Thursday, April 30, 2015

We Review Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel by Anya Ullnich

Graphic novels are not just for students. Although the genre tends to appeal to a younger audience, some authors such as Anya Ullnich, who writes for an older audience, uses the genre in order to literally illustrate the complexity of her personal immigration story.
We recently read Ullnich’s Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel and were amazed by the multiple story layers the immigrant artist and author was able to deliver. In the story, Ullnich creates a memoir of a young Russian Jew arriving as a refugee in her teens. Through flashbacks and a series of failed relationships (including two divorces and some uncomfortable on-line dating) the creator succeeds in depicting a view of American culture seen through immigrant eyes. At times humorous and at times serious, the novel immerses the reader in the immigrant experience and is particularly adept at portraying how a new arrival is tortured by nostalgia, as well as a desire to fit in. 

Lena Finkle is most definitely not for classroom use, but educators who read it on their own time won’t be disappointed. The book was on the New York Times Best of 2014 list and it is a truly moving story told creatively in both words and illustrations. 

Graphic novels uniquely capture the immigrant story in part because they travel between two worlds, the old and new, the real and imagined. Books like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, Peter Sis’s The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain or Gene Luen Yan’s American Born Chinese are perfectly appropriate to use with students. They engage students in an accessible and provocative format and serve as a meaningful conduit to spark discussion about immigration, social justice, race, and topics that are sometimes hard to approach. 

ELL teachers have used graphic novels in their arsenal of teaching tools for years and innovative teachers have done the same with unmotivated students and reluctant readers. More recently, an article from the National Council of Teachers of English shows that the popular genre of graphic novels is a proven tool that helps bridge literacy gaps and can act as a point of reference in teaching specific historical topics. Notably, Congressmen John Lewis seized on this trend by depicting the story of his life, including the historic March on Washington, in the graphic novel, March.


  • Recently Teaching Tolerance put together a comprehensive guide, The Social Justice League, that explains how to use graphic novels in the classroom. Author Pam Watts states that “graphic novels are the new superheroes of literacy instruction.”
  • houses lesson plans, book lists and other resources to help teach how to read a graphic novel. The Arrival a popular graphic novel is a perfect place to start an immigration unit for 5th grade- 8th grade, and the lesson plan at Get Graphic has appropriate questions and activities.  The graphic novel American Born Chinese can be used for 8th-12th grade and the Get Graphic lesson gives students ample opportunity to discuss stereotypes and debunk myths about immigrants.
  • Penguin Publishing has an excellent teacher’s guide, You Can Do a Graphic Novel, that demonstrates how students can create their own graphic novels. According to the author Barbara Slate students benefit in developing skills in logic, problem solving, team work and task completion.  
Share with us the ways you are teaching with graphic novels and reach out to us if there is an immigration-themed book you or your students would like to review. Follow us on twitter @ThnkImmigration, our education blog, and our website for related resources and lessons to #teachimmigration.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Power of Poetry and the Immigration Experience

Photo by Crystal Coleman

Emily Dickinson famously wrote "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?”  By that measure, poetry is powerful. It transforms the everyday details of lives as something intimate, shared and simultaneously worldly. Poetry of the immigration experience is vastly rich and diverse in its use of images, sounds, and expression – and powerful too in its ability to captivate readers and listeners of all ages and to encourage understanding and empathy.

In celebration of National Poetry month, we curated some poetry activities and resources to read, write, and learn about immigration experiences through the transformative lens of poetry.

Write a “I’m From” Poem with Students

Explore your students’ diverse family heritage and build community by having students write “I’m From” poems. The original poem by George Ella Lyon has sparked many lesson plans for middle school and high school students as well as empathetic insights into student lives and cultural backgrounds. When I wrote “I’m From” poems with tenth grade students, I wrote my own first draft as a model in addition to Lyon’s poem, then asked my students to begin writing their own poems, not caring about spelling and punctuation for a first draft. I specifically asked them to tell me something about their family and culture, be it food, music, or nationality.  If they got stuck, they could write from the sentence stem “I’m From” again. After drafting and finalizing their poems, I then asked students to select their favorite lines to make a communal class poem that described all of us and where we’ve come from. We played around with the order, the look on the page and made strategic choices as to line placement, syntax, and imagery. Everyone had a voice on the page, both individually and collectively, and everybody had a piece of America’s immigration past to share. 

Use Multicultural Poetry Picture Books as “Mentor Texts”

Students learn to write well by imitation and frequent modeling and poetry is no different. Introduce students to great poems and poets with the expectation that they too can write like that.

Colorful and diverse poetry picture books make an impact on younger students, and older students can also draw inspiration from them for more critical thinking.

Below are recommended immigration-themed poetry picture books from children’s book publisher Lee & Low. Many of them are linked with accompanying lesson plans.

From the Bellybutton of the Moon/Del Ombligo de la Luna by Francisco Alarcón where an excerpt from the title poem reads “Mexico says my grandma means: from the bellybutton of the moon don’t forget your origin my son,” encourages readers to reflect on their heritage.

Laughing Tomatoes/Jitomates Risuenos, Angels Ride Bikes/Los Angeles Andan en Bicicleta, Iguanas in the Snow/Iguanas en la Nieve, and Poems to Dream Together/Poemas Para Soñar Juntos by Francisco Alarcón are bilingual poetry books that encourage young readers to reflect on their own family heritage, traditions, and culture.

Pat Mora’s poetry delights adults and children alike, but her most recent books of poems Water Rolls, Water Rises/El Agua Rueda, El Agua Sube is “a poetic ode to the beauty of the natural world as expressed by the movement and moods of water on Earth.” Complement it with Marilyn Singer’s A Full Moon is Rising which follows the moon as it travels across different countries and traditions.

Some of the poems found in these books lend themselves for students to imitate in the style of odes.  Scholastic has a great lesson for teaching the elements of poetry through odes for young students and Nancy Atwell’s In The Middle also contains ode-writing lessons geared towards middle school students.

Harness the Community-Building Power of Poetry through “Read-Alouds”

Invite students to read-aloud poems from the books above or poems they have written.  Use these tips from former Poet Laureate Billy Collins to teach students how to read poems aloud.  Not only does this help improve speaking and listening skills, you can also guide students in a class discussion on the power of poetry and its ability to communicate culture and experience.

Reflect on the Intersections of Immigration and Poetry for Writers

There are numerous poets who write about their immigration experiences, either their own or their families, including Li-Young Lee, Richard Blanco, and Rafael Campo demonstrating that it is rich material to generate poetry.  Looking back in history, Chinese immigrants detained at the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island carved poetry onto the station walls in order to “combat isolation, alienation and silence.”

Poet and immigration attorney Sherna Spencer’s journey as an immigrant provides a pathway for her work as an attorney and poet. In celebratory and critical lines on America’s immigrant past, she writes in her poem, “YOU are America” included in her book Musing Aloud Allowed:

Your blood runs deep in the New York subways
it stands tall in the turrets of the San Francisco Bay Bridge
it dampens the grounds in the farms and in the orchards
and creates the vines in the valley of the wine.

Bearing witness to the immigration experience through poetry can be empowering and powerful for students and is an opportunity not to be missed this April.  Have more ideas on teaching immigration and poetry with students?  We’d love to hear them.  Email us at and follow us on twitter @ThnkImmigration.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Tax Day is a Learning Opportunity

Photo by John Morgan

Every year on April 15th, adults in the U.S. file their taxes, and for most students, this deadline passes relatively unnoticed except for the anxiety and stress they may observe from adults in their lives. But tax day is a learning opportunity for students. For example, it’s a way to instill the importance of meeting deadlines or balancing a budget. It also extends into a thoughtful discussion on who pays taxes, how much, and what benefits are received in return.  Tax day lends itself as an occasion in your classroom to talk about the contributions of all immigrants as well as a common immigration myth, namely that “undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes, but they get benefits.”

To initiate a conversation with students on tax day, find out what knowledge they have already have about it and draw personal connections.
Ask students:

  • Do you have a budget? How do you earn money? How do you decide to spend it?
  • Do you think you pay taxes? If so, how? 
  • Does the government have a budget? How does it earn money?  How does the government decide to spend it?
  • Who should pay taxes? Should everyone pay the same amount or should it vary according to income?
Be sure to have students explain how they pay taxes through sales tax. It is estimated that immigrant households and businesses pay approximately $300 billion in federal, state, and local taxes and that they pay more taxes than they use services in their lifetimes.

Undocumented immigrants also pay taxes.  They pay sales tax every time they buy clothing, an appliance, gas, or food at a restaurant. What may surprise students is that undocumented immigrants also pay property tax, a main source of public school funding – even if they are renting. In a report on Immigration Myths and Facts, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce states, “more than half of undocumented immigrants have federal and state income, Social Security, and Medicare taxes automatically deducted from their paychecks.” Though undocumented immigrants can receive schooling and emergency medical care, they are not eligible for most benefits such as food stamps, welfare, or health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. You can find out the estimated state and local taxes each state receives from undocumented immigrants by clicking on this interactive map from the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).

Conversing with students about the economic contributions immigrants make in taxes extends the conversation beyond the usual, though important, classroom considerations of food, music, and art into a fuller understanding of how immigrants benefit our society.

Additional Tax Day Activities and Resources:

Scholastic: Teaching Taxes on April 15 – This website helps teachers learn about the essentials of taxes and offers lesson plans for grades 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12.

National Constitution Center: Dollars and Sense, Tax Day – This resource offers a 20 minute video about the history and significance of tax day with targeted questions for students as well as links to other lesson plans.

EdConLink “Tic Tac Taxes” – This lesson asks students to identify the three main types of taxes (property, sales, and income) and their purposes, with a fun tic-tac-toe game to assess student understanding.

Want to get more involved with our educational work by applying for our community grants, writing immigrant-themed book reviews, contributing to our blog posts or offering lessons learned in the classroom? Let us know about it! Email us at and follow us on Twitter @ThnkImmigration #teachimmigration