Building Culturally Responsive Units of Study: From Texas to Mexico and Back
The year Chuy asked his question I was new to teaching fourth grade, new to Title I schools, new to a bilingual classroom, and new to Texas.
Though there were many legitimate reasons for me to doubt my own qualifications to succeed in my new position, one of the top concerns that made my stomach giddy-up was the requirement that I teach Texas history. As if my lack of knowledge of the subject wasn’t enough, I was expected to integrate the study of state history into the language arts to allot more time for tested subjects.
I have forgotten much of what I did teach in that first year of Texas history, but I do have a vivid memory of one book I read aloud, Voices of the Alamo. As we read about the battles between the Americans and Mexicans over land, the disputes about language and the tension over rights, my students were quietly tapping into specific prior knowledge that I had not directly addressed.
Then Chuy asked his question. “Is that why they don’t want us here now?”
His question managed to both awaken and silence the group. Wide eyes gaped at me. Suddenly, I began to understand. Was it me against them? Was I a part of the they in Chuy’s question? How was I, a middle class white woman from the suburbs of Washington, DC, to teach a pride in the Alamo and eventual victory over the Mexican militia to a class of recent Mexican American immigrants?
Finally I answered Chuy. “I don’t know, Chuy,” I said, unable to find a better response.
We moved on. And we continued to move on that year, but I am sure that we did not move forward.
I began to wonder, Is a classroom really a safe space if it is only an escape from the outside community’s realities? By avoiding the uncomfortable do we also avoid true growth? I realized that I could not teach the state curriculum standards without thoughtfully addressing the cultural capital of my students and the current climate of our community.
A Common Language, a Safe Environment
I began to look for themes within the Texas standards and to make connections to current events. During the next school year, I decided to create a unit on immigration that would address why immigrant groups have come to Texas. In the process we would come to understand some of the traits that define culture, and use our research and experience to advance students’ oral expression.
I also set the goal of engaging my students in discussions about what the word “immigration” means and what it has meant. We would consider the word in the context of change and resistance to change, and the merging of cultures that has affected millions of immigrants. We set out to consider that while the words “immigration” and “immigrant” are socially charged today, they are at the root of our nation’s history and are a source of pride in our nation, not words that should evoke feelings of shame or fear.
The first day we began this unit I asked, “What does ‘immigration’ mean?”
Wide eyes. Wait time.
“¡La migra, la migra! ¡Migración! ¡Immigración! They come to your house and they take you away.”
“Or back to Mexico.”
“My uncle . . . ”
“My brother . . . ”
“Everyone runs and hides . . . ”
The students’ excited reaction was rooted in their understanding of the word “immigration” or colloquially, “la migra,” which evoked fear of incarceration or deportation. I listened to their comments, let the near pandemonium die down, and took out my grandfather’s memoir, Along the Way.
“My grandfather was an immigrant,” I shared. I read about my grandfather’s emigration from Switzerland when he was 9 years old, just their age. They listened to anecdotes about his experiences as a victim of discrimination, and accounts of his family’s strategies to adapt to a new country, language, and culture.
In the weeks that followed I read aloud many biographies, memoirs, and fictional stories of immigrants of all ethnicities. We worked together to develop our definition of an immigrant: someone who moves to a new country to live. In this way, we began to disconnect the term “immigration” from words like “without papers” or “illegal” or “unwanted.”
As we discussed these books, we began to use sentences such as, “Some immigrants have come to the United States to find better jobs,” or “Some immigrants have come to the United States for safety from war.” We talked about “some immigrants” and I did not yet push students to relate their own experiences to those of the characters portrayed.
Providing Support for Language Learners to Participate in English
I invited the bilingual reading and special education specialists to hold their reading groups in the inclusive setting of my classroom. We collected texts at all students’ instructional levels on the topic of past and present waves of immigration to the United States, held discussions about what students had read, and compiled charts indicating the causes and effects of immigration and comparing and contrasting texts (see the “Comparing Texts” video below).
I initiated our whole-group discussions about immigration in English. We gave each other the vocabulary necessary to stretch our conversations around new ideas of change and resistance to change. To give students the support they needed to feel confident sharing in English, we used sentence starters and paid attention to cognates. We took turns adding new information to our collaborative charts, which listed immigrants from many countries who had come to the United States (see the “Immigration Chart” video below).
Andres was the first student to voice his connection to the immigrants listed on our chart. Under our definition of immigration and next to names like “Selma Hayack” and “Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Andres wrote, “Andres H. immigrated to Mexico and then back to the U.S.A.” The class sat for a moment, reflecting quietly. Some students wouldn’t look at Andres, they just stared at the butcher paper. Then one student said to me, “We should put your grandfather on there.” At that time, no other students volunteered to add their own names to the list.
The text that eventually served as a bridge between our impersonal discussions about immigrants and the personal writing of our own experiences came from a district-adopted anthology. The text presented information about the experiences of 9- and 10-year-olds who had immigrated to the United States from various countries. My students were fascinated to read about these real kids who could have been their classmates. As they read, some students began to say, “Yeah, me too!”
And then someone said, “Maestra, we could do a chart like this.” And so our unit stretched into our writing block. Students interviewed each other and wrote about their experiences as immigrants. Students who lacked confidence in their spelling and writing in English relied on our mentor text. We took digital pictures to create our own “In Our Own Words” chart (PDF).
When we posted our work in the hallway, we noticed a fourth-grader from a monolingual English classroom taking the time to read each entry. “My grandfather emigrated here from Mexico,” she said.
Having piqued one reader’s interest, the students decided to type up their stories and send copies of our work to our fifth grade pen pals in California. The choice of an authentic audience for our writing added a dimension to the unit that motivated the students to share stories that, before, they had purposefully kept silent.
Connecting Past to Present
Now that students had developed a positive image of immigration and the changes that immigrant groups inspire in culture and language, we could look again at the history of Texas. We began reading texts specifically about the peoples that have come to Texas over time. We created a new time line that delineated when Native Americans, Germans, French, Spanish, and Mexicans had arrived and how they had shared and fought over the land for hundreds of years.
By the time I again pulled out the book Voices of the Alamo, we had taken the time to develop the prior knowledge to understand the sense of community and compromise that are required as cultures come together. It wasn’t me against them, or even the Mexicans versus the Americans; it was people fighting for what they believed was right. We had gained knowledge from texts and had shared experiences that now lived in our shared space.
And while we would not find a simple answer to the question, “Is that why they don’t want us here now?”, we did develop a safe environment where even Chuy’s pressing inquiry would not have had the power to silence us.