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Creating classrooms that draw on immigrants’ skills

Their journeys to America have often made them masters at negotiation, problem solving, teamwork, and language.

International flags hung in a main hallway at York County School of Technology in York, Pa., in 2017. The flags represent the diversity of the students' heritage at the school.Craig F. Walker

It can be easy to forget how much America depends on the flow of newcomers bringing their energy, creativity, and dreams. Yet almost all US residents trace back to arrivals from elsewhere, including a large influx within the past 150 years, and the continuing flow is all that keeps our population from shrinking. Newcomers enrich the country in hundreds of ways. They bring their talent, determination, entrepreneurship, and resilience to our shores. With 1 in 4 K-12 students being immigrants or the children of immigrants, a burning question that’s driving innovation across the United States is how schools can help newcomers develop their own American identities and a sense of belonging in their new country.

The right recipe for making Americans has long been fiercely debated. When my great-grandfather Daniel landed in New York as a 7-year-old refugee from what is now Ukraine, he was one of 20 million immigrants who arrived between 1880 and 1920. These newcomers, primarily from southern and Eastern Europe, were seen as inferior to earlier arrivals. Future dean of Stanford’s School of Education Ellwood Cubberley called them “illiterate, docile, lacking in self-reliance and initiative, and not possessing the Anglo-Teutonic conceptions of law, order, and government.” To “Americanize” them, most educators decided that their language, their clothing, and their customs all had to go. In fact, after World War I, many states passed laws banning instruction in foreign languages as a threat to American identity.


Some, though, recognized the wealth of knowledge and skills that newcomers brought. Jane Addams, the first American woman awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, cofounded Hull House, a blueprint for modern day community centers, in an immigrant-rich Chicago neighborhood. Addams believed public schools were failing immigrant children by teaching students to abandon their heritage and were failing to take advantage of how the students enriched schools. “We send young people to Europe to see Italy,” she wrote, “but we do not utilize Italy when it lies about the schoolhouse.”

As a public high school teacher of American history and civics to more than 100 extraordinary immigrants and refugees each year from more than 30 countries, from Cambodia to Colombia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I — like Addams — am inspired by the breadth of my students’ skills. Their journeys to America have often made them masters at negotiation, problem solving, teamwork, and language. For one of my students, English is not a second language but his 10th. They develop powerful skills as linguistic and cultural translators for their families and remarkable perseverance, honed by learning to live in a new land.


Curious about how other educators were teaching immigrant children, three years ago I set forth from my classroom to visit schools across the country. I found a remarkable renaissance in immigrant education, driven by programs that build on newcomers’ strengths.

In Guilford County, N.C., I visited a district of more than 100 schools that launched a bold experiment. Abandoning English language instruction based on simplified texts, they began teaching newcomers to dissect rich sentences stuffed with dependent clauses, adjective phrases, and compounds. Students rapidly rose to the challenge — devouring content, engaging in vibrant academic discussions, and making big strides on state tests.

In Aurora, Colo., five schools banded together to create the Aurora ACTION Zone, transforming schools into community hubs and harnessing the ideas, creativity, and drive of immigrant families. Burmese, Rwandan, and Mexican parents meet regularly with educators to identify challenges their children face and collaborate to turn ideas into action, like organizing computer literacy classes for each other and creating multilingual videos about the importance of daily school attendance.


After citywide gas explosions destroyed scores of homes in 2018 across Lawrence, Mass., ENLACE, a newcomer program at the public high school, engaged its students in protecting their new homes from such disasters. Although most of the students had lived in the country for less than a year, they met with experts and collaborated to devise a prototype gas valve to safely release high-pressure gas. For their ingenuity, they were named state winners of the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow STEM competition, winning $20,000 for their school to buy new technology.

Immigrant students often leap at the chance to become teachers and leaders in communities across the country. In the North Dakota classroom of Leah Juelke, a recent finalist for the Global Teacher Prize, newcomers publish books sharing stories of their journeys and hold community conversations with students, teachers, and school committee members. I see it every day in my own classroom, where my immigrant students tackle challenges like food insecurity by launching a school-based food pantry. Five years on, their pantry has become a model for other district schools.

Policies are shifting too. In contrast to past efforts to ban teaching foreign languages, most states now recognize the value of multilingualism in an increasingly globalized world, with students able to earn a “Seal of Biliteracy” on their high school diplomas.


Among the teachers I visited, I found a hunger to connect, learn, and collaborate. Too often, though, educators are isolated.

It’s time to knit together a national community of schools, districts, and states focused on creating classrooms that, unlike the ones my great-grandfather Daniel attended, draw on immigrant students’ skills, heritage, and language and, in doing so, help nurture a sense of belonging. When schools value newcomers’ strengths, we strengthen communities and the country.

Jessica Lander is a public school teacher and author of “Making Americans: Stories of Historic Struggles, New Ideas, and Inspiration in Immigrant Education.”