Immigration is the story of our country; we are a nation of immigrants. Though the study of immigration, children learn how and why numerous, diverse cultures have woven their way into the societal fabric of the United States. On a more personal level, studying immigration allows students to gain a appreciation for their own family histories as well as a understanding of the hopes ad challenges faced by immigrants. This unit, designed for the Language Arts classroom, will consist of three parts: investigating family histories, the reading of
In the Year of the Boar and Jackie
Throughout the unit, students will be keeping Immigration Response Journals in which they will have the opportunity to record thoughts and questions about the topic. The unit will stress reading and writing as processes and will provide students with opportunities to hone their reading and writing skills. It is hoped that the unit will give students accurate background knowledge about contemporary immigration so that they can appreciate the complexities of the issue.
The Language Arts classroom is an authentic setting in which the students can explore the issues of immigration and assimilation. Enabling students to develop strong speaking and listening skills is among the many goals of the Language Arts curriculum. The first segment of this unit will allow students to accomplish this goal through studying the oral histories of immigrants. This portion of the unit will provide the foundation for our study of immigration and assimilation and will introduce students to the vocabulary, concepts and contemporary issues surrounding immigration in the United States. The novels that will be read later in the unit will reinforce the ideas introduced in the oral history segment and will encourage students to think critically about these ideas.
Many of New Haven’s students are immigrants. It is especially important, then, for their own stories to be heard. Students will be researching their families’ backgrounds, interviewing family members and/or writing about their own experiences with immigration. Students will be learning interviewing, note taking, and organizational skills in order to write a character sketch of an immigrant in their families. Students will be asked to relate any first-hand knowledge of migrating to the United States. Students will be asked to interview parents, relatives, or neighbors that have immigrated to the U.S. The results of these interviews will be shared among small groups of students. This type of personal connection is vital to the motivation of middle school students.
The interviews will serve as the framework for the study of some of the issues involved in contemporary immigration. The state of the U.S. economy, the current political culture of the U.S., and the media all play roles in the restrictive overtones felt in contemporary America. In an effort to temper misinformation that can circulate in this type of atmosphere, it is important for the teacher to address social, economic and political issues involved in contemporary immigration. The oral history segment of the unit provides an excellent forum for such a discussion.
Students will need to learn how to conduct a good, informative interview. In an effort to model this process, a guest speaker, Mrs. Saskia Braat, an immigrant from the Netherlands, will be invited to speak to the class about her own experience with immigration and assimilation into the American culture. In preparation for Mrs. Braat’s visit, the class will devise a list of questions to ask her. It will be important for the teacher to ensure that the questions asked by the students will enable them to gain a clear and accurate view of the process. Students themselves will probably construct a list of basic questions such as: What is your country of origin?, Why did you emigrate?, How old were you when you came to the U.S.? However, it will be essential for the teacher to ensure that questions go beyond the basics and are aimed at correcting common misconceptions. Three of the most publicized pieces of misinformation center around the numbers of immigrants currently entering the U.S., the idea that immigrants do not want to learn to speak English if it is not their native language, and the idea that immigrants enter the U.S. in order to take advantage of our government welfare system.
It is hoped that the interview portion of the unit will give the teacher the opportunity to touch on issues such as the numbers of foreign-born people currently residing in the United States. According to the 1990 census, only 7.9% of the U.S. population was foreign-born. This is dramatically lower than the 14.7% reported in the 1910 census (Pedraza and Rumbaut, 1996). Our nation has experienced heavier waves of immigration than we are currently experiencing. It is clear, then, that America is not being inundated by immigrants, a notion that the media and restrictionists promote.
The current restrictionist movement is largely related to the present state of the U.S. economy. The work place has shifted from high-paying jobs in the manufacturing industries such as steel and even automotives to more low paying jobs in service industries such as restaurants and health care; and part-time jobs are replacing full-time jobs. In this atmosphere of economic frustration, with many unemployed or under-employed, it is easy to find scapegoats. Newly arrived immigrants fit the bill nicely. Undocumented immigrants are especially vulnerable to this type of backlash.
In 1986, the U.S. Congress, in response to economic pressure, enacted the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Although the Act had several components, the one most pertinent to this discussion is the one that enacts employer sanctions. Under this Act, it became illegal for employers to knowingly hire undocumented workers. This law requires that new employees complete the I-9 form on which they must show their eligibility to work in the United States. Although this law is difficult to enforce because of the sheer numbers of forms that would need to be reviewed by the government, it can be said that this law clearly makes it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to secure work in the U.S. In many cases, immigrants take jobs that native born citizens will not take; those with little pay, no benefits, and little or no chance for upward mobility.
These are important concepts for both the teacher and student to understand. In her interview Mrs. Braat, will be asked to explain how she was able to secure working papers in the U.S. In her case, as with many other immigrants, she came to the United States highly educated and highly skilled. This made it easier for her to assure the government that she would be able to secure work as a nurse. Thus, the students are introduced, in a very personal way, to the economics of immigration. This facet of immigration will become even more evident to the students as they conduct their own interviews and read the two novels included in this unit.
It is hoped that the interview that the class conducts with Mrs. Braat and the interviews the students conduct on their own will also touch upon some of the facets of assimilating into the American culture. Language Acquisition is a key element of the assimilation process. Mrs. Braat came to the United States with a moderate command of English. She had studied English during her schooling in the Netherlands, but had no authentic opportunity to practice her English skills. Like many immigrants, she was eager to improve her English and welcomed the opportunity once she moved to the U.S. Although she and her family still spoke Dutch at home, her young daughter’s primary language was English. This is true of many second generation immigrants. In a 1992 study of second generation youth in South Florida, 98% of children under the age of 13 reported being able to speak English well or very well (Portes and Schauffier, 1996). Generally, immigrants are willing and eager to learn to speak and write English proficiently. The fear that the dominance of the English language is threatened in today’s United States is very much unfounded.
Another key issue that I hope will be raised in the interview portion of the unit is the motivating factors for people to leave their country of origin and move to the United States. It is important for students to see that there are economic, social and political reasons for one to leave his/her country of origin and come to the United States. Again, I will use the class interview to demonstrate. Mrs. Braat moved to Connecticut from Amsterdam because she felt that there would be better economic opportunities for her here. She came here with a desire to work hard and have that work lead her to a better life.
It is my belief that the interviews that the students will conduct, will show that many immigrants come with this same work ethic. In this age of restrictionism, it is important for teachers to underscore this idea. Immigrants are not coming to the U.S. with the intent of taking advantage of our government welfare system. Indeed, they cannot. One must reside in the U.S. for at least five years to qualify for any government assistance. Immigrants are coming to the U.S. with a strong desire to make it on their own. Additionally, undocumented immigrants have the added burden of finding work illegally and are in the unenviable position of being exploited, but having no where to turn. If they speak out against their employer, they risk being deported. Often, however, the long hours and poor conditions spent working in the U.S. are their only hope for economic survival.
The reality of the economics of immigration is one aspect of the process to be explored during the interview portion of the unit. In their interviews students should ask questions that focus on some of the deeper issues of immigration and assimilation (A list of suggested questions can be found in the Unit Overview). The interview with Mrs. Braat and the interviews subsequently conducted by the students will provide human faces and real stories to the study of immigration.
The results of the students initial writing and interviews will be shared in a small group setting. This creates a non-threatening atmosphere where students can feel a sense of belonging and are more likely to openly discuss issues. Here, students can learn about the immigration histories and character sketches of those interviewed by the members of the group, thereby broadening the scope of each child’s background knowledge about immigration and assimilation. Students will be asked to write their impressions of the interviews in their Immigration Response Journals. As the unit progresses, students will be asked to modify these impressions as they learn more about the complexities of immigration and assimilation.
As a teacher of Language Arts, it is my goal to make my classroom a colorful and lively place where students feel comfortable taking the risks necessary to become good readers and writers. The focus of my teaching is on leading children to see reading as a process of drawing meaning from the printed text. This transactional view of reading allows children to see that their own thing process brings the words on the page to life. It is as equally important for students to see the authentic connections between reading and writing. Writing, too, can help students discover their own thinking. Another objective of this unit is that students will use reading and writing to make personal connections with the topic by comparing and contrasting their life experiences with those of immigrants studied.
In order to reach this goal, reading and writing will be combined in the form of Immigration Literature Response Journals. Students will keep journals in which they will respond to two novels about immigration,
In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson
The journals will help students to make personal connections to the topic of because they provide students with a forum to question, explore immigration thoughts and to discover their own reactions to the characters and events in the novels.
Through the journals, students can create an on-going dialogue about the issues that surround immigration and assimilation. The Immigration Literature Response Journals will develop the students’ higher order thinking skills because students will be gaining an understanding of cause-and-effect relationships, reflecting upon personal experiences with immigration and assimilation, and comparing and contrasting their own experiences with those of immigrants. The journals also foster a sense of ownership in the topic because each child’s will be unique.
It is my hope that the on-going dialogue created will encourage more emotional involvement with the characters and will, hopefully, move students toward fulfilling the objective of having empathy with immigrants, both documented and undocumented; and will allow children to break from stereotypes of immigrants and to realize that each immigrant’s experience is unique.
In addition to developing personal connections, students will need to build background knowledge about the process, the hows and whys, of immigration. At the beginning of the unit, students will be asked to respond to an Anticipation Guide (see Guide in Sample Lessons) about immigration, in which they will be asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements about the process of immigration and assimilation. After investigating family histories and reading the two novels in the unit, students will have the opportunity to revise their opinions. The Anticipation Guide is an important tool for increasing reading comprehension because it provides students with a framework for changing and modifying background knowledge. This will activate the students’ prior knowledge of the topic and will give the teacher insight to any misperceptions the students have. As we discuss the experiences of those interviewed, and the experiences of the main characters in each of the novels, students will have the chance to reshape their thinking and perhaps gain a more complete understanding of the complexities of immigration.
The journals, novels, and discussion groups will be used to achieve several of the unit’s major objectives. Students will use literature as a vehicle for understanding immigration and assimilation processes. Students will read two high-interest novels,
the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson
. These books, used in conjunction with the Immigration Literature Response Journals, will help the students focus on different aspects of immigration such as: reasons for immigrating, living conditions in the country of origin, reception in the U.S., language acquisition, and future outlook. The journals are an excellent tool for connecting reading to writing, for extending the meaning of the text, and for giving readers ownership of their literary experience.
The students will participate in small discussion groups where they will discuss their responses to the open-ended questions used as prompts for journal writing. Students will also use the journals to free write and to keep a log of vocabulary words they encounter in their study of immigration and assimilation. The small groups will give the students an opportunity to develop a vocabulary about immigration, listen to others viewpoints, and construct their own opinions on the topic.
Teacher directed journal prompts and group discussions will help to get each group focused on particular aspects of the process of immigrating and assimilating. It is especially important for teachers and students to have the chance to correct any faulty or stereotypical thinking they might have about the realities of the issues surrounding undocumented immigrants. Although these issues are countless, it is important for students and teachers to develop a solid understanding of three aspects of the undocumented experience.
Foremost for most undocumented immigrants is the quest for work, which is at the center of the decision to come to the U.S. Many undocumented immigrants are driven from their country of origin because the local economy is too poor to support them. Some come to the U.S. with the goal of earning a certain amount of money and then returning to their home countries. Others come embracing the idea of the American Dream and hope to build new, financially successful lives for themselves even if that means taking jobs for which they are significantly overqualified. Whatever the motivation, the goal for most undocumented immigrants is to find steady work in the U.S..
While work is at the center of the undocumented immigrant’s life it is important to consider the role of the network of familial and social connections already established in the U.S., plays in achieving this end. It is often a family member living in the U.S. that provides the information, housing and financial support needed to become rooted in the society. It is not uncommon then, for numerous people from the same country of origin to settle in the same geographic area in the United States. This network serves to increase the immigrant’s sense of belonging to the common culture of the U.S. as well as providing a support system through which immigrants can maintain some cultural identity with their country of origin. These social networks are described in Patricia Pessar’s
A Visa For A Dream
. This book would serve as an excellent background for teachers because its ethnographic style makes the process come to life through the stories of those featured in the book.
Undocumented immigrants live in constant fear of being apprehended by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. An understanding of the lives of the undocumented immigrants in this country is greater when one considers the pervasiveness of the worries about apprehension and its affects on the daily routines of undocumented immigrants. This fear is an unsettling force that requires the immigrants to exercise caution in almost all aspects of everyday life. For example, an undocumented immigrant cannot obtain a driver’s license or even have bills put in his/her own name. Families can be separated when one or two members are caught and deported, while others are not. The American children born to undocumented immigrants are especially vulnerable because although they cannot be forced to leave the U.S., their parents can. Undoubtedly, this puts added strain on family life.
is an excellent resource for teachers looking for background information about the experiences of undocumented immigrants. It chronicles the compelling stories of undocumented Mexican immigrants. Chavez closely follows the lives of several people who reveal their thoughts and real life experiences. It is from these stories that teachers can gain insights to this complex problem facing our society.
Students participation in this unit will learn about the complexities of immigration (both documented and undocumented) as they read two young adult novels. The first novel,
In the Year of the
Boar and Jackie Robinson
is a charming story that chronicles the immigration and assimilation process of a young Chinese girl who emigrates to the United States in 1947. Having moved and settled in New York the year before, Shirley’s father excitedly welcomes her into the new home he has established for Shirley and her mother. Shirley is warmly welcomed at her new school. Although she initially doesn’t speak English, she assimilates relatively easily.
In the Year of the
Boar and Jackie
has a positive, hopeful tone. Its humorous style will engage the students. Shirley’s character is infectious and one can’t help wanting to learn more about her Chinese heritage, and to empathize with her.
offers students both a view of contemporary immigration issues and an account of undocumented immigration that is engaging and realistic. The economy of Mexico is quickly deteriorating and many families are struggling desperately to make ends meet. After her father is killed in a fishing accident, 14 year old Lupita and her brother must cross the border from Mexico and find work to support their family back home. The two come to the U.S. with the expectation that they will be able to live with their aunt in California. This aspect of the fictional story is based largely on the reality that many undocumented immigrants come to the U.S. with the help of family and friends already established in this country. The novel offers a realistic portrayal of the risks and dangers of illegally crossing the border.
Lupita is a very real character and she will show students that undocumented immigrants are very real people with hopes and dreams like the rest of us. Lupita, unlike Shirley, has a very difficult life in the U.S. She does not speak English and assimilation into the popular culture is not her goal. The stark differences between the girls’ characters and life situations provide teachers and students with opportunities for discussing the many facets of the process of assimilation including the acquisition of English, the internal feelings and struggles with issues of “abandoning” native culture and “becoming American,” and the reception and prejudices faced by those trying to assimilate.
The use of this novel in conjunction with the Immigration Literature Response Journal gives students an authentic reason for reading and writing because it will give them a chance to think about real issues facing our society. For example, students will gain an understanding of why some people are undocumented immigrants and the special hardships faced by this group. Students will be asked to consider and evaluate Lupita’s reasons for becoming an undocumented immigrant. Responding to and discussing this piece of literature will help students understand the dynamic process of assimilating into a culture that is continually trying to define what it is to be “American.” It will also build a background knowledge and a sensitivity to a topic that is currently receiving much media attention.
As they read
In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson
, students will be asked to reflect on the difficulties each girl faced. It will be especially important for students to gain an appreciation of the tremendous hardships faced by undocumented immigrants. This is critical as students try to relate to contemporary real-world people and issues. Students will be asked to imagine that they are the characters in the novel. This exercise in visualization and problem solving should help students understand that there are no clear cut answers to the problem of undocumented immigrants.
The issue of undocumented immigrants is indeed a complex one. These immigrants have provided a low-wage labor force for the United States for many years. As America moves more toward a service industry oriented economy, it is these undocumented immigrants who are willing to accept the low wages and poor working conditions that most American workers will not. It is clear then, that there is a need for these workers. However, this need is clearly at odds with the political stance taken with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. However, one provision of the law, the Special Agricultural Workers program, adds to the numbers of immigrant workers because agricultural employers need foreign workers to work the land (Calavita, 1995). So, there is the law and the loophole to the Law. The U.S. government seems to be pulled in two directions at once. While in this time of economic recession, the policy makers are called upon to limit the numbers of workers allowed into our country, the employers see the reality that it is only the immigrant worker who can and will withstand low-wages and poor working conditions. The U.S. government does not seem to have a clear answer to this troubling economic reality, so the the law is weak and the system of using undocumented workers continues.
Students will be introduced to the Immigration and Reform and Control Act by the teacher. However, the focus of the unit will be on reading as a lived-through experience rather than lectures about issues of immigration. Through the novels, the journals and the discussion groups, students will gain and understanding of why people immigrate to the U.S., the hardships they face and that each immigrant’s experience is a unique one. Specifically, students will be asked to reflect in their journals about the reasons that surrounded the immigration of the main characters. Although the conditions under which each girl left her country origin were starkly different; each girl left hoping to find a better life for herself in the United States.
The novels, the Immigration Response Journals and the discussion groups lend themselves nicely to my next objective. In this unit, students will compare and contrast the immigration and assimilation process of documented and undocumented immigrants. It is my hope that students will acquire an appreciation for all immigrants. However, I would like students to become sensitive to the plight of the undocumented and to be able to give careful thought and consideration to the reasons they are drawn to the U.S., why they take risks of being deported, and why the U.S. needs these workers.
In my unit on immigration, students will also study the novels in terms of their predominant literary themes: courage, loyalty and responsibility. It is hoped that these themes will teach the students as much about themselves as they do about the characters in the books. Additionally, I want students to recognize literature as a vehicle for understanding and exploring critical issues that face our society.
Week One: During the first week, students will be introduced to the topic and its related vocabulary (immigration, emigrate, country of origin, assimilation, language acquisition, Immigration and Naturalization Services, “la migra,” Immigration and Reform Control Act, amnesty, “green card,” citizen). Students will work independently to complete the Immigration Anticipation Guide. Students will then be assigned to a group with whom they will share responses and discuss the novels that will be read in weeks two and three. After students have discussed their responses to the anticipation guide, each group will brainstorm and develop three to five questions about immigration and assimilation that they would like to have answered by the end of the unit. One member of each group will write the questions on chart paper which will then be hung around the room.
The next lessons will center around teaching students good interviewing and note taking skills. After these lessons, our guest speaker, will be brought in for an interview. Students will ask questions that they have devised as well as the following recommended questions:
1. What was your country of origin like?
2. What was happening in your country of origin when you decided to emigrate to the U.S.? Did events in your country of origin influence your decision to leave? Why?
3. Did you have to learn to speak English? What was that like?
4. Do you still speak your native language?
5. Did you have any experiences with prejudice or hostility as a new immigrant? If so, please tell me about it.
6. What was the most difficult part of fitting in to the American culture?
7. How do you feel now about your country of origin and your native language?
8. Are there customs from your country of origin that you still observe? Please tell me about them.
These questions should help students to focus on some of the deeper issues. Students will then be asked to interview a family member, neighbor or member of the community who immigrated to the United States. Students will use the questions devised for the interview of Mrs. Braat, and will brainstorm and think of other possible questions pertinent to the person being interviewed.
It is important that, during this first week, students develop a framework within which they can develop new thinking about immigration and assimilation. The political, social and economic reasons for emigrating must be discussed. It is hoped that the interviews will bring to light the various reasons for leaving one’s country of origins. It is also hoped that the interviews will give the class the opportunity to dispel inaccurate. thinking about the affects of contemporary immigration on our society. The teacher should stress that our shores are not being overwhelmed with immigrants coming to the U.S. to take jobs from native born citizens and to take advantage of the U.S. welfare system. Again, it is through the interview process that students will see the human side of immigration, the immigrant’s honest desire to make a better life for him/herself.
The writing process will be emphasized as students write a character sketch of the person they interviewed. Character sketches will be shared with the small groups. Students will also be asked to respond in writing in their Immigration Response Journals to teacher directed prompts. Prompts may include specific observations about the people featured in the character sketches and more general questions or observations about the common features of the experiences of those profiled.
During the course of the unit, teachers should allow at least one half of one class period for students to visit the school’s library/media center to begin researching some to the questions posed by the small groups. Although some of the answers to these questions may be gleamed from the class discussions and the reading of the two novels.
Week Two: Students will read the novel
In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson
. Before beginning to read the novel, students will be asked to share any knowledge they might have about Chinese culture and traditions. Students will use the school library/media center to research some of the culture and customs introduced in the novel. These include: zodiac signs, Chinese New Year celebrations, binding of feet, emphasis on extended family, cultural rules, feasts and holidays, and Confucius. Using the response journals, students will reflect upon the family’s reasons for immigrating to the U.S., Shirley”s life in China, Shirley’s acquisition of English, her reception in the U.S. and her future outlook. Students will be asked to compare Shirley’s experience with those of the people they interviewed.
Weeks Three and Four: Students will read the novel
. The level of reading difficulty is greater for this novel, so more time will be needed for the students to read and fully comprehend its events. Students will again use their reader response journals to chronicle their ideas as they read. Students will compare and contrast Lupita’s experience with that of Shirley in regards to reasons for coming to the U.S., life in her country of origin, acquisition of English, reception in the U.S., and future outlook. It is during this portion of the unit that students will focus on the hows and whys of undocumented immigrants. Students will also have the chance to compare Lupita’s experience with those of the people interviewed at the beginning of the unit.