By Jessica Lander,
In studying history, we often lean towards analyzing the actions of nations, the large-scale transformations of communities, the broad trends in society.
But, history is also created by a tapestry of people. It weaves together the colorful strands of individuals. History is inherently personal.
I have been thinking a lot about this duality of history as I teach my high school juniors and seniors in my Seminar on American Diversity.
In the seminar, we study the work of suffragettes in the late 1800s, civil rights leaders in the mid-1900s, LGBTQ activists from the late 1900s to the 2000s. We learn from the work of men and women who stood up against injustice, speaking out in support of indigenous peoples, workers, women, people of all sexualities, of all ethnicities, of all faiths. We analyze laws and Supreme Court decisions that helped to establish pay equity, fight against voter disenfranchisement, strive for more equitable schooling, protect women who have faced violence. Together, we debate the long, messy, and often, non-linear history of America’s fight for equality, justice, and recognition. We must do all of this to comprehend the big picture.
But I don’t want my students to lose sight of the individual stories that together create this history. And I want them to see their stories, and their families’ stories as integral to the history of this country.
So, for a semester, we set about linking the personal with the global. We started with using the Re-Imagining Migration tool – Moving Stories. I had them interview each other to learn about their family journeys to our city. I then had then go home and ask the same questions to their own families.
For some students, these were lessons were filled with discovery. “I didn’t know why my grandparents decided to come.” “I’m realizing I know very little about where my family is from…” For other, these stories were fresh in my students’ minds, as they had traveled here only recently.
Working with the New York City’s Tenement Museum’s Your Story/Our Story Platform, my students brought in family objects that held special significance they shared stories woven into colorful kangas cloths, army hats, battered well-used coffee pots, and amulets.
Together, we sought out connections between their histories. They were not hard to find. Together they began to recognize that the larger themes we were studying were mirrored on an intimate scale in their own stories. Stories of migration, of struggling to learn a new language, of facing discrimination, of creating new businesses, and new lives.
The larger histories we studied sprang to life for my students. I watched as they began to claim fights and marches and movements of a century ago as part of their own histories. I also saw how hearing each other’s stories brought my class closer together, building empathy and understanding for each other.
Halfway through the semester I challenged my students to choose one story, one experience from their life to help us better understand what it meant to be American.
For two months they crafted, outlined, drafted, wrote, edited, reworked. For many it was not easy. “I don’t have a story to tell,” they pled. “Nothing in my life is that interesting or important.” But they kept at it.
The twenty-eight stories they ultimately chose to share are incredible —of finding the courage to speak in a new language, of searching for home, of seeking acceptance, of asking for help.
A young woman described becoming the first student to wear a hijab in our school’s Junior ROTC program. Another wrote about unlearning earlier school lessons about what women couldn’t do. A young man wrote about surrounded by people from many nations, but only recently learning to not take his diverse community for granted. A young woman wrote about building a connection with her father who had been absent for many years. Another described growing up stateless in a refugee camp and the incredible job of recently receiving an American green card.
Together, these diverse and beautiful voices are a different kind of American history textbook.
In the end, my students gained the confidence to see their families as part of American history – as worthy of study.
For many, this was the first time they had shared their stories and histories. They admitted that no one had ever asked, “I realize that everyone has a story to tell,” reflected one young man. “It felt awkward and a little uncomfortable, but it was also a relief to finally share my story,” described another student. Quietly, but confidently, one girl remarked, “It felt important to share. My story has to be known.
Jessica Lander is a teacher, writer, and journalist living in Massachusetts. She is the coauthor of Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success (Scholastic, 2017) and author of Driving Backwards (TidePool Press, 2014). Lander is an Emerson Collective Fellow and a Re-Imagining Migration Fellow. Follow her on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Julian Viviescas