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Teaching Profession Opinion

Using Student Narratives to Build Community

April 11, 2017 6 min read
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With the national conversation on immigration at the forefront of the news, teachers are working to incorporate this discussion into their classrooms. Here is how one teacher, Jennifer Ciok, Social Emotional Learning Specialist at Umoja Student Development Corporation, a non-profit organization in Chicago, Illinois, helps students understand their own personal stories of immigrants.

By guest blogger Jennifer Ciok

Stories make us who we are. They make history come alive in a way that no textbook can, they help us build understanding of, and respect for, our school, country, global community, and each other.

In 2002, I started teaching an immigration unit focusing on the early 1900s. As I would tell my own family’s stories of immigration from Norway in the 1920s, Germany in the 1700s and 1870s, and Denmark in 1910s, I was baffled by the fact that so many of my students did not know how or why their families came to the United States, even though some of them were immigrants themselves.

As I reflected on the early lessons of the unit, I realized that in order to make sense of what we were learning in class, I needed students to know their own stories and to be able to share them in a meaningful way. I wanted to be able to celebrate both the diversity and similarities of our stories around how we all came to be in America. I would tell my students, “We are a nation of stories. We all came from somewhere else and that makes America a place like no other!” With that in mind, I created an oral history project where students had the choice of how to best represent their family’s story.

Students Learn Their Own Immigration Stories

After learning the basics of immigration (push and pull factors, immigration stations in the United States, laws that were in place, and how early immigrants were treated), I sent my students home with a series of questions to ask their family about their immigration to the United States. These included questions from before they left their country, during their journey, and after they settled in their new home. Students who were not first- or second-generation immigrants or did not have enough information to complete the project interviewed a relative about their family history and stories using a significant historical event as the backdrop for their project.

Examples of the immigration project questions included:


  • What did you and/or your family enjoy doing together in your/their home country?
  • What were the conditions (political, social or economic) in the country from which you/your family emigrated when you/they left? Did the conditions in your country contribute to your reasons for leaving? Why did you/they leave? When did you/they leave?
  • How were you/they treated when you/they first arrived in the U.S.? How has that treatment changed?
  • If you had to give one piece of advice to someone immigrating to America today, what would it be and why?

Some students get more information than others, but they all learned something in the process and it had the added benefit of opening lines of communication in a time where sometimes those discussions are limited. For the students who were not able to get as much information, we relied on what they could gather and added in what we know from history to piece together their story. If the immigration story was truly not known or could not be researched, then students completed a time period project where students shared a historical event their family found significant in their lifetime and tied it to how it impacted their family story. Their stories centered around events like the March on Washington, bus boycotts, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, fighting in World War II, being forced into Japanese internment camps, the Challenger explosion, and even the election of President Obama. These stories served as an interesting parallel to the immigration stories from the same time period.

Presenting Their Story

When the students came back to school, they were ready to get started on their project. Using a storyboard template the students created an outline of a children’s book, memory box, or scrapbook to present their stories. They used a template to write a narrative that would accompany their pictures. Once the students had collected all of their artifacts, created their storybook pictures, and written their narrative script, students used video editing equipment to turn their projects into a digital story that could be shared to a larger audience. English teachers used this project to teach and assess narrative writing, along with public speaking skills. We collaborated on the rubrics so that they could assess the process and I could assess the content.

Lessons Learned

The lessons that came from this project are far reaching. One of the goals of the project was to help students find a personal connection to, and better understanding of, immigration. I wanted them to be able to put themselves into another person’s shoes and really think about what it would mean to leave your home and come to another place. The project led to more open discussions between students and their families, and between families and the school.

Engagement went up as families realized how much the school cared about them and their stories. The project often led students and their families to ask more questions and conduct more research into their stories. I find that when I teach younger siblings of previous students, they often know far more about their families’ immigration stories because the older siblings’ research resulted in continued family learning.

Finally, one of my goals for the project is to encourage students to celebrate and be proud of their heritage. The bravery students had in sharing their personal stories led to greater community and understanding in our class and in the school.

Respect for Immigrants

One of the outcomes of the project that was surprising is the amount of respect that students develop toward their family member(s) who immigrated. At the end of the project, students complete a personal reflection of the project and what they learned. One of the most memorable reflections came in the second year I did this project when a student wrote about his dad’s journey from Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime. He wrote, “I finally realize why my dad cannot return to the land that stole his parents and his childhood.” That same student came back to me years later to see if I still had his project and reflection, which affected him so much that he found a volunteer position at a Cambodian museum to help others understand and celebrate his family’s culture.

Another student wrote, “Since America ended up not being as great as my grandmother had envisioned, she always remembered to live the life she chose to the fullest.... She taught me to always think about what can be rather than what could’ve [been].” And yet another shared, “I learned that you’ll face a lot of situations, but you should never give up because at the end, there’s always hope.... My grandma says that, despite our problems, there is still so much courage, goodness, and possibility in each of us.”

We are a nation of immigrants and I definitely think we need to remember the lessons of our ancestors as we continue to navigate our future. These lessons are ones that I know I carry with me into my work with students each day, and they carry forward those same lessons to their families, their communities, and the world.

Connect with Jennifer, Umoja Corp, Center for Global Education, and Heather on Twitter.

Sample of student work courtesy of the author.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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