Jessica Lander’s Making Americans asks readers to consider the role of schools in preparing newcomers for success in the United States. The book alternates between chapters exploring historical landmarks in the education of immigrants with contemporary stories of educators today who are dedicated to creating dynamic learning opportunities for immigrant youth.
Re-Imagining Migration’s Adam Strom had the opportunity to speak with Jessica about the book, the conversations she hopes it will spark, and Re-Imagining Migration’s role in supporting educators.
I still vividly remember attending your inaugural conference back in 2019 just as I was setting out to write Making Americans. The connections you helped foster have transformed my classroom teaching and powerfully impacted my research for the book, Jessica Lander
Adam Strom: Jess, thanks for taking the time to talk today. You are a teacher who works around the clock to support your students. What made you want to add one more thing to your schedule and write this book?
Jessica Lander: Thank you for inviting me today Adam; it’s always great to talk. You are right that first and foremost I am a public high school teacher. I have the honor of teaching history and civics to amazing young immigrants and refugees from more than thirty countries around the globe. And they are an inspiration! My students bring such a powerful array of strengths to our classroom and community—In journeying to this country, they’ve often become masters at negotiation, problem solving, and teamwork. As immigrants they have developed powerful skills as linguistic and cultural translators for their families. They carry to class a breadth of knowledge and perspectives about the world gained from having experienced different governments and cultures. They’ve developed perseverance and grit, honed by learning to live in a new land.
Yet, the more I worked with my students, the more I wondered what educators were doing across the country to support immigrant-origin young people. I wanted to learn from others and I wanted to think too about how we could, together, reimagine immigrant education to make welcoming schools that supported newcomers, that invested in and valued their many strengths, and that nurtured a strong sense of belonging.
Setting out to write Making Americans was for me another facet of the work I do every day in the classroom with my students, another way for me to support my amazing students.
Adam: I know you thought quite a bit about the name of the book, Making Americans, and the message it would send to readers about the role of schools in preparing newcomers for success. Take us inside your thinking. How did you come up with that title?
Jessica: Great question Adam, and you are right there is a lot in that title! Making Americans, is deliberately ambiguous with respect to who is doing the making. I wanted to reflect, of course, more than a century of efforts in this country to shape newcomers into Americans— by governments, legislators, communities, educators, and many others, based on their views, their philosophy, and their power. I believe these, often untold, stories of the past historic struggles are deeply important to know and to face because they have transformed our schools today.
But the key message of this book is that every newcomer is the rightful author of their own American identity. The role of educators is to help nurture for their students a strong sense of belonging. That means making sure students feel welcome, safe, and seen in their community. That means supporting students, creating space for them to share their experiences and knowledge, investing and nurturing student’s many assets and strengths, and helping students develop the tools they need to share their voices and ideas in their communities.
Adam: I can imagine a great conversation between the different figures you introduce in the text about the title and what it means. In fact, one of the things I love about this book is the way it weaves past and present into a seamless narrative. Why did you structure the book that way? What did you want your readers to understand?
Jessica: I’m thrilled you like the structure. When I first started researching and writing Making Americans three years ago, I realized that to truly reimagine immigrant education it was essential that we learn from stories of the past, of the present, and of the personal.
We need to understand our past: the key historic moments from federal laws to landmark cases that have transformed our school today. Essential stories like that of the parochial teacher in the one-room schoolhouse in rural Nebraska who was arrested in 1920 for teaching an eleven-year-old boy the bible in German during recess and whose case enshrined the right for students to learn non-English languages; or the four courageous undocumented Texan families who sued their school district and who helped ensure that all undocumented students across the country have a right to K-12 public education.
We need to learn from the present – to learn from innovative programs working with immigrant-origin students across the country today: creative and successful approaches like the school in Georgia for refugee girls who have experienced interrupted education, or the five schools in Colorado that believe that schools should be vibrant community hubs from sun up to sun down and together created the ACTION Zone that draws together families, nonprofits, businesses, and community members in new partnerships and programs that draw on the many strengths and voices of their immigrant-rich community to help students in school.
And if we are serious about reimagining schools we also need to learn from the personal – we need to listen to the stories of young immigrants and refugees themselves – learning from them about their journeys to the United States and their experience of our schools. And for this last set of stories, some of my amazing former students generously became my teachers.
My hope for readers is they see the connections that weave between the past, the present, and the personal. For example, Colorado’s ACTION Zone’s community-school approach has echoes of Jane Addam’s work with Hull House and the Settlement movement in Chicago more than a century ago. And that they draw lessons, and ideas from all three that together help us think about creating new types of classrooms, schools, and communities that nurture immigrant-origin young people.
Adam: Neither of us are immigrants. The last of my relatives to immigrate to the U.S. came more than 100 years ago, and I believe that’s true of your family. What do you think you have learned about your family’s history and experiences from teaching immigrant youth and researching and writing this book?
Jessica: You are absolutely right. Much of my family fled antisemitic pogroms and policies in Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th Century. For Making Americans I researched and wrote about my great-grandfather Daniel who arrived in New York City as a refugee from what is now Ukraine. He came as a 6 year old and enrolled in a city public school at a time when his culture, his history, his religion, and his language were not welcome in most schools. Most schools of the time aimed to rapidly “Americanize” immigrant students—having them assimilate by adopting Anglo-Saxon traditions. Before the book, I had not known much about Daniel’s first years in the US or his experience of US schools, but, in researching and writing this book, it was important to learn about my family’s own migration story.
98% of all people in the United States trace their origins elsewhere. There are so many points of commonality between the stories of my remarkable newcomer students and those who came generations before. Stories of having to start over and of courageously creating new communities. Stories of facing xenophobia and intolerance and also stories of welcome. There are stories of forced assimilation and the loss of language and culture, and there are stories of families ensuring that they pass on language and traditions.
Teaching my remarkable students and writing this book has very much influenced how I see my own family’s history. It deepens my appreciation for the opportunities they have given me through their courage in leaving their first home and creating a new home here. It makes me wish that schools a hundred years ago were different. And it reminds me why it’s so important that we together work to create welcoming communities and schools that value students’ for who they are and nurture a strong sense of belonging.
Adam: Most educators I know want to do a good job. They are dedicated, they work hard, and they care. At the same time, a recent survey of school principals found that 76% said their schools weren’t doing a very good job serving English Learners. What can we do to change that? And, what role can Re-Imagining Migration play in helping bring about those changes as we grow?
Jessica: I agree 100%. Every educator I have spoken with wants to do best by their students. But I know from my own experience as a teacher, that too often teaching is very isolating. Rarely do we teachers get the time to sit in each other’s classrooms, or to collaborate and brainstorm with peers. But as I traveled throughout the United States for my book, I was struck by how remarkable teachers and innovative programs were isolated from one another. Too often teachers have few opportunities to learn from colleagues in their communities, or elsewhere. But teachers really want to learn and collaborate with others. When Daniel Sass, the assistant principal at Maryland’s International High School of Langley Park learned about ENLACE’s approach to family engagement in Massachusetts he made plans to visit. Teachers at Georgia’s Global Village Project were eager to know more about the trauma-therapy approach embedded in Houston’s Las Americas school. There’s so much we can learn from one another. As I lay out in the last of Making Americans, there is enormous power and potential in creating new kinds of programs and organizations that bring together the energy, expertise, and wisdom of educators invested in reimagining immigrant education.
Re-Imagining Migration is a leader in this work! Which is one of the many reasons why I so admire and am so excited about the work you and the team are doing. You are drawing together educators, researchers, organizers, folks at non-profits and folks in communities all from across the country to learn from and collaborate with each other. I still vividly remember attending your inaugural conference back in 2019 just as I was setting out to write Making Americans. The connections you helped foster have transformed my classroom teaching and powerfully impacted my research for the book, for which I’m so tremendously grateful! I see Re-Imagining Migration already playing a vital role both in helping to transform classroom today – providing rich lessons for students to explore migration and rich professional development for educators to better support immigrant-origin students, and helping to reimagine schools for tomorrow — particularly in the work you do fostering connections and collaborations across classrooms, schools, districts, and states.