Each year I am in the unique position to teach young children about American values and symbols. Children are naturally fascinated with physical symbols like the Statue of Liberty, the Declaration of Independence and the American flag.
I tread cautiously as we delve into phrases like, “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. (Don’t quibble with me about the history of Emma Lazarus’ words on the base of Lady Liberty; fortunately, I can assure you that children are empathetic and kind enough to embrace the inscription).
We break down Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. When is the last time you spoke it out loud? It’s a mouthful.
My second-graders just presented a project that spans both semesters. The project is titled “Who Is An Immigrant?” (This project has existed in my classroom off and on for about 10 years; it preceded and hopefully will long exceed the present-day kerfuffle regarding immigrants.)
The project begins in November, as the students learn about Veterans Day, and they research the history of veterans in their family, if applicable. (Accommodations are made at every stage of the project for families with special needs.)
Next, we learn about the food traditions of our families. We have a fall feast, and students invite all family and friends whom they would like to attend.
Holiday homework is assigned. (Call me a Grinch if you want; families that are less than thrilled about this stage will thank me in May).
Students visit/Skype/face time, email and text elders and multiple generations of family members to learn about how, when and why their families emigrated to the United States.
Native American students research their tribal roots. I encourage this to be a special time when children can slow down during the holiday season and sit down with family members they may not be able to see often to learn about aspects of their family history they may know nothing about. Parents and siblings learn too; it often becomes a family project. I love that.
Students assemble a family tree and a family timeline, if possible. I’ve seen some date to the 1500s. No part of the globe goes unexplored.
Once students have identified which country/countries their family emigrated from, they conduct country research and create maps and flags of their countries of origin.
The year culminates in a presentation to which the entire school community is invited. The scrapbooks, journals and collective works of the students are taken home as family heirlooms to be treasured and shared for generations to come.
I have never had a student emerge from the work without a sense of pride and excitement about what they learned about themselves.
Years pass and grandparents will stop me to talk about the time they spent learning with their grandchildren, and their children.
Families have been inspired to take international trips come summertime to visit their ancestral homes.
A student in another class — my grade-level colleagues and their students also participate in the project — just presented a family timeline that required six students to hold it up against a solid late-May wind. Across the banner were written words in bold print: “We’re All Immigrants.”
Wisdom from the mouths of babes.