Coming To America:
Migration & Poetry

Teacher at Lowell High School and Re-imagining Migration fellow

by Jessica Lander

I teach U.S. History to recent immigrants and refugee students who hail from across the globe. Some have escaped war, gang violence, droughts, famines. Others have come for better economic opportunity, or to reconnect with family. All have come seeking a brighter future.

Together we study maps of the transcontinental railroad, run simulations of the start of World War 1, read accounts of the Japanese Internment camps.

Early in the year, we study the history of the immigrants who came before them. We reflect on Emma Lazarus’s inscription on the Statue of Liberty, read and discuss the impact of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and consider the changing demographics of immigrants over the last hundred years.

This year, I also had them study the stories of immigrants who came to the West Coast, many passing through Angel Island in San Francisco Bay.  

On the walls of Angel Island’s immigration, detention, and deportation center are poems — carved a hundred years ago by hopeful immigrants. They are often short, a few lines, a few stanzas.  They are poems bursting with worries, dreams, fears, hopes.

Together we read these poems out loud, and quietly to ourselves.

As immigrants themselves, my students have each made their own journey, each have carried with them their own hopes, and also fears. When it comes to studying the history of immigration in the United States, they are the experts – not me.

I asked them if they would consider writing poems of their own – even just a few stanzas to capture a moment of their journey or a first experience in the United States.

I kept the assignment open-ended, the parameters broad. The next day I carried home their stories and that evening sat reading of their journeys.

I sat for an hour that night reading and rereading the stories of my students. Awed by the raw emotion, by their vulnerability, their courage. Just like those who came before them, their poems capture hopes and dreams, worries and fears. They ask painful questions and invite us into share small moments of joy and discovery.

Their words are for me a powerful reminder of the need to create opportunities for my students to share their stories and for us as teacher to create space to listen.

Here I have shared, with the permission of my students, just a small selection, a few of their beautiful and deeply hopeful voices.

Jessica’s students at Lowell High School recently published We Are America, a collection of powerful stories about migration, culture and America identity. Click here to learn more about the book.

In collaboration with Re-imagining Migration, Facing History and Ourselves and the Tenement Museum, Jessica and her students are launching the We Are America Project, a national initiative.

The We Are America Project is ambitiously working with teachers and young people across the country to define what it means to be American — and to spark a new national conversation about American identity today led by the next generation. 

You can read more about the project here.