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immigrant experience and journey blog

June 28, 2021

Teaching the Immigrant Experience and Journey

This blog features free teaching resources centered around the immigrant experience and journey that comprise our present and past.


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By Christina Bartolomeo

Teaching Stories of the Immigrant Experience

Every year, we celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month in June. But immigration is so much more than a “theme of the month.” You could argue, as did groundbreaking historian Oscar Handlin (born in Brooklyn in 1915 to Jewish immigrant parents from Russia) that immigration is the defining constant in American life and history. In a nation created and continually shaped by immigration, educators need immigration-related resources year-round—to serve our students, to fully teach history and civics, and to do our part in the fight against hate and xenophobia.

“Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.”

-Oscar Handlin, historian

So, this year, Share My Lesson is highlighting the full range of resources we offer on immigration with a three-part blog series. We started with resources for welcoming and including immigrant students in our classrooms and communities. We continue with a focus on the immigrant experience, journey and voices that comprise our American present and past. We’ll finish with a look at SML’s offerings on our country’s specific immigrant heritages from all corners of the globe.

immigrant experience tapestry of multicultural diversity lesson plan

A Tapestry of Multicultural Diversity
Global Oneness Project

With a long history of immigration, New York City contains one of the most culturally diverse populations in the world, representing a wide variety of religious and faith communities.

This lesson exploring diversity and multiculturalism centers on photographer Caleb Ferguson’s photo essay, “Belief,” which shows New Yorkers celebrating cultural and religious festivities—from a Chinese Lunar New Year celebration, to the Hindu spring festival of Phagwah or Holi, to the Islamic Jumu'ah, a congregational prayer or salah held every Friday just after noon. The lesson plan offers discussion questions and exercises pegged to the photo essay—from asking students which photo in the essay they’d select as the winner if they were a judge for a photo contest that celebrates diversity, to inviting students to respond to the question: “If you could document your own cultural heritage, what story would you tell?”

immigrant experience best 47 books about immigrants and immigration

Best 47 Books About Immigrants and Immigration for All Ages
The Immigrant Learning Center

Divided into sections on picture books, elementary and middle school books, young adult books and books for adults, this list of good reads covers a wide sampling of countries and cultures, with a wide range of selections, including Samad Behrangi’s picture book The Little Black Fish (banned for more than 20 years in Iran for its pro-immigration message), which follows a fish who dares to swim against the current to explore a wider world; Nicola Yoon’s teen romance, The Sun Is Also a Star; and Rigoberto González’s American Book Award-winning memoir Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa, in which González recounts a childhood spent as a migrant worker slowly awakening to the realization that he’s gay. The emphasis is on books by authors who are immigrants. The list also includes explorations of immigration policy and history, such as One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, in which author Matthew Yglesias considers how immigration could benefit people born in the U.S., spurring innovation and economic prosperity for everyone.

gaby lost and found immigrant experience

Gaby, Lost and Found (Teacher Discussion Guide)

ADL Book of the Month selection Gaby, Lost and Found tells the story of Gaby, a sixth-grader whose mother has been deported to Honduras. Gaby is an outcast at school where classmates tease her about her family life. With everything falling apart, Gaby finds strength in her class service learning project at their local animal shelter. Her profiles of the animals help many find a “forever home,” which Gaby is in need of herself. The book humanizes the controversial issue of undocumented immigrants; themes include immigration, bullying, service learning and friendship. The discussion guide features a vocabulary list, discussion questions, and learning extension activities.

immigrant experience immigration and citizenship lesson

Immigration and Citizenship

In this web quest, students explore “coming to America.” They peek at the history of immigration, learn some reasons why people migrate and what attracts them to America, and look at the naturalization process. Students try their hand at the civics part of the naturalization test and hear what U.S. citizenship means to some brand-new citizens. A companion worksheet is included.

Immigration Poems (A Collection)
Compiled by Maria Angala

This is a brief but moving collection of poems for K-12 students; it includes “Refugee Ship” by Lorna Dee Cervantes (in which the speaker expresses the isolation she experiences in the face of her grandmother, as she has grown up “American” and doesn’t speak her grandmother’s tongue; and Gary Soto’s “Black Hair,” in which a young boy’s identification with a Mexican American baseball player helps him through hard times.

immigrant experience intersection of lgbtq identities

The Intersection of LGBTQ Identities and Immigration
Re-Imagining Migration

This lesson explores the ways that LGBTQ identities impact the choices people make to leave their home countries. It includes a comparison of which countries have constitutionally guaranteed rights for LGBTQ people, and in which countries they are most likely to be persecuted. The lesson features summaries of, and further links to, the stories of: Subhi Nahas and Karolina Lopez. Nahas, a refugee from Syria, made a daring escape from that country in the midst of a civil war. (In Syria, same-sex romantic relationships are illegal, and Subhi was abused by his family because of his sexuality.) Today, he works to help other persecuted LGBTQ refugees find safe haven. Lopez is a trans woman from Mexico who left home at the age of 10 and came to the U.S. undocumented at 13, but planning to live with a sister in Arizona. Her sister rejected her because of her gender identity, and eventually Lopez was placed in a detention center for three years. She now works to help other LGBTQ immigrants to the United States.

The Power to Persevere
Global Oneness Project

Students watch the short film Making It in America, by Joris Debeij, about a single mother and Salvadoran immigrant struggling to realize her goals in America. In this lesson, students learn about the sacrifices many immigrants make as they transition to lives in the U.S. and the perseverance needed to succeed. Students explore the concepts of “the American dream” and “the land of opportunity” in relation to the immigrant experience as well as to their own lives. Reflective writing prompts are also included for students to demonstrate their understanding of the story; includes English-language and Spanish-language curriculum, lesson plan and teacher instructions.

Webinar: Exploring Immigration: A Conversation with Journalist Sonia Nazario
Share My Lesson webinar with Facing History and Ourselves and Write the World

Available on demand for one hour of PD credit.

This conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sonia Nazario explores the changes created by migration. With more than 250 million migrants around the globe, including more than 65 million refugees, migration has sparked intense partisan debate; inspired advocacy; and changed the face of cities, neighborhoods and schools. In this webinar (No. 4 SML Top Webinar of 2019 and No.  8 SML Webinar of the Decade), we explore powerful human stories behind this global trend in conversation with Sonia Nazario, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Enrique’s Journey: The True Story of a Boy Determined to Reunite with His Mother. Years after his mother left him behind in Honduras to seek work in the United States, Enrique embarked on a harrowing odyssey to find her. Join us to discuss the importance of stories in addressing today’s challenges of borders and belonging, and learn about Facing History and Ourselves’ extensive resources for teaching about immigration in social studies and literature classrooms, including a study guide for the young adult version of Enrique's Journey, along with current events lessons and other multimedia resources.

Teaching Migration with a Social Justice Lens for Secondary School
2021 Share My Lesson Virtual Conference

Available on demand for one hour of PD credit.

Join Abeer Shinnawi and Ashley Aluko of Re-Imagining Migration along with Share My Lesson for an honest look at how we can better educate our students on immigration. The history of migration is the story of our nation. Unfortunately, the teaching about the story of migration has been whitewashed, limited or eliminated from many curriculums. This webinar will help educators understand how to connect migration patterns—internal and external, by choice or by force—to past and current immigration policies and equity issues facing our students.

Using Re-Imagining Migration’s learning arc, this webinar will help educators examine their own teaching approaches using social justice standards to create an environment that is reflective of the needs of their students.

My Part of the Story: Exploring Identity in the United States
Facing History and Ourselves

Help students understand that their voices are integral to the story of the United States with six lesson plans that investigate individual and national identity. Developed in collaboration with Boston Public Schools and teachers, these lesson plans cover: finding your voice (the idea that America is the product of many individual voices and stories); the concept of identity and

names (how our names represent who we are and reflect our relationship to society); the ways we use labels, stereotypes and assumptions to identify each other; how we create our identities through choices made about who we are and how we present ourselves; connecting to the past and how the choices made by our families and previous generations influence who we are today; and the concept of “many voices, one national identity” (a look at the changing demographics of the U.S. and the complexity of the country’s national identity).

Understanding and Analyzing ‘The U.S. of Us’ By Richard Blanco

In August 2019, anti-immigrant bigotry was spotlighted by a deadly shooting that killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas (a border town that is 85 percent Latinx). In the aftermath of this devastating attack, poet Richard Blanco was asked by USA Today and the El Paso Times to write a poem reflecting on how the Latinx community is feeling about living in the U.S. “In the wake of the violence of El Paso, I felt an urgency to take a hard look at our place as Hispanics in the United States,” Blanco said. The author of five poetry collections, Blanco was born in Madrid and immigrated to the U.S. as an infant with his Cuban-exiled family. In 2013, he wrote and recited a poem for Barack Obama’s second inauguration, becoming the first Latino, immigrant and openly gay writer to write and recite a poem for a presidential inauguration. This lesson plan (which includes writing and extension activities) provides an opportunity for students to analyze Blanco’s poem, “The U.S. of Us,” in the context of current immigration policy and rhetoric. Blanco’s poem reads, in part:

"O say, can you see us by the dawn of our ancestors’ light still breathing through the cities we forged from the wind of our wills … and christened for the faith gleaming in our saints’ starry eyes: San Francisco, San Antonio, San Diego? 

O say, when will you have enough faith in us to meet the gleam of our eyes in your own, when will you see us as one in this one country we all so proudly hail … ?"

Christina Bartolomeo

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

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