Monday, March 30, 2015

What Poetry Means on Angel Island

The insects chirp outside the four walls.
The inmates often sigh.
Thinking of affairs back home,
Unconscious tears wet my lapel.
—a poem carved into the barracks walls at the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island

For centuries, poetry has played a powerful role in our lives. Poetry is a way of remembering history, of bearing witness. It can also be an essential avenue leading to the self-empowerment of an individual. For immigrants detained at the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, poetry was a critical outlet.  It became the vehicle of expression detainees used to combat isolation, alienation and silence.

The Immigration Station was built to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first major piece of legislation targeting a nationality. Forced to spend weeks, sometimes years at the processing station, the imprisoned men carved hundreds of poems into the barracks walls contemplating their fate:

Four days before the Qiqiao Festival
I boarded the steamship for America.
Time flew like a shooting arrow.
Already, a cool autumn has passed.
Counting on my fingers, several months have elapsed.
Still I am at the beginning of the road.
I have yet to be interrogated.
My heart is nervous with anticipation. 

It was poetry that saved the Immigration Station from destruction.  In 1970, plans were in place to demolish the abandoned detention barracks when park ranger Alexander Weiss slipped into the building to explore.  Weiss, too, was an immigrant brought to America as a four-year-old Jewish refugee from Austria escaping the Holocaust. He was astonished to find entire walls covered in calligraphy. Defying orders from his supervisor to ignore the “graffiti,” Weiss told his professor at San Francisco State College about his findings and soon the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) was launched to save the Immigration Station from ruin.

Working with our California State Park partners, AIISF launched an online educational immigration module targeted at 11th graders.  In the module, students study the major turning points in American history through the lens of immigration with an emphasis on the people who came through the United States Immigration Station on Angel Island.

Lesson three of this module focuses on the poetry. Available for free online, it includes selected poems from the incredible book, Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940, by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim and Judy Yung.  In the lesson, students learn to think rhetorically in order to analyze the primary text of a poem. They compare the perspective shared in the poems and engage in a "Text Talk," by coming to a discussion prepared with annotations.

We’ve found that these poems resonate with students of every ethnic background and family immigration story. These are poems of anger and frustration, hope and despair feelings any 11th grader may have experienced.  Many adolescents may feel a similar sense of entrapment as the poetry on the barracks walls convey:

                              I, a seven foot man, am ashamed I cannot extend myself.
                              Curled up in an enclosure, my movements are dictated by others.
                              Enduring a hundred humiliations, I can only cry in vain.
                              This person’s tears fall, but what can the blue heavens do?

Importantly, these poems document a grave moment in U.S. history, detailing with excruciating clarity in a way that textbooks cannot, of how we barred access to certain immigrant groups based on fears and prejudice.

Teaching about the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island through the poetry carved into the station walls is a bold reminder of America’s history of racial exclusion. And it is a lesson to be invoked as we grapple with current immigration policies and work toward a more inclusive society.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Tips for Teaching How to Write Digital Stories on Immigration

Digital storytelling about immigrant heritage is a way to access a shared past and present, however distinct the individual stories are, develop reading and writing skills, and most importantly, build empathy while thoroughly engaging students. It can, however, be challenging to teach for a number of reasons: 1) uncertainty in the writing process when there may be unknown variables in immigration experiences 2) fears of technology 3) relevancy within what may be a restrictive curriculum.

The American Immigration Council’s “Crossing Borders with Digital Storytelling” is a comprehensive guide adaptable for any grade level and aligned to Common Core, but best practice often involves learning from other teachers to improve.  Middle school teacher Brian Kelley has been developing family heritage podcasting and digital storytelling with his students for several years and has shared some of his methods for working with students in writing about their immigration journeys.  His tips connect well with our curriculum.

Writing is the most important aspect to any digital story project.  What follows are tips excerpted from Kelley’s blog Walk the Walk and copied with his permission here to help teachers anticipate and meet some of the challenges in implementing this project as well as to showcase its valuable rewards.  To view the tips in detail, read 8 Tips for How to Teach a Digital Storytelling on Immigration and From Writing the Page to Pressing Play: More Tips on Teaching Digital Stories on Immigration.

Tips for Teaching Digital Stories on Immigration 


          1  Brainstorm with Students
          2  Encourage Talk at Home
          3  Bring in Good Writers and Writing
          4  Demonstrate Research Skills and Reflection
          5  Analyze Historical and Cultural Context with Students
          6  Model Writing a Short Narrative
          7  Target Areas for Revision
          8  Question When Students Say "I don't have culture"
          9  What to Say When Students Say "I don't know what to write about"
         10  What to Say When Students Say "I can't find the right image"
         11  Use Storyboards for Some But Not All
         12  Test Your Digital Storytelling Software Before Working With Students
         13  Provide Extra Support for Beginner Writers and Users of Technology
         14  View Troubleshooting with Technology as a Learning Opportunity
         15  Plan Unique Opportunities to Celebrate and Share! 

We welcome your feedback, tips, and questions for how to engage students in digital storytelling on immigration.  Email us at and follow us on Twitter @ThnkImmigration.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Digital Learning on Immigration: Quick Lessons for Students by Students

"The Mortar of Assimilation" , 1889

Teach digital learning day (#DLDay) any day of the week with relevant content! Our newly launched digital learning guide on immigration makes it easy to adapt short lessons to meet classroom needs.  

Educators can seamlessly integrate engaging multimedia content on immigration from the films produced by young adults (14-25) for the American Immigration Council’s “Change in Motion” contest.

How can I use this guide?   No more than five minutes in length, these films inspire dialogue, critical thinking and creative teaching on immigration. 

The tools in this guide include Common-Core aligned questions that can be used as warm-ups, homework, extra credit, advisories, in-between time during standardized testing days, full lessons, etc. in order to provide students with real-world accounts on the impact of immigration today.

Additional activities are provided to extend learning and explore themes and topics covered in the individual films, as well as a prompt to make connections to primary texts via political cartoons such as "The Mortar of Assimilation" pictured above).
Teachers have to flexibility to adapt the guide to best meet classroom needs.

How can I extend the conversation beyond the classroom?  Participate in short commentary via Twitter using the hashtag #DLDay and our handle @ThnkImmigration for longer conversations via Today’s Meet (classroom name: TeachImmigration), a free educational tool that enables discussions and empowers students.

What is the “Change in Motion” multimedia contest? The competition upon which this guide is based challenges today’s young adults to explore the role that immigration plays in their lives and communities through video and other multimedia projects. Projects should focus on celebrating America as a nation of immigrants as well as the immigration's impact on our everyday lives.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Students Read and Review Shaun Tan’s The Arrival

Reviewed by Owen Bouchard, Tyler Garry, Alia Higgins and Julia Semmel
Joseph A. DePaolo Middle School, Southington, CT

A number of people have never been to another country. They don’t know what it is like to be an immigrant; however, if they read Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, the readers would have a better understanding of the troubles that people go through. The immigrant protagonist in the story leaves his family behind to start a new life. This story helps the reader relate to the sorrow, longing, and unfamiliarity that many immigrants experience.

Tan’s abstract art conveys a difference between old and new. The fanciful and bright details in the artist’s depiction of a new, more advanced country is relatable for any reader who has experienced awe of their surroundings. There is plenty more to this story than simply the journey and acclimation of the character, such as: the emotions of his departure, the loss of his family, and the wonders of a new world. Further, the story is all told through black and white pictures.

Tan’s story starts with a simple family: a husband, wife, and young girl in a gloomy and melancholy environment. They are seen packing to leave. Whilst they walk down the street, reptilian spines snake their way in between uniform rows of drab, dreary houses. Later, the husband gets on a train after a seemingly painful farewell.

The protagonist then travels across the sea to a new life. He is constantly discovering and learning new information. Things that are quite normal to former inhabitants are full of magic and wonder to him. The protagonist befriends a variety of creatures (monsters, beasts and fairy tale animals); thus, the author symbolizes how wild and new creatures may seem in a different country.

The Arrival is brimming with fantastic scenery and settings to remind readers that there is always light and beauty in the world. For example, when the father enters this amazing new city, he sees giant statues, castles, towers and even a towering dove.

Although the protagonist is open to new discoveries and ways of life, he endures much sorrow as well. The main character’s wife and daughter pack a picture of their family in his suitcase and walk him to the train station. This shows the reader, without any words, that the main character misses those who care and love for him.

The protagonist is shown hospitality by the family that took him in and provided him shelter. The son of the main character’s adoptive family reminds him of his own daughter because he appreciated the acts of kindness shown to him and he introduced the character to new wonders. All the characters are fascinating, but the reader truly bonds with the protagonist throughout the pages of this graphic novel.

The story’s theme is about helping others even if they are different or hard to understand.  According to the pictures, the immigrant in the beginning was feeling left out. Then other immigrants and citizens who had been there longer helped him and started to teach and show him parts of this new land. The entire immigrant family learns to help others even if they are unusual or diverse.

Similar to the beginning of The Arrival, immigrants in today’s world are not always treated respectfully. It would be very difficult for an immigrant to get around if they are unable to speak the language or understand how the inhabitants live. This is what happened to the protagonist in the beginning until other immigrants helped him out. They provided him shelter and began to teach him the customs of the natives. With respect from the immigrants, the protagonist was able to learn the customs and show his daughter as well. We don’t know where this book took place, but nevertheless it could happen anywhere people discriminate against outsiders. Tan urges today’s citizens to provide immigrants with this same courtesy that The Arrival’s supporting characters provide throughout the story.

Leaving one’s country to start a new life can be very daunting. If you want to find out more about the immigrant experience, read Shaun Tan’s The Arrival.

This book review appears courtesy of teachers Kerri Fenton and Debbie Moreau, winners of our 2014-2015 Community Grants, and their students.  Find out more information on the American Immigration Council’s 2015-2016 bi-annual community grants including our online application here.

If there’s an immigration-themed book you’d like to review for us, or if you have a book review suggestion, please let us know at or tweet us @ThnkImmigration.

Related Resources:
·       How Digital Storytelling about Immigration Creates Empathetic Moments – Read how writing digital stories on immigration can create a classroom culture of listening, respect and empathy.

·       8 Tips for Teaching How to Write a Digital Story on ImmigrationTips to help teachers anticipate and meet some of the challenges in implementing a digital storytelling project as well as to showcase its valuable rewards.

·       Crossing Borders with Digital Storytelling In this Common-Core aligned immigration lesson plan, teachers are guided step-by-step through a process for launching a digital storytelling project on immigration in their own classrooms.  Recommended writing prompts, easy to use digital platforms, as well as resources and collaborative planning tools are shared and explained.

·       Make Visual Narratives with Shaun Tan's The Arrival A website dedicated to teacher and student resources on making visual narratives showcasing discussion questions on The Arrival.

Friday, March 6, 2015

How Are You Going to Make This Women’s History Month Different?

March is Women’s History month and March 8th is International Women’s Day, but as Maureen Costello writes in “The Trouble with Women’s History Month,” there’s a problem in highlighting the past achievements of women in a month (or any group with a specially designated month) if it encourages the thought that the issues have been solved. As she writes, “the female heroes of yesterday are acknowledged, the debt paid and the slate wiped clean.”

Often in school, we hear about the same women too – Abigail Adams, Clara Barton, Amelia Earhart, to name a few, and while their lives should be highlighted and honored for their courage, the implication to students is also that they are exceptions to the rule, remarkable not relatable, necessary then but not now.

The reality of women in our present moment is as complex as ever, and one way to examine and celebrate the triumphs, struggles, and diversity of women with students is through the lens of immigration.

Here are some ideas to teach women’s history month this March a little differently by exploring today’s immigrant women and their contributions to U.S. society:

1.     Analyze the facts
Use the following resources to analyze the demographics and roles immigrant women have in society.

Divide high school students into small groups and select a few areas from one or both of the first two reports to give them. Ask the following questions: what patterns do you see? what does this graph tell you about women immigrants? who could use this data and how? why is this data presented in bar or pie graph? what can you infer from the data about women immigrants?  This also makes a great test-prep activity with real-world application.

Immigrant Women in the United States (Migration Policy Institute)
Have high school students read the report and ask them to select one data point such as immigrant women were more likely than immigrant men to be U.S. citizens” and have them infer why they think this is true. Then, have students gather in small group to discuss their data and inferences. Encourage students to build on each other’s thinking by using discussion stems.

2.     Highlight other stories
Immigrant women are some of our most vulnerable and inspiring people in our society. 

See our book reviews for students at all grade levels to examine the immigrant experience from a woman’s or young girl’s perspective. 

For a shorter read, check out The Washington Post’sThe Almost Americans” which profiles one immigrant woman’s experience to keep her family together and her children in school in the U.S.

3.     Make connections
Working women have struggled to find balance between the demands of work and family. While some women have resources to assist them, many do not. In this lesson, students interview a female relative and then make connections to the dreams and values held by many immigrant women.

Share with us the ways you are teaching about immigrant women in the past and present. Follow us on twitter @ThnkImmigration, our education blog, and our website for related resources and lessons to #teachimmigration.
Photo Credit: keithreed01 on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).