As a first generation immigrant to the United States working in a bilingual classroom I work and live with many of the issues confronted by immigrants any place in the world. The same can be said of the children in a bilingual classroom which is often made up of either new arrivals or second generation immigrants. Also, given the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, expressed in the mass media, there is a clear need to educate and make others aware of who we are. We are them and their past generations of ancestors who built and are building this country. We are those immigrants to whom John F. Kennedy refers as having “ . . . enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.” (Kennedy, 1964)
Due to the lack of materials for children in the elementary grade levels exploring immigration I embarked on writing this unit. This unit was conceived and constructed as part of a larger unit on communities. Its main purpose is to introduce the process of immigration from a country of origin to another country of destiny to elementary students in the first through fourth grades (for a brief overview of immigration in American history see (Pedraza, 1996)).
The immigration experience of an individual, or group of individuals, from one country to another country consists of a long process. The steps in this process taken by immigrants in deciding to move from one community to another, whether conscious or unconscious, become the cornerstone in the path of any immigrant’s journey to the new country of destiny. One of the objectives of this unit is to create an understanding in children at the elementary school level, as well as anyone else reading the unit, of the steps by which an immigrant arrives from a country of origin to a country of destiny. Children will become aware that there are immigrants in every country; that everyone is an immigrant or a descendant of one; that immigrants have reasons why they move from one community to another or from one country to another; that immigrants arrive to the country of destiny by different means; that immigrants need to make choices about who and what to take on their journey; and that immigrants need to adjust to a new way of life, often without their families and support systems. The unit does not attempt to cover or enter the debate on the different political and social implications of contemporary and past immigration. The unit is set up so that the children and their families, as part of their new community, self discover and share information regarding their heritage and migratory process to their new country.
Bilingual classroom students in our public schools are a primary example of moving communities and contemporary immigration to the United States (for a discussion on contemporary immigration see (Rumbaut, 1996)). They are representatives of a generation of new migrant groups in a distinctly different process of integration to the new country of origin. The advantage that these students and their parents have, over other linguistic minority immigrant groups, is that of having organizations that speak their own language once they arrive to their country of destiny. The fact that the language of instruction in the school is the same as that of the home, allows the parents to take active participation in their children’s education.
Many are the fears stated by American nativists: unless we do something about how fast children of immigrants assimilate to their new culture and unless they learn English, the fabric that holds America together will unravel. However, it is the lack of maintenance of some competence in the language spoken by immigrant parents that will be a loss to the individual as well as the community as a whole. Language represents an asset by which knowledge is transferred from one generation to the other (see (Portes and Schauffer, 1996)). The rapid shift towards monolingualism and assimilation into the majority culture becomes the flame to the melting pot instead of the condiments to the salad bowl. The main goal is to assimilate as quickly as possible without looking at the effects of doing so. Minority groups that fail academically have shown ambivalence about their value of self identity and a sense of powerlessness in relation to the dominant group (Cummins, April 27, 1996).
The school is one of the first societal organizations in which the new immigrants come into contact as they begin to integrate and assimilate into their new culture. The role of parental involvement in the education of their children has been extensively documented as a good predictor of the child’s success in the classroom (Baker, 1987) and in the development and maintenance of balanced bilingual competence in bilingual children (Ada, 1993). Due to the nature and complexity of the topic, this unit of study seeks the active cooperation of parents and involves them in retracing their journey from the country of origin to the country of destiny. It makes the link between home, the school, and the parents who are the central participants in their children’s transition to a new society. The parents and family become the central core of what the unit is about. They are the transmitters of their ongoing family history whether the family settled here generations ago or are new arrivals to the country. With the help of the parents and members of the community, children take pride and discover that their new community is made up of people like them: immigrants who arrived in this country with few connections, lacking often any knowledge of the language, and with very similar motives for emigration as previous immigrants.
The unit strives to reinforce and implement cooperative learning strategies where the role of the teacher is that of a co-learner and facilitator and the role of the student is that of an active constructor of meaning instead of a passive recipient (see (Kagan, 1990) for a thorough look at resources for teachers in cooperative learning). The role of parents and community are at the core of the unit. Without the explicit and continuous involvement of parents and family as role models of immigrants the unit needs to be modified and include first hand experiences with the process of immigration elsewhere in the surrounding community. The classroom is then viewed as a microsociety where the children experiment and reflect on the different roles that will enable them to become an integral and active member of the society to which they are new arrivals. The topic of exploration is immigration.
Children at the elementary level are in the process of making sense of their surroundings and already have developed certain understandings of who they are, as well as a sense of belonging to a family unit. Later on they will focus on the relation of self to family, self to school, family to community, and finally the relationship between self and community. These understandings, though with variations, are general across nationalities and cultures, and part of the normal formation of self. It is within the context of this general developmental understandings that the topic of immigration is introduced to children at the elementary grade level.
By the time children reach kindergarten or first grade they are beginning to understand that each person is a unique human being. Children, in their egocentric view of the world, understand the feeling of what a home is, and already are familiar with family traditions as well as religious rites (Feder-Feitel, 1995). Children in grades two to four can understand the feelings of loss and gain upon leaving one’s home and the reasons why they have to move. At this developmental level they are able to choose personal items they would take with them if they had to move to a new community or country.
This unit has been developed with second graders in mind but can be modified to meet the needs of younger and older elementary students given the needed understanding of the developmental stage of the child as stated earlier.