Teaching Stories of Persistence: Emily Francis

Teacher and Author Emily Francis 

Emily Francis is a high school ESL teacher from Concord, North Carolina and the author of If You Only Knew: Letters from an Immigrant Teacher. Emily was born in Guatemala and came to the United States as a high school student. She uses her own story, alongside a rich collection of literature, to engage students in reflecting on our Moving Stories.

The following text is drawn from the webinar Moving Stories in the Classroom.

I serve students in the beginning stages of learning English as a second language, and I need to be very particular about what we are studying in the classroom. I begin showing, telling my students that we are going to start a Moving Stories unit, and we’re going to end up telling our stories. But I do want to emphasize that for us to bring our students a unit on Moving Stories and telling stories, there’s some work that we need to do ourselves as teachers.

Embracing Diversity

We need to make sure that, as teachers, we do some self-reflection. Do we really embrace diversity? What is our own awareness when it comes to cultures and literacies across the world? There’s a lot of reading that we can do prior to bringing these lessons to our students. Reading opens doors and windows to cultures and practices we’re unaware of.

If you have people around you, chances are you have people around you with diverse backgrounds. Observe their behaviors and the way they communicate questions. It’s okay to ask those around you who have a different culture than yours to ask questions. It’s better to ask questions than to assume…And, of course, begin to build when students feel comfortable. When you tell them to share their stories, [ensure] there is already a place where they feel safe and know that whatever they’re about to share will be respected and honored.

Sharing My Story

Before I start story sharing with students, I begin by telling my students that I share my own story and I have some boundaries.. I …tell them that there are some things that I hold back because I don’t feel like the world needs to know. We are going to maintain a safe environment where we’re going to respect each other, we are going to share what I want to share not what I’m forced to share it.

I can opt-out anytime that I want to. So if I don’t want to share any more about my story, then I can opt-out. And you can go through all of these bullet points, and students will sign their names around the norms, and we’ll make sure that we stand by them. So of course, these are all newcomers, and they have translations of this so they can fully understand what they’re getting into as we begin our storytelling unit.

Reading Stories of Persistence

We start with whole group instruction. I have a whole list of books that I use. I love using picture books. I begin with students sketching themselves and talking about what is it that people can see and people cannot see. I use Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson because identity is tied to heritage. And, this book highlights what our ancestors have laid out for us.

We read stories that show persistence, like Emmanuel’s Dream, and we read Henry’s Freedom Box. If we go beyond just reading picture books, we make sure that students know how to read them, how to write them, how to make sentences, and how to do projects. 

I think it’s important for us to begin reading stories about persistence, different backgrounds, and what others are doing around the world before we start talking about our own stories. After reading each of these stories, I do these reflection questions, which you can also find in the Moving Stories unit, like Why might this story matter to me? So after reading Emmanuel’s Dream, why is this story important to me? Or why is this story important to the people around me? Or why is it that I should share that or Tweet it out to the world? Why is that important? After we read each one of those stories, we reflect on these questions, each student is given a sticky note and we reflect if the story is important to them and why? Should we take that story and share that with someone else?

And then, we move into our partner or our independent work and then we go back to working with partners. This is where we do a lot of picture bookwork. All of these picture books that I use are about different experiences and different backgrounds. All of them, if not most of them, are all by authors, authentic authors. They have experienced different walks of life.

Understanding Migration

And then we move into understanding migration. So I do believe that who we are before my students step here to the United States, they bring with them, and what I brought with me is my whole entire culture when I came from Guatemala. And so it’s important for us to highlight that, to highlight those experiences that we lived before coming here to understand how is it that I develop here in the United States.

Of course, we move into understanding those push and pull factors for migration. Re-imagining Migration calls this a motivation for migration. I use that phrase with students. We look at the push and pull factors just because that’s our standard. As we read our stories about migration, then we understand why they had to leave or why they made the decision to come here to the U.S.

Once they go and understand this, we compare and contrast those stories, the similarity between one story and another? How are they different or what are the challenges that one story has with the other story?

Students Telling Their Own Stories

And then, we close our unit with our own story. I really would’ve loved as a teenager to have the opportunity to share my own personal experience. I was never given that chance until I was an adult. I really think students do want to have that opportunity and that space to share their stories. Here, we go back to look at those norms. Do we want to make our story public or just want the teacher to read it? Do I want to print it out to read it to my peers? Do I just want to keep it to myself? So those norms are revised again as we write about our own story.

I don’t just tell them, “Okay, sit down and tell me your story.” I don’t tell them what to write. Re-imagining Migration has a whole list of questions that you ask when you interview someone, those same questions I use for students to guide their story retelling – the motivation for migration, the journey, the hopes, and the advice they have for others. Using those prompts,  they have topics of what to write about.