Should Immigration Be Part of High School Curricula?

State curricula tend to place more emphasis on the experiences of families who entered Ellis Island in the early 1900s than those crossing into Arizona or fleeing Aleppo today.

Ted Hesson

Katie Li in her classroom at Charlestown High School, where immigration is at the forefront of the curriculum. Photo by Alexander Kalamaroff

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Shafaq Khan has taken dozens of classes during her time at Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, New York, a diverse public school that sits just across the border from Queens in Long Island's Nassau County. But one elective she took during her freshman year stands out, mainly because it touched on a topic close to her heart: immigration.

Khan, a 17-year-old senior whose parents immigrated to the United States from Pakistan, remembers "advanced placement human geography" as a class where she could talk with other students about the joys and struggles of growing up in an immigrant family. The coursework explored the root causes of present-day migration trends and the contributions of immigrants to their new homes, among other global topics.

"It was nice to have a place to discuss something that wasn't about white people, to be honest," she told VICE in a recent interview. "We focused on everyone, the human race as a whole, instead of focusing on what Western Europeans brought to society."

While the wide-ranging demographic makeup of Khan's school—split between black, Hispanic, Asian, and white students—might not reflect every community across the country, American classrooms on the whole are growing more diverse. Figures from the US Department of Education found the percentage of white students was steadily declining, with minority students in K-12 public schools outnumbering their white counterparts starting in 2014, a trend expected to continue into the next decade.

At the same time, however, many history and social studies textbooks glance over modern-day immigration, according to interviews with nearly a dozen educators who focus on the topic in their own instruction. The American public may be hotly debating the need for a border wall and whether to accept Syrian refugees, but state curricula tend to place more emphasis on the experiences of families who entered Ellis Island in the early 1900s than those crossing into Arizona or fleeing Aleppo today.

Christopher Nelson's diverse class at Sewanhaka High School. Photo courtesy of Christopher Nelson

Christopher Nelson, who teaches the human geography course at Sewanhaka High School, said he saw a gap in the state's history curricula when he fashioned his version of the class.

"Kids sit down for global history and largely they're taking European history with the occasional mention of a country that France or England took over," the 35-year-old teacher told VICE. "My school, the demographic is primarily first-generation students and kids who are the children of immigrants... It just made sense to me to emphasize that."

"It was nice to have a place to discuss something that wasn't about white people." —Shafaq Khan

Some educators believe it's time to rethink how immigration is taught in schools across the country, both to better serve immigrant students and inform the native-born. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an assistant classics professor at Princeton University, argued the prospects of future immigration reform depend on today's high school students gaining a better understanding of the immigrant experience.

The professor has a personal (as well as professional) interest in the US immigration system: His mother brought him to New York City from the Dominican Republic when he was four years old. After they overstayed their tourist visas, he became an undocumented immigrant, an experience he chronicled in his book, Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League.

Padilla would like to see high schools dedicate more time to exploring the history of the US immigration system, raising philosophical questions around the value and meaning of citizenship, and examining whether current immigration policy aligns with the greater goals of American democracy. When viewed from a broad enough perspective, he told VICE, "mobility is the core driving feature of how we talk about history."

While such themes could be explored within existing curricula, Padilla thinks schools should consider setting aside several days each year to discuss the topic. In an ideal world, he says, students would learn a common body of facts about immigration.

"It doesn't matter which side of the aisle one happens to be on," he said. "There does seem to be this gap, this chasm, in how people perceive the pros and cons of immigration."

Katie Li in her classroom at Charlestown High School. Photo by Alexander Kalamaroff

The ongoing presidential election—with Donald Trump stoking fear of immigrants from Mexico to the Middle East—also seems to have underscored the need for empathy in the classroom. Some teachers and parents have expressed concern about bullying as the Republican nominee has publicly vowed to deport "criminal aliens" and floated the idea of barring Muslims from entering the United States, among other hardline statements. An informal survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center of its readership found evidence of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment in schools across the country since the start of the election.

The heated political rhetoric makes it even more important for teachers to expose students to a range of perspectives, according to Tatyana Kleyn, an associate professor in the programs for bilingual education and teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) at the City College of New York. She has spearheaded several documentary projects that chronicle the lives of young people and families living without legal immigration status and posted the short films and related lesson plans online as a free resource.

While her films tell the stories of undocumented immigrants, Kleyn—who herself came to the US as a refugee from Latvia, then part of the Soviet Union, at age five—says she doesn't have a political agenda. "I don't think we should tell students how to think," she told VICE. "I think we should present them with different information and then let them form their own opinion."

Lesson plans such as these offer educators a way to open a dialogue around immigration—but first, teachers need to track down the right materials for their particular mix of students, according to Katie Li, a language arts teacher at Charlestown High School, just outside of Boston. Li's students hail from China, the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and South America, among other regions.

"You kind of have to dig yourself and find networks of educators and share resources with them," Li told VICE. In her case, that has meant lesson plans pulled from instructional books like The Line Between Us, which focused on the history of US-Mexico relations and the roots of Mexican immigration, or a collection of Chinese poems scrawled on the walls of holding cells on Angel Island, where roughly a million Asian immigrants were processed between 1910 and 1940 en route to San Francisco.

"Really, there's never going to be an educator program that's going to teach you how to do this," she said. "You're going to have to figure out how to do this in a way that is actually meaningful to the people in front of you."

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