Educator Spotlight: Sara Ahmed, Teaching The Arrival


Educator Spotlight: Teaching the Arrival

Welcome to the first of our occasional educator spotlights. In this series, we will highlight great teachers using great resources to explore issues related to migration with students. For this first post, we reached out to Sara Ahmed, the Author of the Heinemann Publishing book Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry. Below is an interview with Sara about teaching Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. On twitter, Sara described The Arrival as a “Breathtaking Wordless Graphic Novel illustrating the migration & immigration experience. Separation, isolation, necessity, communication, joy over time.”

Adam S.: Hi. Sara, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I know you are very busy preparing for the school year. Before we turn to The Arrival, can you tell us something about yourself and your identity as a teacher?

Sara A: Thanks for having me, Adam! Happy to share the adventures of my teaching which have helped shape both my personal and professional identity. I was really very fortunate to attend the University of Iowa School of Education; a place where I found my first mentors and an opportunity to student-teach abroad. Landing a spot at a school outside of Dublin, Ireland was my first independent taste at experiencing life outside the US. Since then, I have taught in Chicago (Public schools), San Diego (Independent school), and New York City (Charter school). Each move has gifted me the opportunity of the next which led me to my current position as a Literacy Coach at NIST International School in Bangkok–a long way from Middle America. I am celebrating my 15th year as an educator. I am a soccer coach. A french fry connoisseur. And I am writing my second book for Heinemann Publishing due out in Spring of 2018.

Adam S.: You and I are both huge fans of The Arrival. Can you describe the book for those that aren’t familiar with it and what draws you to it as a teacher?

The Arrival by Shaun Tan is a wordless graphic novel.

Sara A: Oh, this book. I just reread it again ahead of this interview and I cry everytime. It brings every emotion at once. It’s extremely special. The Arrival opens with the most captivating end pages, you can’t get passed the inside cover without sensing there are many stories to be told. The story itself begins with everyday objects that frame the setting and slowly as one of them gets packed away as we are introduced to the protagonist, and the journey begins. A wordless graphic novel, The Arrival takes the reader’s heart through the emotional realities of what it means to leave your native land, migrate to, and then negotiate a completely foreign land. The setting where our nameless protagonist lands could be any place and time (though it by all accounts could be Ellis Island at first), but what is realistic is the heart-breaking reasons (Tan so descriptively portrays) people leave the land that is most familiar to them. It is not a choice for all. It is a matter of life or death. Beyond the sheer beauty of the lucid illustrations, are an abundance of teaching moments and life lessons in empathy.

There is this really cool thing that happens when you start to read enough books that are geared towards your daily target audience. You stop seeking out the workbooks or programs or internet lessons and you start to see the lessons and the humanity that the books themselves provide. The Arrival is one of those books. You think, my kids have to see this.

Adam S.: How have you or how might you introduce The Arrival to your students? What do you want them to know or to be thinking about before they read the book?

Sara A: I begin with the images. In introducing any larger conceptual topic to kids, I generally start with images. Harvard Project Zero’s See/Think/Wonder is my go-to visible thinking lesson. Using the whole group and projecting an illustration on the screen, lead kids through the exercise in what they see (observation) think (inference) and wonder (question) and build that list as a whole group. You can give small groups of students one image from the book on large chart paper and ask them what to write down their thinking on sticky notes or around the image on the paper (aka written conversation/graffiti gallery walk/or big paper activity) Or, if you can spare the paper, I might scan enough images for everyone to have one and have them do a mingle activity where they move around the room and talk through their thinking with someone else, trying to almost solve a puzzle of what we will be reading. What happens in any of these three activities is that discussion arises around bigger topics and themes, observations form inferences and questions that hold some suspense as you read.

What I want them to know is dependent on whether it is the beginning or end of a unit on migration, immigration, connected to current events; really I like to see how they create meaning together and activate any background knowledge or experience they have before I can determine what they should know before reading the book. If students begin to share language like immigrants, migrants, refugees, dystopia, all dependent on the images you choose, that may be a good time to make a conceptual mind map with them to all be on the same page with the terminology. You may also get some misconceptions out on the floor. Hang on to those! If they do come up a simple question can be posted to frontload the reading: Why do people migrate? I also may do a quick check to see if they understand the directionality of the physical reading you need to do but that is a formality as most kids come having read (or created) a graphic novel or comic strip story.

Adam S: For those that haven’t taught a wordless book, how do you do that? Why would you do that? Is that just something you would introduce to developing or emergent readers, or would you use The Arrival with students who are independent readers as well? What might the experience be like for those different audiences? Also, how you taught the book with migrants and students who have not migrated themselves, if so, what similarities and differences have you noted in their responses.

Sara A: I just started to touch on that in the last question. I would get a quick diagnostic from the students. Holding up the page: how would you read this? In what direction? Show a partner using your finger and talk out directions.

I would use a wordless book with everyone from emergent readers to independent readers to language learners to the adult learners in all of their lives. Wordless books, like visual art, open a dialogue, offer silent thinking time, invite you to linger, and really call on the experiences of your own identity to engage you with narrative. They level the playing field in the learning environment. Every reader can access them. And for books like this one, and really any of Shaun Tan’s, you can dig deep into social themes of society.

The response with any learner will always vary by identity and experience. either stories of their family’s past or of their own lives. Kids that have migrated all their lives may connect to the feelings highlighted in this book. As migrants they too can name they have felt lonely or missed family or friends. Almost all students have a connection to either the storied past of their ancestry, their own family, or a book or headline they have read. “My grandfather came from Italy to Ellis Island.” “I missed my cousins and friends when we moved countries too.” “My mom still has letters from her grandparents and their documents from immigration.” Connections are important for this story as we want the door to always be open for any learner to share theirs. I am speaking from a safe environment here where students I have worked with have not migrated for reasons like some of the characters in The Arrival. If I were working with refugee students it could look a little different. That is why it is always important to know the identity of your students as best as you can, more than a demographic or a data point. Know their stories.

Adam: The Arrival is filled with magical symbolism. Tan explains, “I drew heavily my own memories of traveling to foreign countries, that feeling of having basic but imprecise notions of things around me, an awareness of environments saturated with hidden meanings: all very strange yet utterly convincing. In my own nameless country, peculiar creatures emerge from pots and bowls, floating lights drift inquisitively along streets, doors, and cupboards conceal their contents and all around are notices that beckon, invite or warn in loud, indecipherable alphabets. These are all equivalents to some moments I’ve experienced as a traveler, where even simple acts of understanding are challenging.” How have you explored those hidden meanings with your students? What suggestions do you have for educators using the book?

Sara A: His written and spoken language is even so beautiful in its telling! Students always try to figure out the place and language. They want it to be real and not imagined at first. Then the need for that slowly drifts away as the human story takes over. I would try and share the experience of something being “indecipherable” to you, environmental print from your travels, a book in an unknown script, sheet music. This book is made for the think-aloud strategy where you are literally modeling the thoughts that are going on in your mind by saying them aloud to the learners in front of you. One thing to try is a back channel conversation to keep everyone in the conversation but at the pacing suitable for everyone. I have used this for read alouds and visible thinking routines with images. Using a platform where everyone can write ( I used to use Edmodo, Google Docs, Today’s meet all work if you have 1:1 technology in the class) Model it first by writing out your think alouds displaying that as you read books, you have a constant feed of thoughts. Everyone jumps on to the group link or meeting space and as you turn the pages of the book, they can comment in the feed via their own dialogue box. This way, there is time and space for everyone to think through it, they can build their ideas off one another and can even answer each other’s questions. Some learners will notice things others did not and that may call for a “reread”, an awesome reader habit. The feed can then archived. You can quickly study it to see where everyone is on the comprehension and/or communication continuum.

Adam S: What do you want to talk about when they have finished reading the book? What kind of conversations are you hoping to have with them? To use more formal language, what kind of outcomes are you looking for?

Sara A: It depends on where you begin with them. Were questions answered from the See. Think. Wonder or the written conversations? What are they still thinking or wondering?

I would like them to talk about how they are feeling in either pairs, small groups, or whole group. Taking some time to write is always an option. I want kids to understand why it is people migrate in this world. As a global society, we should understand like I said before, it is not always a choice. This book helps build this list. It also develops an empathy for extreme hardships stories of migrants–though it is just a start. The stories woven in are fictional but are rooted in truth. This is a book I would use in a stack with others: Refugee by Alan Gratz, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney to name a just a few in addition newspaper and magazine articles of refugee and migrant stories, audio clips or podcasts. The more stories they can discover, the more their awareness, knowledge, and empathy for migrants grows.

Adam S. Thanks for doing this, Sara. I hope you will agree to do this again soon. Best of luck as the school year begins.

Sara A: Thanks so much for having me, Adam. This is one of those books that calls for a shout-it- from-the-rooftops kind of share. And thank you for the work that Reimagining Migration is doing for our schools and for our kids to become more active in their citizenry.

Sara Ahmed has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent, and international schools. Sara is co-author with Harvey “Smokey” Daniels of Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry. Sara’s classrooms are designed to help her young adolescent students to consider their own identities and to take action in the world in socially responsible ways. She is a long time member of the teacher leadership team for Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization devoted to developing critical thinking and empathy for others. During the school year, you will find Sara at the NIST International School in Bangkok, Thailand where she works as a PreK-6 Literacy Coach.

Adam Strom is the Director of ReImagining Migration.