Mar 01, 2019 2019-03-01
By Leah Juelke
I am an ELL teacher at a public high school. Of the 1,200 students who attend, about 150 of them are refugee and immigrant students who come from more than 20 countries, including Nepal, Liberia, Iraq, Somalia, Vietnam, and Mexico. I have a mix of ninth to twelfth graders in all classes. I emphasize writing and speaking in the curriculum through an intensive writing and public speaking project called Journey to America.
When I started the Journey to America project, I never imagined that it would have such a huge impact. After reading their stories, I was amazed at how much I learned about my students and how honest and heartbreaking their stories were. I wanted others to better understand the reasons as to why and how our refugee and immigrant neighbors leave their native lands. I knew that the stories would also help our teachers connect with these students and, therefore, facilitate better differentiation for those who needed it.
Through a grant, I am able to publish my students’ stories in a class anthology each year. The work leading up to the publishing is quite intensive. Guest speakers come to our class and tell refugee or immigrant stories to help students start to brainstorm. Then mental health professionals join the class to discuss trauma, expressing emotions, and resources available if needed. The next aspect is a story exchange with a native student. When students are ready to write their stories, college students and community members are invited into the classroom to work one-on-one with students. This step lasts about six weeks. During the publishing phase, students upload their stories as ebooks on our website to share with everyone.
I combine the stories into one book, which is then given to each student in my class and every teacher in the school. The book is sent to every school in the district, to legislators, nursing homes, and to a teacher in every state. Meanwhile, the students go through a speech unit and practice reading their stories out loud. During the beginning of second semester, students put on a public reading of their stories at the local university. This year, each student also wrote a poem about their country that will be added to the book and created a canvas painting, depicting a scene from their story, that will be displayed during the public reading.
Watching my students confidently read their stories to an audience in their second, third, or even fourth language is indescribable. Since our first reading, my students and their stories have been featured in magazines, literary journals, newspapers, and on the radio. They have won awards from the Scholastic Art and Writing Contest, as well as the Reflections Contest. Through this project, they have been empowered to make a difference.
A student of mine named Aline volunteered to attend a hearing at the state capitol that proposed to limit refugee resettlement in the community. She shared her story from class and spoke on behalf of refugees in the community.
“We started running and in a blink of an eye, we heard a gunshot and we all stopped. We looked back, and it was my dad. He had been shot. My older sister and I went back to see if he was still breathing. My father started talking to us, then suddenly one of the aggressive soldiers came and pushed us away from my dad. He poured gas on his body and lit him on fire right in front of us as we all cried. My father’s body eventually turned to ash. There was nothing more left for us to do but to bury the ash. I was eight years old.”
Aline paused and wiped a tear from her eye and continued to read her story about her journey to America. When she was done, she lifted her head and addressed the panel of legislators in front of her.
“I want to say that I am here in this country because of the horrible crimes against my family. I have a job and I go to school. When I graduate, I plan to go to college, become a lawyer and be a productive member of this society. People like me are not bad people, just because we are refugees. People like me are making your communities great.”
There was a loud applause and Aline took her seat. Two of her classmates also testified against the proposal and read their stories to the crowd. They had listened all morning as people belittled and chastised refugees and their resettlement in the community. In the end, the legislatures did not go forward with the measure.
What started out as a way to help teach our community about diversity resulted in a vehicle for building relationships and empowering students to advocate for themselves. My students are some of the most resilient, compassionate, and hardworking young people that I have ever known. I learn something new from them every day and I am a better teacher because of them.
Mar 04, 2019 at 10:21:12 pm
Thank you for doing this important work: giving your students a voice and allowing them to tell their stories!