Bookishness, Mamaishness, Teacherishness

Immigration: An Alternative to Thanksgiving (Part I)

Yesterday, I talked a little lot about why I prefer talking about immigration to rehashing lies about the Pilgrims when Thanksgiving rolls around. Today, I’m going to give you a few ideas for how to do this, using some of my favorite immigration stories. Tomorrow, I’ll share some more, just to preserve your retinas.

I’d like to go ahead and issue a few caveats and pieces of advice to teachers and parents:

*There’s no way to address the experience of every single immigrant group, much less every single immigrant. I do think we should try to talk about many different situations, but the reality is that we can’t possibly know everything that happened to everyone.

*If you’re talking with children who are not your own, be cognizant of any potential issues this might raise from their past, especially in refugee and adoptions situations. Speaking as someone with a nasty case of foot-in-mouth disease, trust me: think before you speak.

*Be willing to admit that there are problems with immigration, but for the people arriving in a place and for the people already there. While my family certainly likes to paint a rosy picture 100 years after the fact, we still have some stories that will make your hair stand on end. Imagine what this is like for families coming to the U.S. today, in the current political climate. This is absolutely a topic where it’s okay not to have all the answers!

With all of that in mind, here are some books I’d recommend you use with elementary and middle schoolers.

thanksgiving storyHow Many Days to America, by Eve Bunting, will definitely create some discussion. The book tells the story of a family forced to leave their home after a frightening police raid. The journey across the ocean (presumably the Caribbean) doesn’t go smoothly, and there are more questions than answers about what they will encounter when they finally get to America. This is, actually, a story related to Thanksgiving, as the boat arrives in time for a Thanksgiving meal, and the people in charge of the meal make the connection between this group’s desire for freedom and the Plymouth colonists’ desire for freedom of religion. The country left behind is never specifically identified, so the story remains timeless.

The book does simplify the situation somewhat. When the family arrives, it appears as if they will magically be cared for until they get on their feet. This, obviously, is not the experience of most people who attempt to immigrate in this way. Nor does Bunting address the difficulties inherent in undocumented immigration. For those reasons, I would call this an introductory text, as it presents to young readers the idea that there are people living in the world today who are permanently fearful in their own countries. For people in that situation, the United States still beckons. As appropriate, you could easily lead this into a discussion of how to work alongside immigrant families within your own community as they adjust to life in this country.

thanksgiving book

Amy Hest and P.J. Lynch’s luminous When Jessie Came Across the Sea addresses the European immigrant experience in the era of Ellis Island. (This story is more akin to my family’s journey.) Jessie leaves her home and beloved grandmother at age 13, the recipient of a ticket someone else could not use. Hest’s descriptions of the journey and Jessie’s feelings are unbelievably apt, and the reader cheers right along with Jessie when she sees the Statue of Liberty. This is a story with a happy ending, and it’s safe to use with very sensitive children.

Sometimes we forget that the path through Ellis Island was not always straight. Between physical and mental tests, as well as the requirements of sponsorship and funding, not every immigrant was allowed to enter the United States. Jessie’s Jewish faith and origins in Eastern Europe would have made many contemporary Americans prejudiced against her, a fact that modern students might struggle to understand. Further, her initial living conditions would probably have been dismal, and her education supplanted by hard work and little leisure.

To help modern American children understand the other side of the Golden Door experience, the following resources are helpful:

*The photography of Jacob Riis, whose work documented life in the immigrant tenements of New York City. {As always, preview images before using them with children.}

Jacob Riis

*The Ellis Island virtual tour and field trip found on Scholastic’s site. Kids can see video and photographs of Ellis Island’s facilities as they stand today, and hear audio of immigrants’ recollections. In addition, they can read about modern immigrant children and view a ‘virtual’ field trip video.

*This awesome little kit of reproduced primary source documents – the Ellis Island Collection. I love to use this to show children just how many pieces of paper a person had to have to get to America – tickets, passports, sponsorship letters, money, etc. You could probably source each of these items online, but having high-quality reproductions to actually hold makes this kit well worth the price.

The Ellis Island Collection

{My husband just wandered through and looked at this picture, and reminded me of a story. He used this box with his high school classes, and it would take an entire class period as they went through each reproduced document. He had a number of immigrant students in his class, and they talked a lot about how things had changed since the Ellis Island era. Several of the documents in the box relate to a young girl named Margaret, but her name is spelled differently on each document. One of his students remarked that the same thing had happened to her, and that the way her name was ‘officially’ spelled was not correct. Her classmates encouraged her to remedy the situation, and so she did. It took several months, but she was able to prove the proper spelling of her name in time for her high school diploma to be issued correctly! Witness the power of the Primary Source!!}

Coming tomorrow: immigration to the other side of the United States, and my thoughts on an old chestnut of an immigration story.