I have been struggling with something for a while at my school. First of all, I'd like to say that my school probably has one of the nicest population of students. Everyday, I see examples of acceptance of others for who they are. I have witnessed first-hand a so-called "jock" speak with an autistic student asking him how his day was going and then hug him. For the most part, students can dress as they like and almost no one will give them a second glance. This is what makes me proud to work in this building.
However, there have been some tensions with our recent immigrant population. For some reason, many students are unable to put themselves in the shoes of these recent immigrants and this impending election has not made things any easier. It has only brought out more hatred. The overwhelming majority of our immigrants are from Latin America and have been the topic of discussion amongst many of the mainstream population. I have had to reprimand some students for voicing in class that these "Spanish kids" are trouble, are screwing them out of work or college opportunities or just generally rude. "They're always talking in Spanish in the hallways" or "They always stay together" are comments often made. This has not been just since one of our presidential candidates has clearly voiced racist opinions in an effort to make our country great again. This has been for a while and maybe it's just a little heightened since then.
I'm an Italian teacher, not a Spanish teacher. However, I have respect for and love language- even the crazy English language with all it's exceptions to the rules and silent letters or mutating sounds. I was searching for a way to make relations between our mainstream population and our immigrant population better. I have tried in my class when some of those statements were made to point out some things that seem obvious to me but less than to these students. For one, I tried to have them imagine that they were put into a high school in a foreign country, with no prior knowledge of the language. There would, of course, be classes in that language for them and other Americans. I asked them, "Who would you hang out with?" and "What language would you speak in the hallways?" Listen, high school is difficult enough. Add being an immigrant, often out of your control, to that and I think you've got yourself a pretty stressful time in an adolescent's life.
Beyond lecturing and trying to point out what was obvious to me, I didn't have a clue as to how to make a difference and include my students. I thought to myself, "This would be so much easier if I was a Spanish teacher." I thought maybe do a social experiment outside of the classroom with some of my students as volunteers.
Then, I picked up a book by chance, A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger. I was researching project-based learning because I am always trying to make my teaching more effective and relevant. His book talks about how great ideas for medicine or inventions or teaching have come from a question. There might not be a Netflix, Amazon or Polaroid if the creators didn't ask themselves a question. I struggled a little to see how this could work for me in my classroom where my students had limited proficiency in the language. And then, like had happened for many others outlined in the book, I had an a-ha moment.
I was working on my family ancestry this summer. It was something that I had been interested in for a while. I knew a lot about some parts of my family but hardly anything about others. I started to build my tree and contact cousins and ask questions. I was sitting at a Starbucks, waiting for my kids' soccer camp to end, scrolling through hundreds of online birth certificates, death certificates and marriage certificates, that I was frankly surprised were available online from a small town in Southern Italy, when it hit me. Sometimes, you need a distraction to bring your mind back to the right place.
I usually have my college-level students read an introduction to a book about Italian immigration. It was mostly because I felt it was really well-written and it's an important part of history for Italians and Americans. The piece details the immigration time period from the late 1880s until the early 1950s. I thought I would add after the reading, a personal experience. I would tell them that my grandfather had come from Poland when he was just 18 years old. I would recount the story of my grandmother and her immigration experience. She came from Italy in 1951, leaving behind my mother and grandfather, to start a better life for her family. Her story could be a novel in it's own right. I would tell my class how this impacted my life and how I wouldn't have what I have if my family hadn't been brave enough to come here from Europe and start new lives. I owe my freedoms and education to them. Then, my students would complete their own ancestry project and they would tell the story of their family. Finally, I would arrange for my students to meet and interview some of the immigrant students. The hope is to help them have empathy and maybe change the culture of my school.
How can I help change the culture of my school? How can I get students to have empathy for recent immigrants in our community? What if I used a reading on early immigration and an ancestry project to help change the minds of my students regarding the immigrant population of our school? These were my questions.
So far, we have read the early immigration piece and I think students were a little upset to hear how the Italians were treated when they came here. I asked them to think about that and think about how it is different for the immigrants in our school. What is the same? What is different? The scary thing is that it's 2016 and a lot isn't different. When you think of the word Italian, you probably think of fashion, Ferrari or pizza. All great things but not so long ago, Italians, like many groups before them, were looked down on and mistreated. It took a few generations before Italian became synonymous with all things good and then Italian-Americans could be proud. Could this happen with our new immigrant populations? Just for good measure, my students will be visiting the NYC Tenement Museum this week to see exactly how immigrants lived in the early 1900s.
My students agreed to interview the immigrant students and last week brainstormed questions we could ask them. This Thursday, we will be interviewing them and I am nervous and excited. I think that this could be the change. I was recently watching a video in which teenagers who admitted to texting and driving met face-to-face with a girl who lost both of her parents and was seriously injured herself because another motorist was texting. Sitting face-to-face, many of these teenagers broke down. It is hard to deny things or not have compassion when you have direct contact. It is my hope that these interviews will provoke similar reactions. Maybe when we hear their stories first-hand, we will have more of an appreciation and maybe we can help bring them in instead of push them out.
A student of mine asked me if these students would interview them and I hadn't thought of it but in that moment, I was like, "Gina, that's genius!" After our interviews, the immigrant students will do the same. They will brainstorm questions to ask my students and we will conduct a second round of interviews. I am looking forward to this! I am so glad that I found a way for this to "fit" into my curriculum.