In the United States, the question of how schools are responding to the educational needs of immigrant-origin student and their peers has never been more relevant. Twenty-six percent of school-aged children today are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants; and in light of increasing political divides over immigration, rising hate incidents in and out of schools, and increased immigration enforcement, their place in schools can feel precarious. Recent studies highlight the impact of the current climate on both immigrant students and their peers’ social well-being and academic performance.1 In this difficult environment, we need creative and effective strategies to address the unique strengths of and challenges for immigrant-origin students, who are defined as the children of immigrants. They can be first-generation (born abroad) or second-generation (born in the U.S. with a foreign-born parent). Both share parents who are immigrants. Some are English Language Learners, and some are not. Finding ways to optimize their successful inclusion into schools is both an economic and a democratic imperative.

Within educational settings, immigrant students and English Learners (Els) are often thought of interchangeably. Although there is considerable overlap, they are not one and the same. Some immigrant-origin students immigrate from countries where English is the language of instruction (e.g, Nigeria or the Philippines) though they may speak another language at home; thus, they may enter U.S. schools without facing the hurdle of acquiring Academic English. Other EL students are second-generation citizens but may not been exposed to English until they enter the school system in kindergarten. The majority of immigrant-origin students, however, must learn (at least one) new language as part of their journey to their new land.

Philip Jackson, in his book Life in Classrooms, wrote, “there is evidence that the typical elementary school teacher typically engages in 200 to 300 interpersonal exchanges every hour of the working day.” That means that, on average, teachers are making about 1,500 decisions a day in response to those interactions. With that many decisions to make in a day, we do the best we can, based on what we see, know, and understand about a situation. We often have to make judgments-and to take action- before we have complete information. Beyond having to make decisions with partial information, we see the world through our own experiential lenses and perspectives. Further, we cannot help but to be informed by our biases based on our previous experiences and knowledge. Lacking additional contextual knowledge, we use these perceptual shortcuts to inform our classroom decisions.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his daughter Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” To help us do just that, we have identified a series of common scenarios that educators working with immigrant-origin student’s encounter. We encourage you to reflect on these stories with your colleagues at a staff meeting or in informal discussion.

After reading the short description provided, consider what you believe is going on. What is going on at the surface? What might be going on that you cannot see? What is at stake in your response? And, what do you think is the best course of action? Also consider other factors that may influence your response, including the age of the student, the type of school, attitudes towards immigrants inside and outside of school, and so on.

Scenarios for Reflection

Not a Word

Your students are supposed to be working from home. While much of the work is independent, you offer office hours and time for students to check-in. Despite outreach, you are unable to reach one of your immigrant students. They have not turned in a single assignment, nor have they attended a class check-in. You have lots of concerns. Are they healthy and safe? What should you do about class credit?

Reflection Questions:

  • What do you believe is going on?
  • What is at the surface?
  • Beyond the description, what other factors might be influencing the situation?
  • What is at stake in your response?
  • And what do you think is the best course of action?

Bullying

You teach in a diverse school with many newcomers and many students whose families have lived in the country for generations. You hear that some of your Asian students have been bullied in connection with COVID-19. You assume that your recent Chinese immigrant students are being picked on, but don’t know who has been targeted directly. Nor do you know who has done the bullying.

Reflection Questions:

  • How do you proceed?
  • What do you believe is going on?
  • What is at the surface?
  • Beyond the description, what other factors might be influencing the situation?
  • What is at stake in your response?
  • And what do you think is the best course of action?

Hate

Anti-immigrant, ant-black, anti-semitic, and white nationalist hate has been sprayed across the school campus. You think you know some of the students who are behind the acts of hate. Some appear to you to be more committed to white nationalist ideas that others.  Among those you suspect participated is one of your former students, a shy kid who was always a good student. Their parents have always been difficult in your few exchanges with them.

Reflection Questions:

  • What do you believe is going on?
  • What is at the surface?
  • Beyond the description, what other factors might be influencing the situation?
  • What is at stake in your response?
  • And what do you think is the best course of action?

Silence

In a class where participation in discussion is essential to both the learning goals and the grade, you notice that some of your immigrant students say very little. When they do participate, they are hesitant and are interrupted by classmates. Sometimes their peers show their impatience by rolling their eyes or simply telling them to speak up or that they don’t understand them.

Reflection Questions:

  • What do you believe is going on?
  • What is at the surface?
  • Beyond the description, what other factors might be influencing the situation? What is at stake in your response? And what do you think is the best course of action?

Lunchroom

You are sitting with faculty at lunch, while no students are at the table, many students are in the cafeteria. One of the teachers at the table starts talking about the students in ways that trouble you. You engage in the conversation and ask them what they think is going on. The teacher responds that all the illegals are taking over the school, speaking Spanish and causing trouble.

  • What are the various ways you might respond?
  • What would you want to accomplish with your response?
  • What risks might you face? What opportunities might you open up?
  • How might your identity influence the way you respond?

Childhood Memory and Student Presentations

Your school is making an effort to reach out to the community. The centerpiece of those efforts is a childhood memory project. To begin the project, you have assigned an essay about a childhood memory, but a newcomer student does not turn in her work. When you ask for an explanation, she tells you that she just forgot. You offer an extension, but again, she doesn’t turn in the assignment. You ask to see her after class, and she tells you, that she can’t remember anything about her childhood or that she wants to forget her past. The essays will be used as part of a presentation to the broader school community in an annual event. Do you ask her to do the assignment anyway, or do you make an accommodation?

Reflection Questions:

  • What do you believe is going on?
  • What is at the surface?
  • Beyond the description, what other factors might be influencing the situation?
  • What is at stake in your response?
  • And what do you think is the best course of action?

History Matters

In a history lesson about 19th-century Irish immigration, a student points out that his family came to the country legally unlike those sneaking across the border or smuggling in children with the hopes they will get asylum today. You have just a few newcomers in the class; they don’t say anything. You know that a few of them have family members that were detained at the border. Other students seem to be looking their way. One of the immigrant students, usually an engaged learner, puts his head down.

Reflection Questions:

  • What should you do in the moment?
  • How might your action impact what you teach?
  • What do you believe is going on?
  • What is at the surface?
  • Beyond the description, what other factors might be influencing the situation?
  • What is at stake in your response?
  • And what do you think is the best course of action?

Breaking Isolation

You feel that your immigrant students are isolated from their peers; your repeated observations reinforce this perception. You note that students congregate by nationality and language in the cafeteria. Some of your colleagues suggest breaking up the lunch groups.

Reflection Questions:

  • What do you think?
  • What can you do to encourage interactions between newcomers and their peers?
  • When should you stay out of the way?
  • What do you believe is going on?
  • What is at the surface?
  • Beyond the description, what other factors might be influencing the situation?
  • What is at stake in your response?
  • And, what do you think is the best course of action?

Family Meeting

One of your students, the child of immigrants, is one of your star students. Although when she first arrived, she struggled academically, now she is discussing college options with you. You decide it would be helpful to set up a meeting with her parents to discuss the college application process. However, despite phone calls and emails, the family is nonresponsive. When you ask the student to speak with her parents, she explains that her parents are very busy. You try to reach out again, but still do not get a response. From experience, you know that it will be important to involve the parents in the college application process.

Reflection Questions:

  • How do you proceed?
  • What do you believe is going on?
  • What is at the surface?
  • Beyond the description, what other factors might be influencing the situation?
  • What is at stake in your response?
  • And what do you think is the best course of action?

This resource is drawn from our guide:

A Culturally ResponsiveGuide to Fostering theInclusion of ImmigrantOrigin Students

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