives.  

I might have a hard time communicating with my own kids, but at least I speak the same language as they do.  It might be difficult for me to define home, but at least I can return whenever I want to the place I was born.  The message that we are all alike is a great one, but kids also need to be taught that there are some people who have it much much worse than others.  All of our problems feel important, but we also need to realize how different some people’s lives are than our own.

People who are not connected to power need more help than those who are.  

Everyone needs a helping hand sometimes, and we all need to have our basic human rights protected, but there are some people who need more protection than others.  When you don’t speak the language, and you don’t have much family nearby, and you have little experience navigating the system, you need a lot of help.  I want my students to feel an obligation to helping those who aren’t getting enough help already.

Immigration is not just about black and white pictures of Ellis Island.  

I make a consistent effort to find resources to teach the immigration experience that are as contemporary as possible.  When students get the idea that immigration is something that happened during centuries past, they are misled.  It also fuels the idea that our parents or grandparents or great grandparents were not the same as people trying to relocate in this country today.  It’s fine to teach immigration in history classes, but students need to know that it is very current as well.

Not everyone came here to find a bright new future.  

The narrative that immigrants come to America and find opportunity and success at every corner as long as they work hard and follow the rules has been true for some, but for millions of people, it has not been a reality at all.  Some people have come here against their will, many have come because they felt they had no other choice, and many more have lead quiet lives of desperation, never finding that elusive success.  Students need to learn more than one narrative of the immigrant experience.

Multiple perspectives and experiences enrich our country.  

I really like the idea that a metaphor of a salad bowl should replace the old metaphor of a melting pot.  So much of American culture depends on new additions and different cultures.  I want my students to learn how much fun it is when you experience new music or food or curse words or ways of caring for aging grandparents.  People who come from different countries often have very different ways of living and even of defining their world.  We only become clearer and more nuanced in our own worldviews and life philosophies when we learn about all the multiplicity that exists in this world.

Ultimately, what I want my students to learn is to feel empathy for people whose lives are not like their own.  I don’t want them to feel like everything they learn is a downer, but I do want them to have a sense of the reality out there.  And then I want them to figure out how to make this world a better place.

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids, meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village, or writing in her blog, Gil Teach.

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