Astrid Emily Francis believes, “You can’t be an effective teacher without being a learner at heart.”
By Astrid Emily Francis
Did you know that students are never too old to enjoy a picture book? This article here tells you more. Even adults can learn from picture books – I do!
The book Dreamers, written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales, is a stunning picture book with an amazing story about an immigrant mother and her baby immigrating to the US. While discussing it with our newcomer students, I began placing sticky-notes everywhere with all the ideas and thoughts that were rushing through my mind. Here is what I was thinking:
Packing Our Culture
I was 15 years old when I was asked to pack-up a backpack with a couple of outfits and whatever else I could fit in and carry with me on a journey from Guatemala to the USA. I remember looking around the room and packing a few photographs and recuerditos (keepsakes) I didn’t want to leave behind.
I do not doubt that many immigrants experience this moment when they decide what to pack and bring along their migration journey. Besides packing the essentials, many of us pack something that will remind us of the world we are leaving behind, representing our country, homeland, and beliefs.
Just like we pack-up objects, we also pack up our identity within us and hold on to it as tight as possible because we know it is what makes us who we are. The things we pack-up within us are experiences, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, family, foods, music, culture, heritage, and more. All this is core to who we are.
Yuyi Morales narrates this personal experience perfectly in this image. We see how her backpack includes a jatana, a pencil, nature items, and Señor Calavera. If you follow Yuyi’s Instagram account, you will see how these objects represent her identity, objects that she carried with her as she crossed over the Mexican border to come to the USA. And just like we see in her book, the objects that represented her identity were kept safe and packed up because they were being protected, or perhaps they stayed packed up because she didn’t feel like her individuality would fit in the new culture.
In Dreamers, we see the characters trying to blend in and function in a new country and culture, while but with a substantial struggle to be who they are.
I experienced this as well, and so do many immigrant students and individuals who come to the United States. While many of us love our home culture, language, and everything about our heritage, society tells us that to function successfully, we must keep our background packed up and blend in the American culture and master the English language to be successful.
For many of us, it’ll be years and years till we realize that our culture, language, and heritage are valuable and core to who we are.
For others, this realization will never happen – and their connection to their heritage, language, and culture will be lost. To me, this is a sad reality that will hinder many generations.
Opportunities to Unpack
As an immigrant myself, I can tell you how intimidating it is to be yourself and unpack our backgrounds for all to see. You look around, and everything is new and different. You listen around you, and all you hear is the new language — a language you don’t yet understand. However, there are ways to embrace the differences while still appreciating what is packed within us and show them to the world.
Here are a few of them:
- Reading: Just like Yuyi demonstrates in her book, reading and finding books that reflect our own identity and individuality is a way to strengthen our background. Find books whose main characters are representing your experiences. Seeing your journey and heritage honored in the text can empower you to unpack your own experiences. Here’s a great resource that provides identity books and other tools.
- Writing: When you feel validated and accepted, you begin to embrace your identity and will be empowered to become the author of your own story and be the main character in your stories. In this image by Yuyi Morales, we see how trust begins to grow when you realize that you matter. Looking closely, we notice how her objects are pouring out, and through her body language and expression, we recognize that she is happy to be herself. She is then inspired to publish a picture book to tell her own experiences. Here’s an article I wrote with lesson ideas on how to encourage students to write their stories.
- Listen: Take time to listen to others’ stories. Don’t listen with the intention to respond…. listen to learn and appreciate. Not long ago, I had a student who asked me a question, but her questions led to her telling HER story. Students want to share their stories. Students want to be known. It is our job to provide opportunities for those around us to share their story. Here’s a podcast I just started that focuses on stories of passion and persistence.
Having our culture and heritage unpacked is just the most wonderful feeling. How do you know your culture, language, and heritage is unpacked? – When you celebrate it, appreciate it, and embrace it. When you do not fear what others will say about who you are, how you speak, or what you’re wearing. When you begin to find a place in your new home, you understand that we have more similarities than differences and contribute to society to create a beautifully diverse culture.
“The teacher’s task is to initiate the learning process and then get out of the way.” Educator, John Warren
As we were reading this book with my student, we both had different takeaways from the text. Yousef here was able to draw what he understood what was happening in the story, then retell the story using his own words. He was able to connect with several parts personally and was very confident in understanding it because the images speak so much. I was encouraged to write my takeaways because he did the same! Below is the book he put together about Dreamers using WriteReader.
If you have read Dreamers and would like to share your takeaways with me, please share them with me. I’d love to hear about your experience with this fantastic book. Or if there is another book that would share these same ideas, I’d love to know of it.
Remember, YOU matter! Your culture matters, your language matters, your heritage matters. So, showcase it…display for all to see and appreciate it.
Astrid Emily Francis teaches at Concord High School in Concord, North Carolina. She works with students in grades 9th through 12th grade with various English proficiency levels. Her experience as an English language learner inspired her to become an ESL teacher. To learn more about Emily’s work, follow her blog.