As part of an exciting grant from a local organization that supports projects in our schools (Amherst Education Foundation), our school is working towards making a photo/text display about immigration. Following the photo/text model of the traveling exhibits from Family Diversity Projects (familydiv.org/) a group of teachers in one of our inquiry groups is working to build upon an existing exhibit about the stories of people who immigrated to the U.S. This exhibit is called "Building Bridges: Portraits of Immigrants and Refugees" and our exhibit will join it, with immigration stories about our students and staff.
My English and Social Studies classes are working on a fully integrated unit about immigration. We started by investigating groups of immigrants who have come to the U.S. and we looked at immigration trends. Students made slideshows about immigration from their own countries to the U.S. and presented to the class. Some worked in their own language, others in English, and some in a combination of both.
Students are currently working on their interviewing skills. Based on an interview of me, they wrote narratives. This week, we will be interviewing staff members about their immigration or movement stories. Then, students will begin writing their own immigration stories, and will include their families in recording their stories.
One of the highlight activities for this unit so far has been "Immigration Songs", and activity which took about 4 days to complete. Students had to find a song about immigration in a language they could understand. They read the lyrics and watched the video, and then answered questions about the song. The questions were:
Why did you choose this song? What is this song about? What are some lines in the song that you really like? How does the singer feel? How does the song make you feel?
I modeled the activity by showing them the video for the song "P'al Norte" by the Puerto Rican group Calle 13 and answering the questions above. Just watching the video for this song inspired a great discussion in my class. One of my students who came to the U.S. with her professor parents could not understand the common Central American experience of immigrating to "El Norte" and having to sneak over the border or pay a coyote to help them get over. All of this information was completely new for her. When I said that sometimes people swim through the Rio Grande to get to Texas, or go through tunnels, one student shouted "I did that. I went through a tunnel, I couldn't stand up all the way." Other students were visibly shocked.
I showed the video as each student presented their song to the class and explained their answers. Students chose a variety of songs, some surprising me. One chose "Immigrant Song" by Led Zeppelin because he liked the screaming parts (he was honest!) and another chose a sad but beautiful song about people leaving Cape Verde to find new lives in other countries. A student from El Salvador chose a song called "El Mojado" by Ricardo Arjona. This song describes the heartache of leaving one's country and family behind, and the suffering along the trip north to the Mexico-U.S. border, only to face many more challenges in El Norte.
The students brought their unique perspectives to the issue of immigration throughout this activity. All the songs the students chose were profound and beautiful in their own way. Even my student who is struggling with literacy in 2 languages found this activity successful; he found a song and I asked him the questions orally when he presented. More conversation followed, as my students from Central America described the challenges they had faced getting over the border. "What happens if you get caught and sent back?" I asked. "You get 3 chances to get over the border," one student told me, "and if on the 3rd try you get sent back, the coyote keeps your money."
This activity was a win-win. Students learned from each other, I learned from them, and we had rich conversations. They worked on reading, writing, speaking and listening throughout, the 4 domains ELL teachers are constantly working with in the classroom. It also gave my students safe space to talk about events that may have been traumatic for them. With immigration constantly in the national news, I am excited and looking forward to the outcome of this project. I'll keep you updated!