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Jessica Lander | Teaching history and civics to immigrant students

In college, my plan was to major in biology. But I had chosen Swahili for the college language requirement, and because I’m dyslexic, I knew that immersion was the best way for me to learn. So, between semesters my freshman year, I went to Tanzania to work on my Swahili. A friend I met there introduced me to an unusual school.

This school was doing powerful work supporting low-income students. I came away from that first visit wanting to know more about the school and its community. I switched majors to anthropology, and I went back and forth to Tanzania to visit the school and learn from its teachers and students. My plan for after college was to go into education policy, but I knew I needed classroom experience first. So I got a fellowship to teach at a university in northern Thailand. I graduated college on a Tuesday, packed my bags and flew to Thailand that Friday. I arrived on Sunday and started teaching at Chiang Mai University on Monday.

It was an exhilarating, wonderful year. I learned so much with my students and from my students. After the very last class, I drove my motorbike to a nearby wat [temple] and sat and cried — I wouldn’t be able to see my students every day, the class we had created together was gone. I had intended to teach for only one year before moving into ed policy, but in that moment I realized I needed to continue teaching.

I taught sixth grade in the U.S., then went back to Southeast Asia and taught college women in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I came back to the U.S. and taught entrepreneurship to teenagers and English to immigrant adults. Eventually, I got my Master’s in Education Policy and Management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

At a career fair on campus, I talked to representatives from many public schools. I didn’t know much about the city of Lowell before, but in talking to the district’s representative I learned more about the city’s vibrant Cambodian community. Having recently returned from teaching in Cambodia, I thought it could be really powerful to learn with this community.

The heads of the EL and the History departments at Lowell High School offered to meet me at a cafe early on a Saturday morning, which speaks volumes to who they are. Stephen and Rob were willing to spend part of their weekend talking with me about teaching at their school. 

I came here in 2015, and Stephen and Rob have been great mentors and advocates for our classroom ever since.

I have the honor and joy of teaching U.S. history and civics to recent immigrant and refugee students. My students come from more than 30 countries: from Colombia, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to Cambodia. Most of my students have been in the U.S. for less than five years, a few were born in Puerto Rico, and a few were born in the US and moved to their parents’ country when they were little before returning here. 

I also teach a seminar on American diversity, which is open to recent immigrants as well as students whose families have been in the U.S. for generations. I co-created the seminar with a then-rising senior and co-led it with her the first year.

My students have so many strengths that they bring to our classroom and our communities. I think sometimes some people — and institutions — think about our students with a deficit-based mindset: focusing on what they don’t have. Maybe they’re still mastering English, maybe they’re still struggling with how academics are taught here versus in their home country, maybe they are facing other challenges. But it’s so important to remember and invest in all the powerful strengths that our students bring to our classrooms. 

My students are cultural and linguistic navigators for their families. They bring a wealth of knowledge and experience having lived in multiple countries and cultures, and they show tremendous amounts of grit and determination as they navigate a new school system, a new community, a new country. In journeying to this country, they’ve often become masters at negotiation, problem solving, and teamwork. Here, they’re creating new friendships and they’re learning new languages. They are deeply generous towards each other. They bring their determination, curiosity, creativity, compassion, and courage to our classroom and our community. 

A map in Jessica’s classroom where students share their countries of origin

I see my students support and teach each other in the classroom every single day, in the small moments and in the bigger ones. And I see how much they care for their new community. So I want folks to know — or to remember, or to have more opportunities to see and be able to learn from — my amazing students. 

I want folks to see them as teachers in our community. I want my students to see themselves as teachers in our community. That’s really important to me.

My students are amazing. My first year, I had a student named Wilson who had recently moved to Lowell from Puerto Rico. In the beginning of the year he was very shy, didn’t have many friends, particularly friends to sit with at lunch. so he asked if he could eat with me. I said yes, and our desks became our impromptu lunch table. 

We started talking about his classes and his family, and one day he asked me how I learned to use chopsticks — he saw me eating with them everyday during lunch. I quickly learned that he loved Japanese culture and anime, and that he was teaching himself the katakana and hiragana alphabets. Over lunch, we talked about learning new languages and cultures and living in new places. 

Slowly, more students joined us for lunch, and I watched as Wilson started to make friends. First Nie from Vietnam and Po, a refugee from Burma. Soon, students from all over the world were eating lunch together, practicing their English, doing homework, listening to music, chatting, and talking about history. One day, Wilson showed up with a huge bag of chopsticks from the local grocery store and started passing out pairs. Everyone wanted to learn and my Cambodian, Burmese, and Vietnamese students were quickly enlisted as teachers. Across the classroom students were suddenly picking up pencils, pizza crusts, and french fries. This moment is just one of so so so many examples of the curiosity and generosity of my students towards each other, the way they teach and learn from each other, and the friendships they build that span continents and cultures. It’s so beautiful to witness.

My students are constantly teaching each other and leading in the community.

After studying the history of early immigrants, my students share parts of their migration stories. I want them to see their history as an essential part of the country’s history. For the Tasting History project, students choose a favorite family recipe, and then ask the family member who cooks it best to teach them (because internet recipes aren’t the same as a mom or grandfather’s recipe). Students translate the recipe into English and then write stories about the food, their memories, and their migration. Next, they cook their food, and we all try it together. Finally, we publish their cookbook and share it in the community. 

Last year, the district’s food services reached out to partner with us. Now, every month, they serve food from our cookbook to 14,000 students. 

In the winter, my students learn how to write op-eds on issues they care about. In graduate school, a professor taught us to write op-eds and helped us try to publish them. It was the first time in school I was asked to create something that could have an impact outside of class. At Lowell, I adapted my professor’s project. Each year our local paper publishes a collection of my students’ op-eds.

In the spring, my students spend a semester working on action civics projects with Generation Citizen, tackling community challenges: food insecurity, community safety, teen depression. They meet with local officials and community members to collaborate on creating systemic change. There’s always a moment during the process — maybe a student is writing an email to a local leader and they’ll look at me to ask, ‘So this is for pretend, right? We’re not actually going to send this?’ And I get to say, ‘No, this is real. We’re sending this.’ That’s a transformative moment for them. And then, when people in power write them back, meet with them, listen to their ideas, they see that their voices are valued in our community.

The We Are America Project came out of a seminar I teach on American history and diversity that I co-created with a then-student. We were studying the history of laws, cases, social justice movements, and changemakers. But together we realized that it was also important to study the individual stories of people to more deeply understand the history of the U.S.

Each of my students set out to write a story of self, to help us collectively more deeply understand the country. They started by exploring their own history and identity. Then each student chose one story to share publicly. Some were big moments and some small: a new sibling being born, grappling with depression, moving to a new country. Some wrote about experiencing racism or sexual harassment in school, while others wrote about growing to feel confident in their own skin or building connections with classmates. A friend helped us design our book and we shared copies with each student and with our community. Then my students began speaking about their book in the community: at universities, on the radio, to reporters, at the State House. 

At the very end of the year, my students gathered in our classroom. ‘Ms. Lander,’ they told me. ‘This work needs to continue.’ Together, that afternoon, we mapped out on the whiteboard the idea for a national project. Most of them were about to graduate, but when I asked if they could create this with me, they were all in. 

That summer, we created the We Are America Project. I sought out funding, and we created an application and sent it out to friends, colleagues, and communities. Excitingly, teachers started applying to our one-year fellowship. 

We provide our 100-page curriculum, mentor the teachers, and design and fund copies of the book they create with their students. Now, in our fourth year, we’ve collaborated with teachers in over 25 states.

It’s an honor and a joy to work with my former students as colleagues on the We Are America Project and see them become powerful leaders in our community and across the country. They mentor teachers, Zoom into classes to mentor students, and lead community conversations. It’s amazing to witness my students as teachers in the community and advocates for change. I learn from my students every day, and it’s a privilege to work with them after they graduate.

This year, we are working with teachers in twelve states for the We Are America Teaching Fellowship. Each year, teachers apply in the summer, and then we meet with teachers virtually once a month to offer professional development workshops, collaboration, and support as they teach our curriculum with their students.

We have three great educational partners: Reimagining Migration, Facing History and Ourselves, and the Tenement Museum in New York. And we couldn’t do this work without the Greater Lowell Community Foundation, which acts as our fiscal sponsor. 

Each year, after the teachers work with their students to write and edit their manuscripts, we lay it out and are able to fund 100 copies of their book.

Over four years, we’ve worked with teachers across the country — in Alaska and Arizona. In Atlanta, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Juneau, and New York. From Fargo, North Dakota to Lihue, Hawaii; from Glen Ellyn, Illinois to Auburn, Maine and Sarasota, Florida. 

On our website (built by an amazing former student) there are more than 500 stories by students from all over the country, shared through both writing and recordings. Any teacher anywhere can use our website to teach their students. The stories are powerful, and there is much we have to learn from the courage and strength of these young people. The collection continues to grow, and it all started in this classroom with what we mapped out on that whiteboard.

Academic content is a small part of what we, as teachers, do. It’s an important part of my job, but my job is also about being there for young people who are growing into their many identities. They’re learning to navigate the world, and they’re at that moment of change when they’re still kids, but also sort of adults. And so teaching is about all of those moments in between: the conversations that support students as they become adults, as they build friendships with each other, as they navigate the world and better understand who they want to be. 

It takes time, and it takes trust, to be the person who teaches academic content, but is also there to support a student who needs to talk through a challenge, who is struggling at home, or who has a really cool idea they want to share. It takes creating a community in your classroom where students are excited and willing to learn from each other. It takes creating a space together, where students feel safe coming to talk to you.

A lot of my students are experiencing either family separation or family reunification. Because most of my students are recent immigrants or refugees, some of my students come here with their families, but many of them come without their full family. They’re rebuilding relationships. They might be living with a parent who they haven’t lived with in a long time, or with an extended member of their family. Some of my kids are here alone. 

High school is hard on its own, so when you add in all of those other components — learning a new language, a new culture, new systems, supporting your family, and missing friends and family — all of that’s challenging. It can feel very lonely. I try to be there for students so they hopefully don’t feel so alone as they build new homes and new lives here.

It’s important to be there for my kids in the challenging moments, and also those moments of celebration and success.

I communicate and collaborate with my students’ families on a text app. We text regularly in their home language. I share information about the classroom and try to build relationships with families: they are my most important partners in the work of teaching their children.

When parents ask their high school kids, ‘How was school?’ Many kids will just say, ‘Fine.’ I try to provide a window into our classroom and create opportunities for families, if they have the time, to ask their kids about what’s going on in class. I try to share the positives so they can celebrate with me. I communicate with about 140 families each year. 

Historically, families have too often played a smaller role in high schools.

By the time students are in high school, many schools seem to suggest that families should play a smaller role. This is wild to me because kids really need family support when they’re in high school, even as they’re taking on more responsibility as individuals. That’s a mindset shift for schools that needs to happen. 

Family engagement is essential. Studies show that student test scores go up, graduation rates go up, and behavior incidents go down. We see teacher retention and reported job satisfaction goes up. However, many educators and schools have never learned how to build powerful family partnerships.

Schools haven’t always seen families as equal partners. But they need to. When I think about people who I collaborate with, that collaboration is built on both of us sharing and building trust. It’s built on both of us recognizing that we’re bringing many strengths to our working relationship. I hope to build such relationships with my students’ families. 

Engaging with families takes time and effort upfront, but it’s an essential investment. Kids in my class know that I am partnering with their families, and learning from and working with families makes my work in the classroom more impactful.

Teaching is often isolating. Rarely do we get opportunities to learn from our colleagues down the hall, let alone from those in other schools.

Three years ago, I stepped out of my classroom for a year to start researching and writing my book Making Americans. I wanted to understand how we could together reimagine immigrant education.

I dove into the history of immigrant education. I interviewed my remarkable former students who generously shared parts of their stories. And I traveled across the country, visiting creative and innovative schools working with immigrant-origin students. It was so exhilarating to be in the classrooms of others and to be learning from others. 

So many of the ideas of how I transformed my classroom came from the schools I visited. The Calm Corner over there — that idea comes from Las Americas Newcomer School in Houston, Texas. They have a herb garden with plants from all across the world that students may recognize from their home countries. The school knows that many kids carry different traumas. If a kid is feeling lonely, angry, or sad, they can go with an educator to this garden. They might just smell the plants, and it’s calming. Or they might start gardening. As they garden,  conversations start about how hard it is to uproot something and replant it somewhere new: you need nutrients and water. That leads to conversations about migration and how hard it is to uproot and build a new home in a new country. 

The herbs in our Calm Corner are from all the countries that are recognizable for my students. And it’s a place students seek out every day.

It is so impactful for us as educators to be able to learn from others. While researching Making Americans, I’d be talking to teachers at school doing powerful work, and they’d mention they were struggling with a certain aspect of teaching — maybe family engagement. And I could say, ‘Just last week, I was visiting this other school in this other part of the country that’s doing powerful work with family engagement. Can I connect you?’ There was such a hunger to learn from each other, to collaborate, to share best practices, and grapple with challenges together. Those collaborative spaces don’t exist enough in our profession.

How do we create more teacher collaborations? Not just among teachers, but also with families, community partners, researchers, and policymakers. And not just locally, but connecting educators and advocates across states? 

Collaborating is important because teachers are being asked to play additional roles — to provide social-emotional supports, college and career supports, and wraparound supports that can benefit our children in the classroom and also in their lives. It’s such an honor to support my students in all of these ways. But I also know it can be overwhelming at times. I know I can do better by my students if I’m learning from and partnering with others. 

For instance, there are five schools in Colorado, the Aurora ACTION Zone, that have created a ‘community school’ approach. It sees its schools as community hubs, and it draws in community partners as collaborators in supporting their students. ENLACE, a school-within-a-school in Massachusetts, recognizes that families are teachers’ essential partners. From day one, it works to build trusting relationships where teachers and families learn from each other. 

There’s International High School at Langley Park, an all-immigrant high school in Maryland. When students enroll they go through an extensive interview process that helps staff create very intentional advisories, pairing kids with teachers who they think will be strong role models; they invested in a whole support team of social workers and counselors, and staff meet weekly and collectively to check in on students — just some among many ways they partner to support their students. 

Seeing what works in action is powerful.

Collaborating with each other can help us create system-wide solutions. 

With these partners, I believe I can better help my amazing students feel a sense of belonging — in our classroom and in our community. And with a sense of belonging, I have seen my students stretch and grow and connect and dream and do remarkable things.

–Jessica Lander
EL History and Civics Teacher at Lowell High School
Lowell, Massachusetts

Wondering how you can support Jessica and her students? You can visit Jessica’s website for updates and learn about the work her students do in the classroom and the community. More resources: