Education Opinion

Breaking Stereotypes: The Power of Human Connection for Students

By Contributing Blogger — June 05, 2018 7 min read
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This post is by Michael Kuczenski, sixth-grade social studies teacher, and his students, Brooke Romanski and Ayanna Fernandez, at the Interdistrict School for Arts and Communication (ISAAC) in New London, Connecticut

Photo Credit: Tim Martin

At the 21st Annual Connecticut Immigration Day, 12-year-old Ayanna lowered the microphone by almost a foot before sharing her powerful message. At the end of her speech, all ears in the standing-room-only crowd at the State Capitol in Hartford listened intently. In front of news reporters, cameras, politicians, and lawmakers, she shared the lesson she learned by listening to immigrants in her own community. “As sixth-grade global citizens, we learned that many of us make incorrect judgments about other people. We should all listen. It can change our perspective.”

Ayanna and her classmates from ISAAC had spent months intensively researching immigration in the United States on a local and national level. They applied for and won a grant to conduct a Better World Day project, but the outward products of their learning and the inner transformation these students experienced had an impact beyond the project itself.

The Power of Authentic Learning: A Teacher’s Story

My friend who was raised in Los Angeles once told me, “Connecticut is like the red-velvet cake of America.” I laughed at the analogy and also the stereotype. Sure, Connecticut has the highest average income per capita, but we also have cities with some of the lowest literacy rates and highest levels of educational inequality in the country. More than a third of the 93 students in my sixth-grade social studies classes are either children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. Nevertheless, prior to this project, much of what my students knew about immigrants was from television and from what they heard their family say--also mostly from television.

As a descendant of immigrants myself, I wanted to create a project that allowed students to hear real stories directly from recent immigrants, stories that were as diverse as the people themselves. Together we embarked on a ten-week cross-curricular project exploring stereotypes of immigrants in the United States past and present. In Social Studies, students researched stereotypes faced by immigrants coming to the United States in the early twentieth century. They also looked at primary and secondary sources about current immigration policies as well as news stories. Through their reading, students discovered one commonality throughout the lives of immigrants in U.S. history: Immigrants have always faced stereotypes that negatively impact their lives, and those stereotypes are often false. Reading about immigrants in history made my students curious about what stereotypes immigrants face now in our own community.

To answer that question, students worked in groups to interview 16 local immigrants representing different ethnicities, languages, and cultures. Their task was to break the stereotypes they saw by sharing a more complex story of humanity. Early in the project, we discussed different ways of telling the truth about these 16 neighbors and friends in a way that would allow others, including community leaders, to really get to know them as individuals and people, not just stereotypes. We wanted our community to see what they look like, what they care about, what they’ve experienced, and how they contribute to our community. That meant we needed to learn some skills, including how to interview and photograph our subjects. We needed an expert.

I contacted a Yale medical professor who teaches interview techniques to graduate students. He helped students learn how to ask open-ended questions that would fuel the conversation rather than lead to singular answers. “Tell me more about” and “What was it like” allowed immigrants to share their stories in their own way. Then students worked alongside a professional photographer to learn about composition and lighting in order to capture the deep emotions of their subjects’ stories. For weeks in class and after school students studied professional models to learn new techniques for showing and telling the stories of immigrants. They critiqued each other’s work and received critique from peers, from professionals, and from me. Most importantly, they revised, revised, and revised again to create photographs on stretched canvas, each with QR codes leading to web pages that profile each of the 16 immigrants they interviewed.

Photo Credit: Nylah Lloyd, grade 6 student at ISAAC

They didn’t create this work just for their teachers. Instead, they hosted multiple community exhibits designed to change the public’s hearts and minds. To reach an audience beyond the exhibit, they also created YouTube videos like this powerful interview with Lizbeth, an immigrant from Peru, speaking to sixth graders Keyonna, Benyris, Prishtina, Madison, and Sadia.

Students compiled a professionally published interactive book entitled Community Faces: Humanizing the Immigrant Label that contains all of the interviews and photos. The proceeds of the book funded one immigrant’s green card application. Our project’s impact on the immigrants interviewed was palpable and powerful, but the students, like Brooke and Ayanna, were changed too.

‘Immigrant is a Label, Not a Person': Brooke’s Story

I started this project thinking that I was part of changing the world. That’s what Mr. Kuczenski told us when we won a Better World Project award. But what I soon discovered is that I changed as a person because I became educated on who these amazing people are.

Just as our project, Community Faces, made me a more open-minded person, it also made the world a better place by explaining to people who these immigrants are. Now our leaders know that each person has a story to share. I interviewed Nancy from Paris, France. Before meeting her, I thought Nancy was going to have a heavy French accent. But I was surprised when she spoke perfect English. I was also shocked to learn that when people thought she was a U.S. citizen because she looked white and sounded American, they felt they could talk negatively about immigrants. They also thought that her son was adopted because he had darker skin than her’s, which was incredibly hurtful to her. Hearing Nancy’s story made me realize that immigration is something people do. It’s not all of who they are.

I think that students at other schools and adults in the United States should reach out to learn about other people in their communities because it is important not judge someone before you meet them. The word immigrant is a label, not a person. Sit down and talk to this person you call an immigrant; you might learn something about yourself as well as them.

‘Teach the World to Love': Ayanna’s Story

I practiced my speech over and over again, maybe 20 times in the one-hour car ride driving to the Connecticut Immigration Day celebration at the State Capitol. It was terrifying walking into the gigantic room with gold everywhere. Before giving my speech, I thought back to when I interviewed Luqman. I fought back tears as Luqman shared his story about living in Ghana. One thing that I learned from Luqman’s story was that you shouldn’t make stereotypes about people because your assumptions usually are not correct. If we keep working hard to share the human story of immigration, we can keep teaching the whole world to love and respect each other. At the Capitol, people really were captivated by our work. They even had stereotypes of what sixth graders could create. I was overjoyed to break those stereotypes by showing that sixth graders can and did do it. Our work makes a better world for the community because now immigrants can share their story and not have to be afraid. This project gave a voice to those who didn’t know how to use it yet. If we can help change negative stereotypes as sixth graders, adults can do it too--if they’re willing to work hard like us.

We Learn Deeply Together: Our Story

Through this project, we have all come to realize that getting smart to do good matters in our lives and in the lives of others. Before beginning our learning and teaching, we wanted to see if describing the human experience of immigration could help break the stereotypes we saw in our community. We had no idea what the outcome would be.

When we finished, we looked around and realized how influential our work has been in the lives of others. Our immigrant friends had been scared to share their stories even with a group of five sixth-graders. But in the end they became confident and inspired to tell their stories. And people listened! That started other conversations about human experiences of immigration with politicians, lawmakers, and other community members. People listened to them too. Newspapers, radio shows, television stations, and other community partners helped spread the word about our project.

And our impact is still continuing, even in this blog! This domino effect has truly opened all of our eyes to the power of community. Identifying a community problem, getting educated (by learning and listening), working tirelessly, and becoming active to solve the problem inspires others to do the same. It’s as simple, and as hard, as that.

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