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“A sense of belonging is something every child and every person craves. And for young people, that sense of belonging is going to provide a foundation for them to build a life and pursue their dreams."
Learning in a new language in an unfamiliar country and culture can be an isolating experience for our immigrant-origin and refugee students. Fortunately, many educators are taking innovative approaches to reimagine how we communicate to these students that we value their strengths and that they belong in our classrooms.
Jessica Lander teaches history and civics to recent immigrant students in a Massachusetts public high school and is the author of Making Americans: Stories of Historic Struggles, New Ideas, and Inspiration in Immigrant Education. She recently joined us on Highest Aspirations to share about her experience traveling to schools across the country while conducting research for her book.
Listen to the full episode or find highlights from our conversation below:
Jessica’s book explores landmark cases and laws that have transformed the country's schools, innovative programs working with immigrant students today, and inspiring stories of recent immigrant students. She organized her book around what she identifies as eight essential elements of belonging:
During our conversation she focuses on the importance of recognizing students’ strengths and assets, which can often be overlooked when an English-only or deficit mindset is present.
“Too often people equate immigrant students' English levels and English fluency with their intelligence. Whether this is done consciously or unconsciously, this can lead school systems to lower their expectations for immigrant students. And often, our students pick up on this.”
Jessica notes–and we agree—that this is a mistaken assumption, and in fact that these students possess a wide variety of unique strengths that many adults may not even have.
“In journeying to this country, [my students have] become masters in negotiation, problem solving and teamwork. As immigrants, they have developed powerful skills as linguistic and cultural translators. They carry just a huge breadth of knowledge and perspectives about the world that they've gained from traveling and living in different countries and cultures and experiencing different government systems. And they, of course, are developing such huge wealths of perseverance and grit honed by learning in a new land.”
Jessica emphasizes the importance of recognizing and tapping into these strengths in our schools, as well as communicating to these students the value of the assets they bring.
Jessica underlines the importance for teachers to listen to and learn from their students. In our conversation she spoke about creating opportunities for students to share their stories without requiring them to - a practice she likens to opening doors but not making anyone walk through them. Building a space where our community of learners can share, listen and learn from each other is largely beneficial for all those involved.
“I learned so much from my students through hearing their stories about their courage, their determination, their grit, their bravery. We all have so much to learn from our students about how they understand our schools, and how we can change our schools based on how they understand them, how they experience them, and also how we tap into all of their many, many strengths.”
Some examples of strategies she shares to provide opportunities for student storytelling include:
Jessica had the opportunity to travel across our country to learn about creative and innovative schools and programs working to support immigrant-origin students. In her book she profiles seven powerful programs. In our conversation she shared a few approaches at some of these schools that stood out to her, including:
As Jessica describes, there is no single “right” program for our immigrant and newcomer students, but the important thread is that when a group of people come together to scale their efforts, we are communicating to these students that they are valued and welcomed in our community.
“A sense of belonging is something every child and every person craves. We all want to feel welcome, we all want to feel accepted, we all want to feel valued by our community. And for young people, that sense of belonging is going to provide a foundation for them to build a life and pursue their dreams. And if you have that sense of belonging, then you're invested to bring your talents and your energy and your heart into your community, into strengthening your community. An important question for us as educators is how do we create classrooms, schools, and communities that nurture a sense of belonging for all of our students?”
Download the full episode transcript here.
View the discussion thread.