Re-imagining Approaches to Immigration in Schools


In the United States, immigrants and their children make up 27 percent of the US population. Twenty-five percent of school age children have an immigrant parent. These numbers have been growing rapidly. Additionally, recent estimates suggest that 5.1 million children under 18 have at least one parent with an unauthorized legal status in the US. At a time when arrests of undocumented migrants are on the rise, many of these young people, regardless of their own status, feel unsafe. This is a challenge with long-term consequences. As Carola Suárez-Orozco, Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, and Robert Teranishi, the Directors of UCLA’s Center on Immigration, Globalization and Education explain, “The transition of these children to citizenship, to the labor market, and to the narrative of the nation will deeply shape the future of our nation…The pathways to success for immigrant origin youth, their psychosocial flourishing, their civic engagement, their connection to the labor market, and their identification with the narrative of the nation will profoundly shape the remaking of the social contract.”

The rise of migrant children in schools is not limited to the United States. Even before the global refugee crisis, “11 percent of all 15-year-old students across the 34 nations of the OECD [the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] were immigrants.” Globally many newcomers are moving to communities with little experience with immigrants. It is important that we recognize each of these young people as assets to our communities. Jean Michael Dissard, the Director of the acclaimed documentary I Learn America, describes these students as windows to new worlds, communities, and cultures. Dissard has gone as far as creating a human library of newcomers stories on his website. Reading along, it becomes clear that we have so much to learn from them. At the same time, schools are tasked with the challenge of educating newcomers, integrating them, and building civic habits for the future.

As educators, we recognize that the lessons of integration are not just for new arrivals, they are equally important for children of host communities as well. Indeed, integration is a two-way process. Without attention to the social and emotional lives of students and schools, academics suffer. Teachers need support adjusting to the changing needs of their students and society, yet they often lack the training and resources they need.

In their groundbreaking work, Learning in a New Land, Carola and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco explain that the children of immigrants enter schools full of hope, but too many of their educational experiences leave them frustrated and disengaged. Feelings of isolation are furthered by xenophobia, inside and outside of schools. A recent literature review of top teacher education journals highlights the challenges that educators face as they look to further their own education. In a survey of 3939 articles, only 13 included words related to immigration in the title or abstract.

We want to help. More than ever, it is essential young people learn to live and work with people whose ideas, identities, and experiences are different than their own. However, recent surveys of school across the United States reveal a troubling spike in hate incidents in schools. When bigotry is unchecked, it is hard for anyone to learn. Beyond the walls of the school, the backlash to migration leads to social exclusion, disempowers young people, and threatens democracy.

In schools, all too often, migrants and the children of immigration are isolated from their peers. Moreover, many projects aimed at engaging migrant youth are not integrated into the curriculum or the academic life of schools and therefore are treated as one-off experiences. This isn’t good enough. Talking about immigration and immigrants for one or two days a year in a history class isn’t good another either. To change that, educators need both models and materials to engage the children of migration and their peers to learn from one another in reflective learning environments.  Instead of breaking school communities into us versus them, we have found that many educational practices that benefit children of migrants make a positive difference for all learners. Furthermore, culturally responsive classrooms and curricula have to be developed with the recognition that learning histories of migration can help all of us develop valuable perspective-taking skills we can use to better understand our world today. Just as important as the content is the learning environment, students have to feel supported to share their own stories of migration, whether these stories are from this generation, or their families’ distant past. This is how we will begin to bridge the empathy gap.  Indeed, as my colleagues, Carola Suarez-Orozco and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco explain, “In the U.S., migration is both history and destiny. From the arrival of the First Nations of native peoples, to European explorers seeking treasure and religious freedom, to the mass involuntary migrations of enslaved Africans, to the trans-oceanic migrations of yesterday and the ongoing global migrations of today, migration defines the American experience.”

In order to empower students to become ethical, engaged, and active civic participants in our interconnected world, The ReImagining Migration Project will curate and develop robust educational resources, high-quality professional learning experiences, and activate networks of educators and partners to develop, share, and reinforce best practices for working with the children of immigrants, their peers, and their teachers. Essential to our approach is working with educators to create open classrooms that allow for the discussion of the history, literature, science, arts and current events surrounding migration in a way that is deliberative and respectful.

The key to our success will be learning with educators. We are actively looking for teachers and district administrators who are willing to be leaders and share their ideas and practices with educators around the world. The resources we collect and develop, the professional development we offer, and the community events we help to facilitate, will provide multiple entry points for teaching in a variety of settings, from formal classrooms to after school and community education programs. While practices will need to be locally adapted, these “bright spots” can serve as models for change. We look forward to learning with you in the years to come.

Adam Strom is the Director of the ReImagining Migration Project. Throughout his career, Mr. Strom has connected the academy to classrooms and the community by using the latest scholarship to encourage learning about identity, bias, belonging, history, and the challenges and opportunities of civic engagement in our globalized world.  The resources developed under Strom’s direction have been used in tens of thousands of classrooms and experienced by millions of students around the world including Stories of Identity: Religion, Migration, and Belonging in a Changing World and  What Do We Do with a Difference? France and The Debate Over Headscarves in Schools, Identity, and Belonging in a Changing Great Britain, and the viewer’s guide to I Learn America. Before joining the ReImagining Migration Project, Strom was the Director of Scholarship and Innovation at Facing History and Ourselves.

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