Who walks around high school hugging their new math textbooks tightly to their chests for all to see? Surely putting such a thing into a backpack would be a disservice to the precious nature of the object.
Which high school students gather excitedly in their classroom before school on the day that poster presentations are due, chatting passionately about completing their work and how nervous they are about getting up in front of the class? Giddy, elated, butterflies in their stomachs, indeed. But also pumped and even rejoicing because they have a piece of poster board to show off to any who might see.
Who is unabashedly proud of their new backpacks on the initial day of class, pleased by their first ever box of colored pencils, large erasers, shiny notebooks and multicolored folders? Ah, fortunately for me, these are my students.
And who are they? They are fifteen, sixteen, seventeen year olds who happen to be attending school for the first time in their newfound country, the United States of America. They are mostly refugees from East Africa, they are mostly Muslim, and they are mostly a constant source of joy to me (disclosure: they are not perfect people, just like the rest of humanity!). They are Beginning English Language Learners, and they’re also a bunch of smart kids who want desperately to learn the language so they can move on to the next, more difficult class. They are dreamers with high expectations of themselves and their schooling.
These refugees, my students, are here for many of the same reasons that the colonists, the pioneers, and my own immigrant ancestors came here from Wales and Germany: for a better life, for improved opportunities, for freedom, for a chance to live in peace.
We were recently studying the history of the United States, and some of our vocabulary words surrounding our lessons included the following: Native American, explorer, colonist, pioneer, immigrant, and refugee. I taught the students about each of these important groups of people in our country’s history, and we discussed the effects that each group had (and continues to have) on our country then and today. It was a voyage of discovery for my students as they contemplated what it might have been like to have lived here before Europeans encountered North America’s shores. I taught them about discrimination of Native American tribes and cultures, and, when asked time and again whether or not such treatment was fair and equitable, they shook their heads gravely and determined that no, such treatment certainly was not.
We discussed the exploration and colonization of America by Europeans, and the students sat, thoughtful and focused, as we discussed what that meant to the Native Americans’ way of life and culture. We learned about westward expansion, the Lewis & Clark Expedition, and Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a path to the Pacific. The students understood Sacagawea’s role in the expedition, too, and we discussed her bravery and the role that she played in helping the country to grow.
We wrote about whether or not they would have liked to have been pioneers. Demonstrating their kindheartedness, many stated that they would not have liked to have been because “it was not fair that they took away Native American homes and culture” and “I would not like to be a pioneer because I would not like to make Native Americans leave their land.”
Then we delved into immigration and how the population of the nation grew from five million to 23 million between 1800 and 1850. We researched the reasons for this growth and equated it to the immigration that has continued to define the story of the United States, even to this day in 2017 in the form of their very selves. We talked about how people from countries such as Kenya, Iraq, Russia, Mexico, Guatemala, China, etc. have made our nation culturally interesting and varied. We discussed what it means to be a “Nation of Richness” insofar as being a country with myriad groups coming together under the common threads of freedom and democracy, liberty and justice. They listened to one another as they discussed what it is they bring to our nation, and how they will contribute to its richness in the future.
Writing is sometimes difficult for new to country students, so we do a lot of it. One of the assignments that I asked students to do as they navigated our American history unit involved determining whether or not they saw themselves as immigrants or refugees (or both), what it was that brought them here, and why they and their families wanted to come to the U.S. Remembering that these students are Beginning English language learners, some of their answers follow, verbatim.
“I came to America in order to get better life and better education, also a better place to live which has a good weather. And I came to America to get good work and better work with better payment.” ~Fadumo, Age 15
“The reason why I came to America is to get better life and good education and more great life.” ~Hamdi, Age 17
“I moved to America because I wasn’t living with my family and my father. All my brothers and sisters lived in America, that is why I came here. And I came here to continue with my education, to graduate high school and college. And now I am happy to live with my family.” ~Farhiyo, Age 18
“I came to America because there is war going on in my country.” ~Faiso, Age 16
“I came because I need a better life and education, to work. Also my country did not have peace.” ~Khadra, Age 16
“I came to America from Kenya. I came to America searching for safe environment that I can live to have better future and to have a job and to make my mom’s dream come true.” ~Hani, Age 17
These refugees, my students, are here for many of the same reasons that the colonists, the pioneers, and my own immigrant ancestors came here from Wales and Germany: for a better life, for improved opportunities, for freedom, for a chance to live in peace. They have it tough, my dear ones, especially as older teens. After age thirteen, the human brain’s ability to learn language diminishes for various reasons and it’s much more of a challenge for my students to pick up the English language than if they had come when they were younger. They often comment that their younger brothers and sisters, who arrived at the same time they did, speak English better than they do. True, that. Another challenge.
And yet, my stalwart students march into my room with their textbooks held tightly against their chests, their poster boards open for all to see their meticulous work, their nerves tucked into their hearts as they anticipate that moment in front of their classmates and me as they speak up, with power, to present their findings to us all. In their new language, in their new classroom, in their newfound country.
For these children today, it’s about education, a chance for a better life, training for their lives after high school, the joy of being with family after long separations. They are being woven into their unique places in this land, and I expect beautiful things from them as they continue to find their way, as they seek to make a difference for themselves and their families. Just as European immigrants and pioneers stepped foot upon this country’s shores in the 1800’s with similar aspirations, it is my sincere hope that my students, sharp pencils and notebooks in hand, will be able to meet their heartfelt goals in their newfound nation, our United States of America.
My classroom, awaiting my eager students on any given day.
This article was originally posted on Melissa’s personal blog and has been reposted here with her permission.