For Immigrants, Understanding American History Takes More than Facts and Figures

When ninth-grade history teacher Kevin Connell found out that the curriculum he was supposed to teach on the encounter between Europeans and the...

When ninth-grade history teacher Kevin Connell found out that the curriculum he was supposed to teach on the encounter between Europeans and the native population of the New World focused on the Incas, he quickly realized that he would have to shift emphasis to the Dominican Republic and its native population of Toinos.

This past semester, Connell has been a student teacher at a small public school on the West Side of Manhattan. In both of his classes, 85 percent of his students are Dominican-American, and about half are recent immigrants.

Understanding the foundations of American civilization can be difficult evenf or students who are born here. A recent report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress stated that a majority of U.S. students did not understand basic concepts of their country’s government and history. But teachers of immigrant students face particular challenges. Language is often a barrier, as is unfamiliarity with American culture in general. Teachers like Connell try to connect with their students by going beyond facts and figures and focusing on different cultural and national backgrounds.

“I didn’t know I would be working with immigrants,” Connell said, but his Spanish skills have been an asset. “I teach in Spanish and English basically, which I wasn’t expecting to do, but have sort of had to do,” he explained. He translates all the written materials and provides bilingual instruction without any special training in that area. His school is one of a few that has an exemption to use portfolio-based assessments instead of standardized test to evaluate its students.

But Connell does not just seek to engage his students by speaking their language. He also tries to reach them through relevant subject matter such as the criminal justice system or immigration. “Maybe they’re not as interested in the history of New York City as they are in the history of Santo Domingo, and to me it’s less important that they get a body of facts and more important that they get a set of skills and understanding,” he said. “If those skills can be reached by modifying the content, then I’m totally willing to modify the content….That’s a message that’s important for immigrant students but also important for the way we should be thinking of education as a whole…which is starting with students and not conceiving them as people who need to receive knowledge from teachers.”

Connell explained how he could not take background knowledge about the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence for granted among his students because it is not part of the version of American culture that they see in their communities. “It’s interesting to think about what knowledge base they need to have as citizen of our country.”

Much of that has involved finding ways for the students to relate to history through their own experiences. In discussing how the Tainos felt when Columbus first showed up with his men and were speaking a language the natives had never heard, the class explored how you would have communicated in that situation.

Class discussions take place in English and Spanish, he said. But that doesn’t work for everyone. Although almost all his students are Spanish speakers, he also has  a Japanese-American student who does not speak Spanish. “He definitely gets tired of the fact that we’re speaking Spanish all the time, but you can also see that he’s totally picked up Spanish,” Connell said. He added that he himself has gotten better at understanding his students, while also encouraging them to translate for each other. “Translating is good because …to translate something you have to understand it…they’re invested in hearing each other because they’re like, wait can somebody please translate what that person said.”

Connell said that he uses primary sources, video and a lot of images rather than textbooks. “Images are crucial because they speak to everybody,” he said. “One can talk about them in different languages.” He says his students really appreciate that they can understand what’s going on in class.” In a recent class about slavery in the Domincan Republic, he showed students a 16th-century engraving of Spanish colonists severely injuring native Tainos. “That image is really powerful even though it’s 400 years old,” he said. “I can tell you that Columbus treatment of the Tainos is flagrantly violating their human rights and that sentence doesn’t carry a lot of emotional weight…but show someone a picture and it’s different and students are immediately engaged.” It’s powerful way to start discussion, he said. “If the first thing they see when they walk in is an image, they can be part of that discussion, [compared to] if the first thing they see is like a reading in English.”

The important of emotional engagement is echoed by Anand Marri, an assistant professor of social studies and education at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. He has studied successful social studies teachers in four classrooms in public schools in the Bronx and Brooklyn, paying particular attention to the situation of the immigrant students.

“The students had a clear idea about who they were and their identity, when you asked them what they are, they always say their Dominican, Puerto Rican,” he said. ”They have a strong sense of identity, very much see themselves as living two cultures, but in a good way. They recognize that there huge amount of racism in this country, but they know that other people have survived as well.”

He emphasized that the teachers allowed the students to express both parts of their identity. For example, he said they responded to the students’ love of hip-hop by allowing them to incorporate music into the classroom. “They allowed the kids to talk in Spanish, which is a huge thing,” he added.

“When they were talking about immigration, and early 19th-century immigration, they didn’t just focus on the traditional groups that were part of the first wave,” Marri said. “They started with reasons for immigration for their own families, bring out the concept of push/pull forces through their own experiences.”

But that did not mean that the students were not involved in American society or their own communities. “A lot of these kids, their parents didn’t vote, but all the kids said, yeah, we’re going to vote,” he said. In discussion after Hurricane Katrina, some students examined environmental problems and pollution as causes of asthma in their neighborhoods in the Bronx, some of the poorest congressional districts.

One teacher who particularly stuck out in the study taught U.S. entirely through Supreme Court cases, yet he still managed to achieve an 80 percent pass rate on the Regents. “Rather than focusing on constitutional issues, he talked about issues that are there like justice, fairness, who has a right to do what, who determines labor issues, those issues that they can get fired up about, like can a police officer pat you down, which they can relate to,” he said. “When they talk about search-and-seizure cases, they start a dialogue, much more important than trying to say, let’s learn about the Fourth Amendment.”

He was representative of other teachers in the study who didn’t use textbooks but a lot of multimedia and web resources. “They don’t necessarily need to read the book and answer questions on page 79,” Marri said. “That’s not how these kids are going to learn how to be a U.S. citizens.” The teachers had to reconcile the need to be engaging with the need to follow a curriculum. But rather than focusing on dates and figures to pass tests, he said, these teachers argue that “that if you know how to analyze the documents and make an argument, you can pass.”

While the experience of learning how to adjust his teaching to a classroom of immigrant students has been valuable, Connell said it is not a permanent solution. “My students do fine in my class but my classroom is not where they need to be. My school is bending over backwards for them and doing all they can, but we have limited time and limited resources. Ultimately we’re not a school that’s set up to accommodate people who just arrived in this country.”

Students get more focused help at the 11 public international schools in the city which are supported by a non-profit Internationals Network of Public Schools. The heterogeneous make-up of the student body is the greatest challenge for the schools, says Liliana Vargas, the director of school development for the Internationals Network. While the school does not group students by language ability, each class has a language development component, she said. And in each subject area, she said, a guiding principle is allowing students time and opportunities to use their experiences either from their native countries or in the U.S. and then moving into the class content.

Steven Dawson has been an American history teacher at the International High School at LaGuardia Community College, teaching in the American Dream cluster.

For a current unit on foreign policy, he had asked the students to explore what the U.S. did for their home countries and what their home countries did for the U.S. The students ran into unexpected difficulties. A student from El Salvador couldn’t even find El Salvador’s government website, while a student from Burma realized that her country and the U.S. did not have any relations because of the political disagreements between the two countries.

He has also found other ways in which American history can be more relevant to his students. “One of the main things that does get them motivated are laws in the U.S, whenever we approach American history, it’s good to approach it through laws — what the colonists could or couldn’t do, what we right now can or can’t do, what African Americans couldn’t do,” he said. “Exploring that though primary sources, such as people who’ve experienced discrimination –that hooks them in.” But a timeline of American history doesn’t mean anything to them, he says.

He said he uses a lot of multimedia and other visual resources, such as a graphic novel version of the 9/11 commission report. While many of his students have been in the country a couple of years, some are also recent immigrants. Sometimes, he said, he speaks to students in Spanish, to get them to pay attention. For the newest students, he has their classmates translate for them and also allows them to complete some of their work in their native language. “I really enjoy teaching American revolution — what I focus on the most is the things they kind of already know,” said Dawson. “Like they know Independence Day but they don’t know exactly what Independence Day is.”

This past week, the students have not only been learning about American history but living it as they reacted to the death of Osama bin Laden. “What came up for my students, and what we’ve talked about a lot in class is how Muslim Americans are perceived and how they might be dealing with the issue and how separating bin Laden from Muslims as a whole is important, since they have also been stigmatized or lumped into a group,” said Connell. “My students were critical of the patriotic response,” he said. ”I don’t think my students feel that invested in the fact that we needed to catch bin Laden….[though] they picked out motivations for why people might choose to go out and be patriotic and wave their flag.”A unit on the Holocaust was a core introductory history class at the school so the students were drawing connections to Nazi Germany.  “They found it kind of strange that people were celebrating the fact that somebody was dead,” he said.

Dawson said that his semester curriculum had already been exploring the roots of the Sept. 11. attacks. “[The students] were happy, they were confused and they were curious,” he said. “We have a Pakistani student who doesn’t believe that he’s dead at all, the Middle Eastern students are a little cautious, most of the Latin American students are happy, and the Asian students are curious.”

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