Why Teach About Migration? Because It's the Story of Humankind

Posted by Adam Strom on August 24, 2017

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It is August, a time when, although technically on vacation, many educators in the United States have already turned their attention to their classrooms. Some teachers are buying supplies; others are rewriting lessons and curricula. Most are doing both. A lot of us are thinking about our students and how we can create learning environments that will allow all of them to thrive.

In schools, across the globe, the children of immigrants come ready and eager to learn. In the United States, for example, 25 percent of children under the age of 18, a total of 18.7 million children, have an immigrant parent. We recognize, from our own experiences working with youth, that the success of children of immigrants is essential to our shared future.

Unfortunately, the messages our young people are getting from the wider world often run counter to the conditions we try to create in our classrooms.  In this year’s summer heat, across much of the world, the rhetoric about immigration is scorching. On broadcast and social media, accusations fly. As an educator, it has become evident that as a public we don’t know very much about migration, and we sure don’t give it the kind of attention it deserves in the education of young people. If we take the role of schools seriously as training grounds for civic engagement, it is time to rethink how we approach these issues in schools.

The story of migration is the story of humankind. The genetic and paleontological record of human migration is at least 60,000 years old. Researchers know that all humans can trace their origins to Southern Africa, while some homo sapiens migrated across Africa and stayed, others ventured out to the Asia, Australia, Europe, and eventually to the Americas. This is our shared experience.

The stories of these ancient journey’s testify to our ingenuity as a species, and as we scrutinize them, they challenge us to think about our identities as individuals, groups, and nations. We are a people that have been on the move for a long time.

The 21st century has new patterns of migration—from rural villages to cities, from region to region—that are worldwide. Teaching about migration as an ongoing theme in the human condition provides a lens to explore our past and ask new questions. In different periods in the history teach, or in the literature we read, what were the push and pull factors that influenced the people to migrate? Those choices often involved facing great risk and uncertainty. To what extent were the choices to migrate made voluntarily? To what extent were those choices forced upon people due to conflict, war, or economic exploitation? By recognizing the continuity and the changes across time in experiences of migration, we also create the conditions from a more civil conversation about current stories. To return to an earlier metaphor, it turns down the heat.

Histories of migration and integration are reminders of the amazing abilities of humans to adapt to new circumstances.  At the same time, these stories expose the faultlines communities develop over who can belong and who cannot belong? Do we ask newcomers to assimilate, and give up their old customs, in order to fit in? Often histories of migration, reveal records of integration, a two-way exchange between newcomers and the dominant society. These are the frequently unexamined stories behind our customs, foods, and language. The history of migration, in fact, is the history of how we became to be who we are today.

Migration to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries changed the country to redefine what it meant to be an American. As newcomers came, what role would religion and race play in the national identity of the nation? These questions remain with us and are negotiated within every generation. In recent weeks, we’ve seen what happens when civil dialogue about difference breaks down. Democracy itself is at risk. History and literature can provide insights into today’s challenges, but teachers need resources, professional development, and support for their peers, communities, and administrators. When our schools ignore these important civic stories, we risk further polarization, and an opportunity for all of us to better understand what it means to be human.

Below are a few suggested guiding questions for teaching about migration. As good teachers know, even if we have been at this a while, we are constantly revisiting and revising our work.

Guiding Questions and Throughlines

  • Why do humans migrate? When do people migrate by choice and when is it determined by circumstances? In addition, we might want students to consider: What are some current events that are forcing individuals to migrate?
  • What factors influence how communities respond to migration? What are the different ways communities can respond to newcomers? When are individuals and communities welcoming to newcomers? When are individuals and communities hostile to newcomers?
  • How does migration impact migrants and their host communities? How does migration impact the way members of host communities see themselves and others? How does the experience of migration impact the identities of newcomers and their descendants?
  • How can individuals and communities accommodate multiple belongings? How can communities balance a respect for difference without creating parallel lives for those that live there? What needs to happen to enable newcomers and host communities to thrive and develop a common sense of identity and purpose?

Explore a teacher-created unit about migration and belonging. This six-week unit for a 7th and 8th grade integrated Language Arts and Humanities classroom, uses a selection of Facing History resources related to immigration and identity, and a performance task based on the Literacy Design Collaborative Task #2 for Argumentation/Analysis. 

Explore the Unit

Re-imagining migration color4 copy.jpgThis post was originally published by Re-Imagining Migration, a new organization created to foster understanding and the successful inclusion of migrant youth across the globe. 

Topics: Immigration

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Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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