Monday, November 23, 2015

How Can Teachers Address the Plight of Refugees in the Classroom?

Photo Credit: Freedom House

In the aftermath of the tragedies in France, Nigeria, Lebanon, and Mali, many people are feeling a mix of emotions from grief and outrage to vulnerability and fear. In response to the latter, some U.S. politicians have called for denying entry to Syrian refugees—or those Syrians who are not Christian. On November 19th, the House of Representatives passed the “American Safe Act of 2015” by a vote of 289 to 137, with 47 Democrats and all but two Republicans supporting the bill. Some have called this bill a “knee-jerk reaction” since it was not reviewed by a relevant House committee beforehand and its fate in the Senate is still unknown. The President has said he will veto it if it reaches his desk.

Given the gravity of the tragedies and their impact—including the quick responses by lawmakers and what it means for refugees worldwide, students will likely want to discuss and learn more as they process their understanding and opinions. It’s important to provide students with this outlet as well as to equip them and yourself with facts and resources for credible information (in comparison to what they may hear around the dinner table or by some media).

Among some of the questions students may ask include: What is a refugee? What is the process like for becoming a refugee in the U.S? What types of circumstances are they fleeing from? How does the U.S. compare relatively to other nations accepting refugees? What is the process like for resettlement in the U.S.?

What follows are resources that answer these questions and more in order to facilitate conversations factually and humanely:

Facts About Refugees

  • An Overview of Refugee Law & Policy (American Immigration Council) The United States passed its first official refugee legislation to address the plight of displaced Europeans following World War II. Learn about the definition of a refugee, the process, (which after vetting by several agencies can take 18-24 months), and resettlement.

Connections to History

  • We are a nation of immigrants and refugees. Yet we always fear who is coming next. (Jamelle Bouie, Slate) This article presents several historical examples of acceptance and resistance to refugees and migrants even within our own nation. It concludes by asking an essential question for youth and adults: “the question of the refugees isn’t if we’ll honor our values; it’s which ones we’ll choose. Will we embrace our heritage of inclusion or reject it for nativism?”

Policy to People

  • Humans of New York Refugee Stories (Brandon Stanton, Medium) Detailed stories from interviews with refugees around the world after they have found safety and are in different stages of acclimating to a new environment. Students could read an individual story in groups or individually and participate in a jigsaw or turn-n-talk literacy strategy to discuss some of the common themes learned.

We seek to connect teachers and students with the most relevant, fact-based information to teach immigration critically and creatively – at no cost.  If you like our work, please pass this email, tell a friend and give them this link to receive updates and free resources such as lesson plans, books reviews, and community grants.

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

The First Thanksgiving and the First Immigrants

There are at least as many interpretations of the Thanksgiving story as there are recipes for gravy, but many include disingenuous representations of the meal shared between Native Americans and our nation’s first immigrants.

Teaching about Thanksgiving – comparing its myths and likely realities – is an opportunity to examine multiple perspectives about the dominant Thanksgiving narratives. For example, when the first immigrants arrived in America, what was life like for them? What hardships did they endure? How did the Wampanoag Indians, who had long been holding ceremonies to give thanks for plentiful harvests, respond to these newcomers? 

As Sarah Shear, assistant professor of social studies education at Pennsylvania State University in Altoona and former social studies teacher said in a Huffington Post article, “I think especially in the telling of U.S. history, there is a specific narrative that really does not lend itself to incorporating the voices of people who are not considered members of the dominant cultural group.” 
The First Thanksgiving 1621, Piligrims and Natives Gather to Share a Meal, oil painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, 1032
Moreover, she said that her undergraduate students are "frustrated that they learned a very specific narrative of Thanksgiving and never learned the greater complex narrative of not only the relationship between the indigenous people of New England and the settlers, [but] how those relationships changed over time."

This day has symbolically been marked with unity, gratitude, and welcoming others to sit at the table and eat -- and in this sense too, we can incorporate the less often told versions of the Thanksgiving story to better understand America’s history as a nation of immigrants.
In our lesson plan, The First Americans and the First Thanksgiving, elementary students learn and discuss myths and more probable realities surrounding the first Thanksgiving and the first immigrants in a thought-provoking and humorous read-aloud that challenges them to analyze dominant and resistant readings of this national holiday.
We wish you all a happy holiday with friends and family!

Additional Resources:

  •  Celebrate America Creative Writing Contest: Thanksgiving is an opportunity for all to reflect upon what it means to be American and the 19th annual Creative Writing Contest with the theme “Why I’m Glad America is a Nation of Immigrants” is a perfect vehicle for discussing American immigrant past and present with fifth grade students.  

  • What Really Happened? Comparing Stories of the First Thanksgiving by The Learning Network: Teaching and Learning with The New York Times - a lesson where middle and high school analyze several different versions of the first Thanksgiving to better understand not only the event itself, but how and why different groups of people interpret the event in radically different ways.

Stay Connected!
We offers free lesson plans, resources, book/film reviews, and grants to teach immigration. We also welcome teacher and student book reviews and contributions to our blog. Email us at and follow us on twitter @ThnkImmigration #teachimmigration

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Engaging Immigrant Parents as Partners: Part Two Strategies to Build Partnerships

-- Contributed by Eileen Gale Kugler

We are thrilled to publish this two-part series on engaging immigrant parents by Eileen Gale Kugler. In this series, she notes a critical disconnect between many immigrant families and schools and provides practical tips for educators to understand and build valuable partnerships with all parents. To read part one, please click here.

Immigrant parents can be a valuable asset to the school, as motivators and mentors for their own child, as connectors to members of their cultural community and beyond, and as a source of fresh ideas and perspectives for the school. Far too many are disconnected from schools, not understanding fully their role in American schools and not feeling welcome or valued there. Personal outreach that builds relationships, values these parents for their strengths, and targets their specific needs and interests will empower school leaders to build effective partnerships with immigrant families.

A Fresh Look at Parent Engagement

With some 25% of all students in schools today living with at least one immigrant parent, schools need to take a fresh look at parent engagement strategies. Research shows that parent engagement can have a major impact on student success, for students of every background.

Traditional parent involvement programs, like back-to-school nights and parent-teacher conferences, were created decades ago, and they meet the needs of parents who are knowledgeable about and comfortable with the American educational system. Many immigrant families, however, find them overwhelming or intimidating and they do not attend. The result is that some educators may assume that immigrant parents don't care about education. In reality, the education of their children was one of the motivating factors drawing many immigrant families to the U.S.

Strategies to Build Partnerships with Immigrant Parents

Go beyond traditional programs for family involvement. Strategic design of family engagement, based on the background, needs and interests of the specific immigrant families in that community, is essential to build valuable partnerships with immigrant parents. Recognizing that many traditional programs are designed for those already comfortable at the school, educational leaders need to explore non-threatening ways to encourage immigrant parent involvement: a classroom celebration of children’s writing where family members accompany their child; a breakfast with their child before work with a personal moment with the teacher; or a culture-specific program. A welcoming parent center with bilingual staff can provide space for immigrant parents to begin to feel comfortable at school. 

Success of outreach is often measured by the number of attendees, but targeted small group activities can be more welcoming and effective. After parents become comfortable in these meetings, it is important to find ways to connect immigrant families with other families in the school, through classroom-based activities or school-wide projects where families work side-by-side.

Connect parent engagement to academics. While it is important to build personal connections, the engagement cannot stop there. To truly have an impact on student achievement, research shows that there needs to also be a connection to student learning. International dinners can be a welcoming way to bring families into the school, but they don’t need to stop at breaking bread together. One high school in Northern Virginia with immigrants from many cultures turned their dinner into Bravo Night, inviting immigrant graduates from the school to talk about the strategies that enabled them to succeed in college and career.

Programs such as math or literacy nights can provide immigrant parents with insights on classroom learning. For parents who did not have the benefit of quality education themselves, adult literacy classes can build their capacity to support and mentor their children. Immigrant parents – and all parents – can benefit from learning the academic connections of subjects like music, art, and physical education. 

Get out into the community. Some families find it intimidating to just walk through the school doors. Others may be concerned about going to an “official” building, worried about their own immigration status or that of a loved one. Parent meetings can be held in community rooms or at religious institutions in the neighborhood. A meeting at a public library can be a comfortable way to introduce immigrant parents to this valuable resource. Sometimes a lunchroom in a local factory is a great place to connect with parents who can’t leave work.

If your school has a process for conducting home visits, they can be an effective way to build relationships with immigrant families. Many families feel honored that school officials come to their homes. A successful Latina entrepreneur told me her life changed in first grade when the principal visited her home, fostering a stronger connection to the school for the whole family. Pre- and post-visits procedures and tips are essential for a safe, successful home visit so communicate with your school and families prior to commencing a home visit program.  For additional support, please see the Family Engagement Resources from the Flamboyan Foundation and “Carol Sharpe: A View on Home Visits” published on Edutopia.

Rethink the structure of parent-led activities. Parent leaders need to rethink what “welcoming” looks like – beyond a friendly hello when a new person enters the room. To diversify attendance at and leadership of parent groups, leaders can work with teachers and guidance counselors to identify immigrant parents who could become more involved, and then provide support and training. Connecting immigrant parents with long-time parent leaders, as welcoming friends or mentors, can be a powerful way to build relationships. While fundraising is important, if this is the parent group’s major purpose, it can place value on only those parents with the contacts or personal finances to contribute.

Invite families in multiple ways. A simple flyer sent home or a broadly-sent text may appear to be for “someone else” to a parent who is disconnected from the school. Include personal notes home with the child, individual texts, emails and follow-up phone calls – the more personal, the better. Use multiple ways to get the message out. One Maryland elementary school placed a sticky note on each child’s jacket saying, “Bring me to the family program at school tonight!” Notices in local foreign-language newspapers and fliers at ethnic restaurants, markets, or other community venues can be particularly valuable. Local cultural newspapers usually have English-speaking staff and are eager to report school news.

Collaborate with local groups that serve immigrants. The most effective family engagement begins with an understanding of the background, interests and needs of the particular immigrant families within that community. Community organizations, culture-based groups, and houses of worship can be powerful partners in connecting with families, as well as planning and hosting programs. Leaders of these groups can provide a trusted link to immigrant families.

Eileen Gale Kugler helps schools develop positive high-achieving culture that values every student and family. She is author of the award-winning “Debunking the Middle-class Myth: Why Diverse Schools are Good for All Kids” and Executive Editor of the global resource, Innovative Voices in Education: Engaging Diverse Communities. She can be reached at EKugler@EmbraceDiverseSchools. Follow her on Twitter at @embracediversiT

Additional Resources

Want to read more? Click here to purchase Innovative Voices in Education: Engaging Diverse Communities and read our book review of this important resource. Enter promo code RLEGEN15 at checkout for a 20% discount. You can also read a previous article “How Immigrant Students Strengthen American Schools” by the author featured on our blog.

We want to hear from you!

What are the diverse ways you connect with immigrant parents? Please share your thoughts with us by emailing us at and we’ll share best practices on our blog and with educators in our network. All submissions will be eligible for a $25 Amazon gift card.

Stay Connected!
The American Immigration Council offers free lesson plans, resources, book/film reviews, and grants to teach immigration. We also welcome teacher and student book reviews and contributions to our blog. Email us at and follow us on twitter @ThnkImmigration #teachimmigration.