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How to Cultivate a Sense of Belonging for Immigrant Students

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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:

How can we create learning communities that are supportive of immigrant students?

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:

  1. Opportunities for new beginnings
  2. Supportive communities 
  3. Assurance of security 
  4. Chances to dream 
  5. Committed advocates 
  6. Recognition of students’ strengths and assets 
  7. Acceptance for who students are and where they come from 
  8. Opportunities for students to develop their voice—and valuing those voices

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.

How can we incorporate storytelling into the classroom to build empathy and understanding for both students and educators?

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:

  • Asking students about their names i.e. “Tell me a story about your name, maybe how it was chosen or what it means to you.”
  • Creating a class cookbook where students contribute a family recipe and share stories of the importance of that recipe, their memories of the dish, and a little about their journeys to the country. The cookbook is then  printed and shared throughout the school/community
  • Leading a lesson where students first study poems by immigrants traveling through Angel Island a hundred years ago, then write their own versions about their personal journeys
  • Creating opportunities to reflect on stories of family objects and other objects that are meaningful and share them in the community.
  • Build in opportunities in content instruction for students to share their personal experiences and how they relate to the topic of discussion.

What are examples of innovative programs or collaborative approaches that are successfully improving outcomes for newcomers and immigrant students?

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:

  • Therapy Gardens at Las Americas in Houston, Texas, where students new to the country in the past year have access to a trauma therapy garden. The garden has sensory plants from all over the world that students will recognize, and teachers or social workers can bring students if they’re having a hard day. The garden has created opportunities for students to begin having conversations about challenging events in their lives.
  • In Guilford, North Carolina the motivated EL district team worked to roll out a new approach to teaching literacy, focusing on complex texts,   across their district by traveling to schools and leading PD, supporting co-teaching opportunities, helping educators find resources, highlighting pictures of success on social media and more. This program shows how setting high expectations at scale with support (for big and small moments) can lead to dramatic improvements in testing scores, and how an entire team working together made it happen.
  • A key opportunity is thinking about the strengths in our community that are there that we are not tapping, including advocates in our community and schools and leveraging collaboration between educators, researchers, policy makers, community organizers. The Action Zone in Aurora CO is a prime example, where a group of five schools created a community-school approach where they are seeing schools not as a place just for academics that's open from say 8:00 to 3:00, but from sunrise to sunset, and they're vibrant community hubs pulling in hospitals, businesses and local nonprofits.

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.

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