Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Twenty New York School Districts Mandated to Change Their Enrollment Policies for Immigrants

Twenty New York school districts, found to be denying access to education to undocumented immigrant children, are now obligated by the state attorney general’s office to correct their enrollment process. Despite repeated reminders and instructions from federal and state agencies on how to properly enroll students, these districts continued to disregard their legal responsibilities by asking for documents such as social security cards or proof of district residency from immigrant families, effectively barring undocumented youth from attending school.

The New York Department of Education began an investigation after The New York Times reported in October, 2014 that undocumented immigrant children on Long Island were being asked about their immigration status and were denied access to schools. Originally the investigation focused on four districts, but the practice was found to be widespread, extending to 20 districts outside of large cities. Many of these communities have received an influx of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence and persecution from Central America and Mexico and seeking refuge in the U.S.

The districts are mandated to change their enrollment policies as well as to provide training for enrollment officials in order to comply with the 1982 Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, which found that schools cannot deny access to public education on the basis of a student’s immigration status.

Previously the NY Civil Liberties Union noted that putting up illegal barriers to undocumented students is “possibly creating a chilling effect on such students and attempting to register.” It is one thing to be in compliance with the law, but it will require additional steps to welcome immigrant students into the classroom.

Recommended Reading:

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

How the Novel Americanah Explores Immigration, Race, and Love

Photo by: Vanderfrog Source: Flickr Creative Commons

Told through a series of flashbacks, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, captures the stories of two Nigerians, Ifemelu and her childhood friend/first love, Obinze, who enter themselves into self-imposed exiles in America and Great Britain after their options for education are squelched by a military dictatorship back home.

Setting the novel in three nations, Adiche focuses on the love story and lives of Ifemelu and Obinze, who sacrifice everything they know not only to escape danger, but also to search for more options and opportunities. Like many Nigerians, they are well-educated and live a comfortable life, but are also raised to strive for the next level that can’t be found in Nigeria. An ocean apart, Obinze finds his new life in Great Britain and Ifemelu finds it in the U.S., but they are still connected not just by their past but their nationality. Similar to many African immigrants, Ifemelu is still connected to her homeland, but when she returns to Nigeria, she faces many decisions and unexpected realizations, not the least being if she should see Obinze again who has also returned.  

We first meet the protagonist, Ifemelu, 13 years after she arrives in the United States. At that point, she is entrenched in American life and struggles to deal with something she never did in Nigeria—race. Ifemelu is an intelligent, strong-willed woman who has her feet on American ground, but her heart resides in both Nigeria and the United States. Through a series of romances and misadventures, she both matures and regresses, taking the reader through a series of topics that look at race and post 9-11 immigration policies.  

Americanah is recommended for mature high school students and makes a great book club read, because it is much more than a novel—it is a provocative springboard to discuss race, love, and immigration through a transnational perspective.  Pair with Adiche’s inspiring Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” and our argumentativewriting graphic organizer to use with students while viewing, and/or Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

How Digital Storytelling about Immigration Creates Empathetic Moments

Teaching empathy is not like teaching how to determine the central idea of a text, but it is just as essential, if not more so, to educating youth.  As Elena Aguilar wrote recently in “How Reading Literature Cultivates Empathy,” “there's enough evidence in our world today that we need to intentionally cultivate empathy, and then there's evidence that people are reading less than they ever have; and so I'd suggest that within our decision-making spheres, we intentionally and strategically incorporate fiction into the nooks and crannies of our days.”  We can extend this idea even further when it comes to “Welcoming Immigrant Students into the Classroom” and use the act of writing stories about family immigration experiences to foster empathy and deep understanding about how we are a nation of immigrants.

The Connections between Digital Storytelling, Immigration, and Empathy
            Telling stories is an innately human experience that straddles cultures and time reaching back into ancient oral traditions.  It allows us to connect with others and create a sense of belonging.  It also lets us see and hear from another person’s perspective, a key component of empathy.  Writing stories of family immigration history – no matter how distant or recent – allows for common threads and variations of the immigration experience to be seen, heard, and reflected upon.
            Using digital storytelling to capture immigration stories is a powerful way for teachers to create opportunities for “empathetic moments” among students. Adding images and sound help to fully imagine another person’s immigration experience as evidenced in this example from the 2013 winner of the American Immigration Council’s Multimedia Contest.  Digital storytelling offers the advantage of authentic engagement to reach multiple learning styles as well as to teach writing skills while exploring connections and understandings to an issue that affects everyone.
Establish a Culture of Listening and Respect        

Being able to tell one’s immigration story can be especially important for recently immigrated students who are trying to adapt to a new life in the US while maintaining ties to their home country.  Marriage Family Therapy Intern, Jill Pettegrew, at Family Paths, a community mental health agency that serves a multi-cultural population, including many immigrant children and families, says, “Telling stories of their homeland, culture, family, and friends helps bring these parts of themselves present. While some immigrant students may be trying to forget their past, especially if it involves traumatic experiences, telling stories of the things they love about their homeland can help keep the good memories separate from challenging memories.”  She advises teachers “to work closely with immigrant students as they craft their stories for presentation, and prevent the retelling of traumatizing events,” adding that “a child should be referred to counseling if stories of trauma emerge during the process.”
            A foundation of listening and respect must be in place so that any student does not feel excluded, or at worst, ashamed.  A former undocumented student, now a U.S. citizen, shared a decidedly “unempathetic” moment with me about a well-intentioned family history project she experienced in third-grade.  The teacher asked everyone to create posters about their family history, but it was painfully clear to her that only she and one other student had recently immigrated. “Everyone else was from America.  I dreaded it.”  Luckily, the other student presented first and was so proud of her cultural heritage, that it “empowered me to do the same.”

Create “Empathetic Moments” by Modeling, Conferencing, and Sharing

Teachers can lead by example and share their own family’s immigration story thereby taking that vulnerable first step.  Even better is to write alongside students modeling the writing process from research and inquiry to drafting and editing.  Brian Kelley, an eighth grade teacher, uses this method with his students and blogs about his process in the classroom.  He demonstrates his discoveries and writes alongside his students and provides frequent opportunities for peer and teacher conferences. Kelley says he finds “empathy arises when students linger to share something with me one on one, in written drafts as they develop their thinking, and during conferencing.”  They are also encouraged to talk at home, bring in artifacts, and of course, more stories.  By writing about family heritage and immigration with my students,” Kelley says, “my chain of empathy is available for students to connect with and learn from.” 
Perhaps what is difficult about teaching empathy is that it can be hard to provide evidence of it in our data-driven age.  It’s the kind of thing that you know when you see it, or more importantly, feel it.  One student in Kelley’s classroom wrote that "my mother always gives me examples of her patience, like how she had to wait a few years for my father to be able to take her to America. The worst story she ever tells is how she had to leave me in China for three years. I can only wonder what pain a mother would feel if she had to leave her child voluntarily behind, and the patience needed to continue on in life."
Students cultivate empathy by sharing, listening, and connecting to other immigration stories. Consider viewing finished digital stories by hosting a movie night open to family and community members, or by providing a gallery-walk and listening tour in your school.  If you are looking for ideas and how-tos, the American Immigration Council’s Crossing Borders with Digital Storytelling provides a step-by-step customizable plan for classrooms as well as ways to collaborate with other teachers.  What are other ways to support and share students’ digital stories on immigration and create “empathetic” moments?


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Power of Words

When is a word more than just a word?  How can language impact attitudes and behaviors?  How we talk about immigration and immigrants affects our understanding not only of the national debate, but also our ability to empathize.

Immigration terms can be used to disparage and to be deliberately misleading.  In 2011, the American Immigration Council debated the definition of the term “anchor baby” as it was defined in the American Heritage Dictionary on the grounds that it was not categorized as a pejorative. The Council ultimately succeeded in getting the American Heritage Dictionary’s executive editor, Steve Kleinedler, to change the definition, who readily acknowledged the error, but what stands is a lesson (and a reminder) that immigration terms are emotionally loaded and used to negatively reframe rather than reflect understanding.

For reference, here are the original and revised definitions of the term “anchor baby.”
More recently, the Pew Research Center noted a correlation between the frequency of the term “illegal immigrant” and the context of a congressional debate on immigration in the media.  They found that when Congress considered a major immigration bill in 1996, 2002, 2007, and 2013, the term “illegal immigrant” was used more often.  In 2014, they noted a trend to diminish the use of this term with some major newspapers prohibiting the term “because they said it lacked precision and broadly labeled a large group.”  In its place, the term “undocumented” has become more popular in usage, but “illegal” is still a term commonly used.

Jonathan Rosa, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts, told National Public Radio that the terms “undocumented” and “illegal” are more than just a reflection of a socio-political environment; “it’s a way of taking action in the world” and that the terms carry “social consequences.”  As educators, we have to be concerned not only about the accuracy of information shared within the classroom, but especially about potential social consequences. The risk of alienating and disenfranchising immigrants in classrooms and communities is too great. It runs counter to the message we want to send to students which is: “You are a person who matters. You are somebody and you are important.”

To call someone “illegal” is an inaccurate and damaging label.  As Nobel Peace Prize Winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel famously noted “no human being is illegal.” Illegal is an adjective that describes something unlawful.  Jaywalking is illegal. Parking without a permit is illegal.  Not filing your taxes is very illegal.  So for teachers, what can we do to not only send the right message, but equip our students with the skills to interrogate the message? How do labels make us feel?

Here’s an idea about how to have that dialogue with students and build a culturally inclusive classroom that recognizes the power of words to shape our understanding not just of debates, but of people.

Start by asking students what is the difference between denotation (the explicit definition of a word) and connotation (the implied definition of a word).  If students are stuck, you might ask “what’s the difference between “overjoyed” and “glad?”” Students should be able to recognize a distinction even if they mean the same thing. Try a few examples until you feel that students understand. 

Next, give students the Pew Research Center article and have them determine its central idea.  Push them to support their answers with evidence.  
Have students apply denotation and connotation to these frequently used immigration terms. See Teaching Tolerance’s The Language of the Immigration Debate for probing questions.

Compile a comprehensive list of immigration terms as a class based on what students have heard in the media and in their lives.  Discuss if these words are used impartially or if they carry a bias, even a hurtful one.  How would it feel to be called “illegal”?   

For an extension, ask students to collect five recent articles on immigration and identify how often they come across the terms you discussed in class and what that might tell about our present moment.  You can also ask students to cut and paste the articles to make a word cloud on Wordle and present their findings to the class for a follow-up discussion.  We would love for you to share them with us!  Please email us your PDFs or screen shots of your Wordles at and we will gladly post them on our blog for others to learn from. 

For reference, a brief glossary of immigration terms:
(See the glossary of Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report Immigration: Data Matters for more terms)

Alien – an alien is any person who is not a citizen or national of the United States (as a legal term defined in the Immigration and Nationality Act)

Citizenship – a person’s formal legal status that links to their country of birth or naturalization and conveys a set of legal rights, protections, and responsibilities.

Illegal – an action not allowed by the law

Immigranta person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence
(note: according to the MPI, there is no consistent cross-country definition of an immigrant)

Immigration – the act of moving from one country to another

International Migrant – any person who changes his or her country of usual residence

Lawful Permanent Resident – a noncitizen who has been lawfully granted the privilege of residing and working permanently in the United States

Migrant – a person who moves across borders

Unauthorized – not having official permission

Unauthorized Migrant – a person who arrives or resides in a country without valid authorization from the country’s government

Undocumented – not having the official documents that are needed to enter, live in, or work in a country legally