Long before #ProtectDreamers was trending, students in Amy Claffey’s Spanish classes at Old Saybrook High School were learning about the vast hurdles undocumented people face—and the misconceptions surrounding them in the communities where they live. In an effort to educate their school about immigrants from Mexico and Central America, Claffey’s students, with help from high school library/media specialist Christine Bairos, completed a project that brought greater awareness of immigration issues to their peers and the wider community.
“I found out Amy’s class was studying immigration,” says Bairos, “and I asked if they would be interested in reading Enrique’s Journey, by Sonia Nozario.” Enrique’s Journey is the true story of a 17-year-old Honduran boy’s remarkable—and dangerous—1,600-mile trek up the length of Mexico to be reunited with his mother in the United States.
“We read this book as a class, in English and Spanish,” says Bairos, “and at the end, the author asks what readers can do to help. Amy and I facilitated a brainstorming session to see how the class wanted to make a difference.”
“Our students, 11 senior girls, were shocked, horrified, and intrigued by the truths of immigration, legal and illegal,” says Claffey. They decided to
- Have lunch every month with English learners
- Survey the student body to see what they know about immigration (85 percent of students responded)
- Interview community members with firsthand knowledge about immigration issues
- Present their findings at a schoolwide assembly and to outside groups
“Our students were truly moved by something, and we let them run with it, thanks to a supportive administration,” says Claffey. “We saw our students grow, gain confidence, compromise, commit, and delegate tasks. They learned an immense amount of information about a very relevant topic, as well as lessons that will help them for their entire lives.”
Students interviewed a local immigration attorney as well as community members whose spouses were undocumented. They learned, among other things, that undocumented immigrants are no more likely than native-born citizens to commit crimes, that they pay taxes but do not receive Social Security benefits, that financial hardships are a main barrier to citizenship, and that acquiring citizenship has many benefits—including improving income, enhancing civic participation, strengthening social cohesion and positive outcomes for families, and growing the economy.
In addition to their survey results and research, the students’ presentation included an interactive component that demonstrated the vetting process that takes place before immigrants are allowed into the U.S.
Spreading the word
“This was a very student-centered project and the best example of project-based learning we have experienced,” Bairos says.
For teachers interested in replicating similar projects, Claffey suggests, “Listen to your students, take risks, and be open to not knowing exactly what is going to happen. I dot my i’s and cross my t’s, and there were times I was very uncomfortable because I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be when I handed so much over to the students. I realize now how important this was. It was truly the most meaningful work I have ever done in supporting students.”