Immigration reform: Teaching kids about the “pathway to citizenship”

As immigration reform and the pathway to citizenship are moving forward, an educator tells his idea for teaching kids about what's really American.

Immigration reform, like the plan outlined by this group of bipartisan senators Jan. 28, tends to start a divisive debate about who is a real American and who is an outsider. But really, everyone in America was once an outsider, an educator tells his kids.

Why is "foreign" such a problematic word? In the recent presidential campaign, it was a negative label used by Mitt Romney to tar and feather Barack Obama. President Obama has foreign ideas, he said. It was already a worn out trope that Mr. Obama's not American. “He’s different!” True – just like the rest of us. Which means, we shouldn't be so schizophrenic about what's foreign and what's American. Obama seems to be getting it right now, stressing the talents and skills that immigrants offer the American talent pool – talents we should enfranchise, not deport. 

It’s a commonplace to say, “We are a nation of immigrants.” We can all tell a family story whose arc originates somewhere else on the planet. Many of us are several generations away from the actual immigrant experience; some of us are new arrivals. We forget the strength of our history and how to embrace it. After all, what is an American?

It’s an engaging complication that even school children can investigate with greater vigor and clarity than the pundits and fulminators and bloviators of the news cycle. At one of my past schools we called this Project Acceptance, in which 5th- to 8th-graders focused on the experience of immigrants, or new Americans. For several weeks, our students even used an online forum to share their opinions about a common set of readings. I recommend author Margy Burns Knight who wrote, "Who Belongs Here?" the story of a young Cambodian boy refugee living in the US. International students from GSA joined us. I recommend Katherine Applegate’s book, "Home of the Brave," the story of a Sudanese refugee boy in Minnesota. I recommend Allen Say’s "Grandfather’s Journey," to name but a few.

Which is to say we shouldn’t stray too far from story telling, a format that each one of us could use to tell our family history – showing how we belong here. “Who Am I?” I asked my students to get started and then presented the following facts about two mystery people.

I’m an American. I belong here.

I was born in Tokyo. My father was born in Tonawanda, my mother in Pittsburgh. My great-great grandparents came from Germany and from Glasgow, Scotland. My German great-great-grandfather sold flour from a wheelbarrow in Pittsburgh. They all arrived in America in the late 19th century. My other great-great-grandparents lived in Moose River, Maine and, after the Civil War, went to Michigan and then Nebraska in a covered wagon. Their ancestors had arrived here almost 400 years ago from England.

My wife was born in London. Her ancestors came from Russia and from Holland. The Dutch family was named Van Valkenburgh and arrived almost 400 years ago; the Russian family name was lost at Ellis Island, so they became “Brody,” the name of their town. They arrived in 1888 and lived on the lower east side of Manhattan … not far from where the Dutch ancestors had grazed cows. My sister-in-law is English; my brother-in-law is French. No one in our families speaks the languages of our ancestors any longer … except for English. My children have lived in Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, and my daughter returned to one of the “old countries” for her college degree. I wonder if she felt like she belonged in Glasgow? Who am I? Todd R. Nelson.

Here’s another American story:

My father came from Kenya. He herded goats when he was young, then won a scholarship to school. My mother came from Kansas. My parents met in Hawaii. I grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii and went to college in California, New York, and Massachusetts. My mother’s family includes abolitionists and Revolutionary War veterans. My Kenyan grandmother just got electricity in her house. I have a half-sister who is Indonesian, a brother-in-law who is Chinese-Canadian. My relatives are Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. In my extended family, we speak “English, Indonesian, French, Cantonese, German, Hebrew, African languages including Swahili, Luo and Igbo, and even a few phrases of Gullah, the Creole dialect of the South Carolina Low country.”                                                            

My wife’s ancestors also came to this country from Africa – as slaves. They lived in South Carolina, Alabama, and eventually moved to Chicago. Her grandfather was a World War II veteran. One of my children has a Swahili name. We live in Washington, D.C. in the same house as my office. Who am I? President Obama.

In "The Middle of Everywhere," Mary Pipher talks about the difficulty of being an immigrant to the United States, like Kek in Katherine Applegate’s "Home of the Brave." The smallest details of the daily life we take for granted can be formidable obstacles to finding your way, to belonging, making a home. Her experience has been with Sudanese newcomers to Lincoln, Neb. Consider a few: using escalators, crossing streets with traffic lights, understanding signs and signals, how to bake a frozen pizza, deal with telephone solicitors, overdue library books, job interviews, asparagus and rhubarb, dry cleaning … the meaning of “homesick.” What are those stairs for? How do you drink from a water fountain? From the sublime to the ridiculous – but sometimes our ridiculous can be someone else’s sublime. Kek has never seen snow, which is “like claws on [his] skin.” He misses his cattle back home. Will he ever feel like he belongs here?

A new immigrant needs “cultural brokers,” and the most important cultural brokers are schoolteachers,” Ms. Pipher writes. “Schools are the frontline institution for acculturation, where children receive solid information about their new world … I have met many heroic teachers who, among their other responsibilities, become the antidotes to media and ads. One ELL teacher told me, “We’re all there is between them and Howard Stern and Eminem.” Kek says, “Things are very different here.”

A few teachers could do a good job as cultural brokers for the shrill political culture we’re exposing kids to. Insofar as all children are emigrating to adulthood and citizenship, they need to have the stories of their own ancestors in mind, which informs a willingness to help others write new stories. In any child’s journey, they must learn to navigate perplexing institutions and social conventions, language barriers, and literal and figurative road signs that locate them, slow them down, and warn of upcoming hazards.

What are those stares for? What’s wrong with “foreign?” What is an American? With Project Acceptance, we invited students to join some significant conversations leading to the land of maturity and fulfillment and diversity – where, we hope, they will feel they belong.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs.Todd R. Nelson is Head of School at The School in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania.

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