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June 16, 2021

Lifting the Lamp: Creating Welcoming Communities and Classrooms for Immigrant Students and Families

Here are lessons and resources for making your classroom, school, and community places that offer welcome and opportunity to all students from wherever they come to us.


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By Christina Bartolomeo

On June 1, President Biden proclaimed the month of June as National Immigrant Heritage Month. Share My Lesson offers a treasure-trove of resources for celebrating our immigrant history and heritage, some of which will be explored in an upcoming blog.

"America is, always has been, and always will be a nation of immigrants. It was the premise of our founding; it is reflected in our Constitution; it is etched upon the Statue of Liberty—that “from her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome.” 

               President Joseph R. Biden; A Proclamation on National Immigrant Heritage Month, 2021

But we wanted first to focus—because it is more important than ever right now—on a crucial part of honoring that heritage: making sure that the immigrant and multilingual students we serve have the resources, learning environments and services they need. As educators, many of whom are first-, second- or third-generation immigrants, we hold the immigrant experience deep in our hearts. We want our students and their families to not only survive but also to thrive in a new country. Here are lessons and resources for making your classroom, school, and community places that offer welcome and opportunity to all students from wherever they come to us, and that help realize the promise of America at its best:

“My Bilingual Journey”

Colorín Colorado

In this short video, Nevada’s 2021 National Teacher of the Year Juliana Urtubey shares her family's journey from Colombia to Chicago. Born at the height of the Colombian Civil War, Urtubey describes her enrollment in a bilingual school and her path to becoming a bilingual, bicultural student and educator. She reflects on the diversity of her Latino culture and heritage, and concludes: “We are exactly who we need to be.”

Also see Urtubey’s video, “How to Partner with Families Working in the Service Industry,” , in which she emphasizes the importance of being sensitive to the service and construction industry’s non-traditional work schedules; being creative in designing parent engagement time; and understanding these working families’ challenges in communicating with the school during the school day.

How to Create a Welcoming Classroom Environment for ELLs

Colorín Colorado

This Colorín Colorado “ELL Strategies for Success” page offers a wealth of resources and strategies to help you create a welcoming classroom environment for your English language learners and immigrant students. The page covers a wide range of topics, including:

  • Understanding possible “stages of cultural accommodation” students may pass through (such as culture shock, anger and adaptation);
  • Helping students (including refugees or unaccompanied children) who may have experienced trauma or are facing hardship in the U.S.);
  • Pronouncing students’ names correctly, modeling the correct pronunciation of names to the class and inviting students to share the meaning of their names;
  • Building strong relationships with ELL students and families, to increase engagement and support students’ academic success;
  • Identifying students’ talents, strengths and interests and ensuring that students have information about activities and clubs.
  • Inviting students’ language and culture into the classroom, and learning more about the resources available in students’ home languages, including language access services for multilingual families; and
  • Assisting with challenges around the COVID-19 pandemic, including communication with families and technology access.

5 Steps for Creating Welcoming and Inclusive Learning Communities

Re-imagining Migration

This thoughtful discussion with Adam Strom and Veronica Boix-Mansilla (with infographic) explores ways to: build trusting relationships for an effective learning environment; ensure safety and inclusion and make the power of diversity visible for a welcoming learning environment; set high expectations and deep learning opportunities; learn and grow through preparing yourself and your colleagues to support the social and emotional needs of all students.

You Are Welcome Here: Supporting the Social and Emotional Needs of Newcomer Immigrant Students

Colorín Colorado and Share My Lesson Webinar

Join experts Lydia Breiseth, Ameena Elder and Nadra Shami of Colorín Colorado to learn more about what it takes to help newcomer immigrant students (particularly those who have experienced trauma) succeed in their schools. The webinar explores the successful strategies of the Dearborn Public Schools in Michigan—an award-winning district where nearly half of the students are English learners—and where the graduation rate, including multilingual learners is among the highest in the state. The webinar also includes a preview of Colorín Colorado’s new film You Are Welcome Here, which features a K-8 campus in Dearborn serving a large population of families from Yemen who have emigrated in the midst of the country’s civil war. Available on demand for one hour of professional development credit.

Dearborn, Mich.: Welcoming Refugees

PBS NewsHour Extra and Colorín Colorado

According to the United Nations, there are more than 65 million refugees worldwide who “are fleeing war, disasters and persecution.” Many of the students in the Dearborn (Mich.) Public Schools are refugees who have come from countries, such as Syria or Yemen, that are embroiled in devastating civil wars. Students have experienced family separation, trauma and difficult journeys to get to America. The lesson features an interview with Norieah Ahmed, the child accounting secretary at Salina Elementary School in Dearborn, who talks about her role in welcoming newcomer immigrant families to the school. Ahmed, who is the first face that new-coming children see at her school, says, “People do overcome, when they are given the tools and honestly told that they can do anything.”

Addressing Xenophobia with Culturally Responsive Schools

Re-imagining Migration

This in-depth summary of classroom-based approaches to countering xenophobia with Carola Suárez-Orozco and Elena Maker Castro outlines strategies that include starting with a “whole child” understanding of immigrant-origin students; becoming grounded in trauma-informed educational care, particularly around the specific types of trauma and chronic stressors immigrant-origin children and families may experience (such as ongoing threats of family separation, deportation of family members and limited access to healthcare); providing learning environments that are safe, supportive and caring; practicing culturally sustaining pedagogy(such as incorporating elements of students’ diverse historical and cultural legacies); helping students bridge the “empathy gap” through a scaffolded curriculum and well-managed dialogues that explore new perspectives and experiences; and making your classroom a place where civility and respect are modeled daily.

Mexican American Member’s Lifelong Compassion Serves Immigrant Students

AFT Voices

This inspiring story by Virginia Myers depicts the work of AFT member Luz Maciel da Villarroel, an educator at Portland Community College in Portland, Ore., and coordinator of the college’s DREAMers Resource Center. A lifelong advocate for educational opportunity and better life opportunities for immigrants, da Villarroel works with new immigrants, refugees and undocumented students to help them gain funding to pursue their educational dreams, navigate the legal complexities of their immigration status, and (most recently) cope with the trauma and challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Myers concludes, da Villarroel is changing lives “one student at a time.”

uesf educators donate

AFT Members Fill in the Gap to Support Immigrant and Undocumented Families

AFT News story by Angela Callahan

Since the pandemic began, millions of Americans have received direct relief through stimulus checks provided by the federal CARES Act of 2020 and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. But most of the nearly 12 million immigrant workers around the country (who are suffering disproportionately from COVID-19-related economic hardships) received no such help. This article describes the fundraising and relief efforts of three AFT unions that stepped forward to bridge that gap: the United Educators of San Francisco, United Teachers Los Angeles and the Providence (R.I.) Teachers Union. Each effort involved teachers and school staff pledging some of their stimulus check money to help undocumented workers and families. As always, educators were eager to respond to the needs they saw in their community. As PTU President Maribeth Calabro notes in the article, members were quick to respond. Calabro says, “Even before we could get a fund set up, we had members contacting us wanting to give.”

Immigrant Heritage Month: Lessons and Resources

Share My Lesson

With this brand-new collection to commemorate the celebration of immigrants across the nation, Share My Lesson is providing innovative and rich ways to recognize all the pieces that make America what it is. Celebrate students, educators, families and communities with new preK-12 resources and lesson plans on:

Christina Bartolomeo

Christina Bartolomeo is an Assistant Director in the Communications Department of the American Federation of Teachers.


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