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Four Ways to Facilitate Teaching About Immigration

Photo of an unaccompanied child who had crossed the border into the U.S.

South Texas Border – U.S. Customs and Border Protection provide assistance to unaccompanied children after they have crossed the border into the United States. Photo by Eddie Perez [Public Domain], via flickr

Teaching controversial political issues in the classroom is a challenging endeavor. Every day there is a hot button news story that may capture a students’ attention. This is an opportunity to teach the art of dialogue and develop critical thinking skills. One political hot button issue, in particular, has been receiving quite a bit of attention in the news lately – immigration.

Why Should Teachers Discuss Hot-Button Immigration Issues?

While discussing immigration in the classroom might be cause for discomfort among educators, it is an issue which should not be ignored. Immigration is a perennial issue which affects everyone. These days, it is especially relevant that teachers address the issue because of the changing demographics of the classroom. Some students’ personal lives may be directly affected by immigration policies — perhaps one or both of their parents are undocumented immigrants or maybe they are DREAMers. According to the Pew Research Center, there are approximately 3.9 million K-12 students (about 7.3% of the total) with at least one parent who is an undocumented immigrant in the U.S.

Additionally, teaching students about multiple sides of this issue helps them to learn to how to develop analytical and critical thinking skills to prepare them for participation in the broader society. But as with other controversial issues, teaching about immigration can be tricky.

To get you started, here are 4 key ways to introduce the topic of immigration to your classroom:

1. Develop a knowledge base and understanding of the issue.

In order to be prepared to discuss the topic in a balanced and nonjudgmental way, do your research ahead of time. You may want to consult with other teachers, outside experts or your media specialist for materials and information. In addition to developing a general knowledge base, drill down a bit deeper and familiarize yourself with state laws and policies that impact your students and local community. This can help in addressing the topic in a more sensitive manner that is tailored to your class.

While you are researching the topic, you may also want to jot down sensitive questions that might arise in the classroom so you are prepared to address them.

Delve into your library resources. If your school media center or local library has our ProQuest product, SIRS Issues Researcher, take a look at the Immigration Leading Issue for overviews, essential questions, timelines, and editorially-selected articles, which are perfectly geared for middle school and high school students.  Also, check out our latest Spotlight of the Month –which features a quote, content, and quiz on illegal immigration — and the list of teacher resources at the end of this post.

2. Don’t spotlight immigrant students during discussions.

If there are immigrants in your class, do not make them speak as representatives of their group during discussions on immigration. Spotlighting a student in such a way can embarrass them and also reinforce stereotypes about their background. The University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching recommends in its Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics that teachers “[a]void assumptions about any member of the class or generalizations about social groups. Do not ask individuals to speak for their (perceived) social group.”

3. Help students to view an immigration issue from new perspectives.

Helping students view an immigration issue from a new perspective can not only help them hone their critical and analytical skills but can also teach them empathy. Professor Miguel Vasquez of Northern Arizona University, in his article Teaching Students to Consider Immigration with Empathy, suggests that teachers try incorporating “narratives, including stories, anecdotes, jokes, and myths, [to] help contextualize abstract and theoretical concepts, framing them within students’ life experiences.”

4. Use and teach appropriate terminology when discussing aspects of immigration.

Avoid using terminology that might be considered offensive or pejorative to some. For example, the Library of Congress recently replaced illegal alien with the terms noncitizens and unauthorized immigration. The New York Times’s style guide offers the following advice: “consider alternatives when appropriate to explain the specific circumstances of the person in question or to focus on actions: who crossed the border illegally; who overstayed a visa; who is not authorized to work in this country.”

Teacher Resources:

This list includes educational resources and lesson plans on both immigration and how to be welcoming and inclusive to immigrant students:

The Best Practical Resources for Helping Teachers, Students & Families Respond to Immigration Challenges

Educating About Immigration: Lessons for Teachers

An Educator’s Guide to the Immigration Debate

How Teachers Can Help Immigrant Kids Feel Safe

Lesson Plan: Incredible Bridges: “Every Day We Get More Illegal” by Juan Felipe Herrera

The New Americans: Lesson Plan: Immigration Debate

Welcoming Immigrant Students Into the Classroom

What Are Sanctuary Cities and How Are They Bracing for Trump’s Immigration Crackdown? (with Lesson Plan)

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Do you have thoughts about or experiences with teaching about controversial issues in immigration for your students? We’d love to hear them! Tweet us #ProQuest.