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Equity & Diversity Opinion

How to Teach the Story of Human Migration Without Bias

Three blinds spots educators have about migration
By Adam Strom & Veronica Boix Mansilla — March 04, 2019 4 min read
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We have all seen the haunting images. Migrants from Central America, men, women, and children on their journey north, alone or in caravans, seeking asylum at the border gate, held in jails or interned in camps. But most of the 244 million people worldwide living outside the country of their birth never make the headlines. They are parents and children, doctors, nurses, policemen, business owners, teachers, students, and neighbors, and they are central to the present and future civic life.

In our country alone, it is becoming increasingly uncommon to find a city, town, or county in which immigrants do not play a role. Migration is an integral part of the story of the United States. Recent reports from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League suggest that xenophobia and myths about immigration are on the rise, fueled by a 24-hour news cycle, partisan positioning, and misuse of social media. Misunderstandings about newcomers sow division, undermining our social, economic, and democratic prospects.

Our schools are not immune to the turmoil. Twenty-six percent of school-age children in the United States today are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Many such students feel especially vulnerable because of threatening immigration enforcement activities in nearby neighborhoods and the recognition that many educators feel ill-prepared to meet their needs. Committed educators nationwide have welcomed immigrant students into their schools, but their approaches have also been partial, leaving room for unintended harmful consequences.

What is my responsibility in constructing welcoming and inclusive societies?"

At Re-Imagining Migration, an organization created to ensure that young people grow up understanding migration as a shared human condition, we work with districts, schools, museums, and community organizations to prepare young people for the world and create inclusive and welcoming communities. We have noticed three blind spots that often challenge educational efforts:

1. Newcomer bias. When questions about immigration come up for schools, most eyes turn to the most visible cases of newcomers to our nation and neighborhoods. Complicating matters, many newcomers are often isolated by language, and their success is often solely gauged through their English proficiency, at the expense of developing their full human potential and civic identities. Making migration the sole domain of English-learners, rather than all immigrant-origin children and school faculty at large, exacerbates restrictive notions of who is part of “we” and who will remain a “they” for the foreseeable future.

2. Current events bias. In the current political climate, we have seen an increased focus on migration through the lens of current events. We keep hearing from our collaborators in the field that educators are looking for guidelines about how to address the migrant caravan, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or DACA), or other current events. This eagerness to tackle real issues in class is progress toward making learning relevant to children and society. However, treating the experiences of migration solely as a matter of current events strips migration—one of our most basic human experiences—of its deeper historic and scientific contexts. As a species, humans have been on the move since we first walked on the planet. Those journeys make up our scientific record, our literature, and our histories, and they merit being treated in informed interdisciplinary ways.

3. Special project bias. In school curricula, migration is often covered ad hoc. Storytelling, mapping family origins, and civic-action projects are popular and valuable, whether they take place in an occasional English/language arts class or after school. Yet as long as these projects remain outside of the mainstream educational life of schools, they will remain disconnected from the academic outcomes on which schools are assessed.

The study of migration raises fundamental questions about our shared human experience: Who are we? Where do we come from? Why do people leave their homes? What is the meaning of borders? Who is responsible for the people who straddle more than one nation? What is my responsibility in constructing welcoming and inclusive societies?

Students can revisit these questions over time and across disciplines. Responding to changing demographics of our nation’s schools also requires teachers and educators to rethink our own biases and assumptions.

Preparing our youth for a world of increasing and at times catastrophe-driven migratory flows will call for the renewed efforts of a broad range of educational and cultural institutions. This year, the first cohort of Re-Imagining Migration fellows—a select group of trained change agents—are leading pilot innovations in a range of educational learning spaces.

In Charlotte, N.C., our fellows have revised a freshman language arts unit to explore migration through literature. In Washington, fellows at the National Gallery of Art are designing new teacher workshops to engage migration through the arts. And at the independent Washington International School, also in the nation’s capital, a fellow’s biology students are tracing human migration through genetic markers and historical events over time.

Faced with the magnitude of human migration, such responses in classrooms, schools, districts, and museums are necessary to prepare young people to navigate a world on the move. If educators do not dedicate the attention required to develop a well-rounded approach to education about the experience of migration, we will leave a generation unprepared to take on the civic challenge of their lifetime.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as Recognizing Migration Is an Educator’s Imperative

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