Keeping up with my blog was a struggle this fall. In other years, I churned out posts easily. This year has been hard because for so many reasons: educators all over the country are struggling with the challenges of teaching, and on a personal level, I am still grieving, and will be forever in various degrees, my dad. It was hard to focus and find something I felt was worth writing about.
But last week, I started a unit I love to teach and talk about: Immigration Stories*. I change it a little every year since sometimes I have the same students 2 years in a row. This year, I needed a movie to show before the break, but I also didn’t want to show just any movie that wasn’t related to the curriculum. Knowing I would be introducing this unit, I did some research about movies related to immigration (they had to be appropriate for middle school and the one I love to show, Bajo la Misma Luna, some of my students had already seen). I came across Paddington - yes, Paddington, the one about the bear who goes to London! After reading about how to relate Paddington to issues of immigration, lessons began to form in my head. Paddington is an immigrant. He is a natural disaster refugee, having to leave his home in Peru because of an earthquake. He stows away on a boat, leaving his only family behind. He shows up in London, not knowing anyone. People ignore him or are rude to him. He doesn’t understand the customs and makes a lot of mistakes. He is undocumented.
After watching the movie, I asked the students to answer this writing prompt: How was your immigration journey similar or different to Paddington’s? It might seem childish to compare yourself to a bear, but the students were game. They wrote that they were different from him because they didn’t come on boats, they were not alone, and they were not refugees (not in this particular class). They were similar to him because they were both sad to leave and a little excited or nervous. The most touching answer was from a student who recently arrived from Brazil. She said “We are similar because Paddington found a home, and we found a home, too.”
The next day, I took out the photos from the photo-text exhibit I worked on in 2017 along with Elena Betke-Brunswick, Patty Bode, other teachers, and many students. As a result of a large grant we had received, we created a photo-text display for the whole school to observe, and then recreate in their social studies classes. We took photos of students, had them professionally framed, and laminated the immigration stories they wrote in my class. Students visited our display in small groups, writing and discussing the stories they read about. As I took out these photos, I was reminded of how special and beautiful this project was.
I placed the framed photos around the room, and asked my students to look at them all and then choose 2 to take notes on (using the questions “what do you notice, what do you wonder?”). The next activity was to match the text, which I had not put up yet, to the photos. Each student got 4-5 texts. They did pretty well except for a few they needed help with. As they asked me about the students, I told them who was at the high school, who went back to their countries, and who had graduated. Some students had chosen an object for the photo to represent them - a lacrosse stick, the Statue of Liberty. My current students and I talked about why those students might not have wanted their face in the photo.
The next step in this unit will be to learn about immigration to the U.S.: push and pull factors, the many different groups of people who have come to the U.S. and so on. Then students will both interview someone else about their immigration story, and they will write their own stories and publish them in small books. Another activity I have done in the past is Immigration Songs, which we may repeat also. I hope to show the final products here if all goes well!
*A note about wording: I say immigration stories here, but in class we will broach the topics of how people from Puerto Rico are called migrants, how Africans experienced forced immigration, how the only people who were always here are indigenous people, and about how not everyone knows their own story (and that is an opportunity to find out someone else's). We talk about using the term “movement story” instead of immigration.