Why it is Important to Leave the Classroom and Learn Through Interactions
Meredith Blackmore, Sycamore High School
To quote a student of mine:
“It is one thing to learn about immigration in textbooks and read about statistics and numbers that accompany the ever prevalent issue. However, to understand that a personal story goes with each and every individual who tries to come to the United States completely changes one’s perspective. I am more interested in learning about the people and their lives than numbers and facts that go right over my head. When you talk to someone about what they have experienced, it makes everything you have learned so much more real.”
This reflection demonstrates how a unit idea to promote communicative and cultural competency evolved into an extraordinary lesson in empathy.
The lesson began with a simple suggestion on the website for the book I was reading with my upper-level Spanish students: Book Sonia to Speak. Each year my classes read La Travesía de Enrique by Pulitzer Prize winner Sonia Nazario. In the book (which has been the freshman “common read” at nearly 100 universities), she documents the story of a teenager who makes several attempts on the tops of trains (la Bestia) traveling from Honduras to be reunited with his mother in the US. Ms. Nazario herself rode on the train roofs in order to accurately report the conditions. It is an eye-opening and heartbreaking account of the desperation the unaccompanied minors feel and the hardships they endure to search for their family members and ultimately, a better life. Students had always been so enthralled with the book that one day while perusing her website for resources, I noticed the opportunity to host the author and decided to dream big. Thanks in part to a grant from the National Education Association (NEA) and a partnership with Miami University, we were able to host Ms. Nazario at Sycamore High School on September 22, 2016. This was a wonderful and deeply moving event for our students, as well as other area high schools that were invited to attend.
After her visit, my students began to express more curiosity about immigrant students around their age that might live in our city. Following Ms. Nazario’s model where she, along with the help of a photographer, had told a personal story of an unaccompanied minor, we decided to do the same. To practice their language skills and deepen their cultural understanding, my students would interview immigrant students who had come to Cincinnati from Latin America. This became cross-curricular as we also involved Advanced Placement (AP) photography and journalism students. My original idea was to create a website where students could work together to tell the stories with both written and visual representations. They took it a step further to suggest we create a bilingual booklet that they could share with their families, our school and the community. Being inclined towards social justice, this group was very enthusiastic to raise awareness in our city about what life is like in the immigrants’ home countries, why they leave, what they go through to get here and what life is like after they arrive. To cover printing costs of creating a booklet for all involved, I applied for and was awarded a generous grant from the Ohio Foreign Language Association (OFLA).
My goals were for my students and the immigrant students to create mutual understanding, foster empathy and deepen the students’ knowledge of this very important and timely issue. I first arranged for an immigration attorney and recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to visit our class as guest speakers. This visit provided my students with more background information and opportunities to ask questions. I then partnered with English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) teachers from two different Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) as well as a community organizer from Youth Educating Society (YES) and arranged for the interviews to take place. Prior to the meetings, my students filled out a set of pre-interview questions. Here they were able to express their expectations, what they hoped to gain from the experience and any concerns they had about their ability to communicate in Spanish with the native speaking students. Next, on two separate occasions we visited different CPS schools and one Saturday we invited members of YES to come to Sycamore. Following the meetings, students answered post-interview questions where they reflected on who they met, their initial reaction to the experience, how it was to communicate in Spanish, what surprised them and the similarities and differences between the student they spoke with and themselves.
By listening to what students were really interested in, I was able to provide opportunities for them to personally connect, thereby creating engagement and encouraging them to take ownership for their learning. The authenticity of interactions and student interest in the topic contributed to positive results, through experiences that promoted student growth with both language skills and cultural competence. For example, when asked how confident they were discussing immigration from Latin America to the US on a pre-unit survey (1-10 scale: 1 low, 10 high), 90% answered 6 and below (while there were 3 outliers who answered 6 because of personal experience with immigration, the majority were 5 and below). When asked the same question on the post-unit survey, 95% answered 7 and above. Additionally, on the pre-unit survey, only one student knew what la Bestia was. By the end, almost all students had personally met someone who had ridden on top of the trains. This class had wanted to make authentic connections and build confidence in their communication skills. The process of creating our bilingual book helped meet both of those goals.
The books are currently in the publication stage. Once ready, my students plan to host an “opening,” inviting their families, our school community, the interviewees and their teachers. They also want to donate the photographs, with subjects’ permission, to the local Hispanic center’s annual auction for fundraising.
I cannot overemphasize the impact this experience had on my students. Coming from suburban Cincinnati, most had never met an undocumented immigrant. Having the opportunity to sit down with one and hear their story firsthand was life-changing. Students’ reflections from the interviews showed growth in confidence using Spanish and growth in understanding issues people face when coming to the US, thereby fostering empathy- something I believe is more important for students now than ever before. The connections my students made with the students they interviewed and their engagement while producing the book are evidence of the positive results that come from collaborative learning communities.