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Teaching Writing Through Conversations on Immigration

By Tracy Wagner — July 25, 2012 5 min read
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Every year I have worked in urban public schools, I have inadvertently learned the citizenship status of students. I remember finding out that one of my top students—a young man who had wowed me with his reader’s response journals and stayed after school countless times to question word choice or comma splices—in short, a stand-out student who held great potential—could not apply for financial aid for college in Massachusetts. He was an undocumented immigrant. As the years of my work in public urban schools go by, students who identify as “top 5 percent of the class,” “award-winning debater,” “talented wide receiver” or “outspoken creative writer” add “undocumented immigrant” to their list of identifiers. The door to higher education is closed for them.

While working as a writing teacher at a summer academy for talented, low-income high school students, I decided to do a unit on immigration law since it affects so many students’ lives. My hope was that my students would learn the role of talking and writing in making their voices strong, smart, and distinct—especially when speaking on this hot-button issue. I also hoped my students would learn to ask questions. How does the new immigration law affect college students? Will they become eligible for financial aid? What happens to immigrant youths who face deportation?

I decided to use articles related to the DREAM Act, a proposed law in which undocumented students who came to the United States at the age of 15 or younger and who had lived in the U.S. for at least five years before the Act’s passing would be able to remain in the country through college completion or military service and, then, qualify for citizenship.

Although this unit focused on the DREAM Act, which stalled in Congress, the template could also be used to teach about the Obama administration’s new immigration policy, under which young adults who came to the United States as children will not be deported and can get work permits.

The Importance of Talk

Material as rich as immigration law needs a forum in which students may share their responses with one another and, from this, craft careful analyses. When I have a problem or need something clarified, I don’t sit in silence in my office. It doesn’t make sense for students to sit in silence; if that’s not how most adults make meaning, it’s certainly not going to work for the texting, blogging, tweeting, posting, always-communicating teenagers of this generation.

I began our unit by dividing the class in half and giving students background on the DREAM Act. Each side of the room received a different article. After giving them time to actively read the articles, I asked students to take the texts, stand up and push their desks to the room’s edges. Then, I showed students how to stand in two concentric circles, with the “inner circle” having read “Article A” and facing outward and the “outer circle” having read “Article B” and facing inward.

“I want you to give a quick summary of the article you read to the person across from you,” I said. I set one minute on my cell phone timer and slowly walked around the circle, checking in on the conversations. After a minute, the inner circle rotated.

Although the first round began with students giving summaries, in the following rounds I gave prompts, like “Tell your partner about a question you still had after reading the article.” When I hurried students back to their chairs to jot their reflections after the activity, they were ready to write. Many students told me later that this was the moment that the thesis of their eventual paper materialized.

‘The Final Word’

The next day, students arrived to class having read Jose Antonio Vargas’s “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” for homework the night before. In the article, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter “comes out” as undocumented.

I’ve found that this activity, which I call “The Final Word,” is best with groups of three or four. Here’s how it works: The first person has three minutes to read a quote out loud that “stuck out” to him or her and then explain why. Next, the person to the right of the speaker has a minute to respond, drawing on what the speaker said and adding to it. Each person responds until the circle ends up back on the first speaker, who then has no more than one minute to give his or her “final word.”

The Final Word helps students discover that they need evidence to make an argument. I heard students pull out the very same pieces of text that I would have—only they were extra attentive to the text because they had found it themselves. I saw students scouring their articles, starring evidence they might want to use in their papers, and anxiously tapping their pencils and feet while waiting to add on to the conversation. In all, The Final Word drew them into the texts.

Students needed to talk and the talking brought the analytical process to light. And my role as the teacher? Simply to listen.

Again at the end of this lesson, I instructed students to take out their notebooks and to freewrite. What had a classmate said that made them mad or surprised? What were the quotes from the article that they couldn’t get out of their heads? How did this article connect to the pieces we had read the day before? Above all, what did this make them think about the importance of the passing of the DREAM Act?

Growing Critical Thinkers

Some teachers might say I wasted two days’ worth of instruction by allowing students to talk to each other about immigration law. I say that we do our students a great disservice by having them think that “writing an essay” means setting up five paragraphs and filling them with opinions and plot summaries. Instead, we need critical thinkers who are able to take evidence and others’ arguments and—thoughtfully, carefully—use them. Having these days of discussion provided the scaffolding needed for my students to write stronger theses and use a bevy of relevant evidence. It made a big difference in what they eventually wrote. The conversation continues as long as we teach our students to question, talk, and collaborate to create arguments based not on knee-jerk opinions, but on evidence and analysis.

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