Appearance: NCTE: November 2019

Creating a Welcoming Classroom with Immigration Literature
Friday, November 22, 2019
11:00 a.m.-12:15 p.m.
National Teachers of English (NCTE) Conference
Baltimore, MD

Educator and author Louise El Yaafouri (Refugee Classroom; The Newcomer Student) will moderate a panel of four authors and one book advocate, sharing ideas of how children’s literature (picture books through YA) can be used to help create welcoming classrooms for immigrants.

The panel’s featured titles, three novels and two picture books, introduce immigrant characters in five continents: Undocumented teenagers Jaime and his cousin Angela, recently arrived in New Mexico from Guatemala, have different experiences of adjustment in The Crossroads (sequel to The Only Road) by Alexandra Diaz. In Katherine Marsh’s Nowhere Boy, Ahmed, a 14-year-old Syrian refugee stranded in Belgium encounters Max, an American student living there. Here to Stay by Sara Farizan tells the story of Bijan, whose parents emigrated from Iran, during his sophomore year at a private Boston high school, loving comics and playing basketball while navigating Islamophobia, cyber bullying, and the outing of queer peers.

In I’m New Here and its companion Someone New by Anne Sibley O’Brien, just-arrived Maria from Guatemala, Jin from Korea, and Fatimah from Somalia, engage with three of their new 2nd grade classmates, gradually finding their way to new friendships.

Kirsten Cappy, director of I’m Your Neighbor Books, will share how a traveling picture book collection, the Welcoming Library, is engaging schools, communities, and organizations in conversations about the experience of migration.

One challenge in creating community between recently-arrived and next-generation immigrant students and their classmates is overcoming what social psychologists term “intergroup anxiety,” the nervousness people commonly feel upon encountering someone we view as being very different from us — whether we are already “home,” or trying to find a new one. When we allow such fears to keep us apart from each other, this anxiety can become the ground for prejudice to develop.

Another key challenge is the societal pattern of viewing immigrants through a deficit lens, focusing on what they don’t know and don’t have and what they need to learn. One result is that newer arrivals are often seen as outsiders and expected to do all the work of adjustment and assimilation.

Literature can create bridges of connection through which to overcome anxiety, acquire new knowledge and understanding, discover common ground, and envision new ways of being together. The featured books tell stories of characters, both recent immigrants and those already here, who find ways to connect through the challenges and across the differences of their experiences. Immigrants and refugees are portrayed as whole, complete, complex individuals with gifts and knowledge to share. These images of newcomers, with not just struggles but also strengths, can provoke recognition and pride for immigrant and refugee students and empathy in their classmates, and model concrete ways of connecting. Books and discussions can awaken a spirit of inquiry in students who are already home, challenging them to move out of their comfort zones, examine bias, develop increased cultural competence, and, working with their recently-arrived classmates, create a new vision of inclusion and community.