Talking about immigration can feel really hard. It is a word that is even difficult to define because there is no single story that explains the experiences of an immigrant. This article shares some useful tips on how to share the complex stories of immigration in the United States and elsewhere. It seeks to shed light on how to accurately teach about immigration, how to address some of the myths around immigration, and how to encourage students to value living in a diverse community. Let’s delve into how to have this important conversation.
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Immigration is broadly defined as permanently moving from one country to another country. The reality of immigration is far more complex. Some people arrive as refugees; some arrive seeking asylum; some move to a new country for job opportunities. There are many reasons why a person moves to a new country. The “why” is far less important than their unique experiences of arrival, transition, change, and resilience. The experiences of immigrants in the United States can only be taught through stories.
Immigration is not always an easy subject to broach for teachers, but it is becoming increasingly important to have this discussion in our classrooms. Avoiding the discussion only leaves kids with questions and assumptions. When leading discussions on immigration, it is most important to be honest and unbiased. This means that we share what we know, even if it is not a pretty picture. Immigrants in the United States have faced hurdles and adversity upon arrival. It is imperative that our students know how their country has been shaped by immigration and what it means to be an immigrant. The ultimate goal of having this ongoing conversation is to build empathy and tolerance in our students.
No matter where you live, immigration is a reality of the 21st century. As a global community, we are more mobile than ever. Implementing these 4 tips will ensure a fair, and honest (hopefully ongoing) discussion for this important topic.
The most important step to beginning this process of discussing immigration in your classroom is to self-reflect. What is your opinion about immigration? How do you navigate these conversations with friends and family? What is holding you back from being the best teacher to discuss this with your students? We all have blind spots and biases. Knowing them is the first step to educating others.
2) Read, Read, Read!
Read books about the history of immigration and the immigrant experience in your country. This will help you deeply understand the content you will teach and empathize with a variety of immigrant experiences. Here are some of my favorite reads for teachers:
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad by Gordon H. Chang
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas
3) Share the Honest Picture
Some immigrants have experienced hospitality and welcome upon arriving to the United States, while some have experienced suspicion, hostility, and targeted xenophobia. Share with your students the first-hand accounts and experiences of immigrants through literature, podcasts, videos, and even family interviews. Offer a space to ask questions and make sure to give opportunities for students to reflect on their own experiences. Teaching about the heavy parts of your country’s history prepares your students to create a better future for their community.
4) Make a Classroom Commitment
Write a classroom commitment together about how you unanimously agree to treat others. This is a powerful community exercise that leads students to reflect on their own treatment of other people, particularly those who have different beliefs than them. This can be a research project to learn about different cultures or you can write a Tolerance Constitution. The possibility to get creative lies in your students’ minds.
5) Never Stop the Conversation
Talking about difficult topics is like exercising a muscle. It may be uncomfortable at first, but the more you continue, the stronger you will become at leading difficult discussions. It takes a little bravery, but your students will be better citizens for it.
Thank you for your commitment to your students and community! How have you discussed immigration with your students? What worked well for you?