Early Education

The importance of difficult conversations in U.S. classrooms: Teaching about the migrant crisis

What educators can do to encourage thoughtful, respectful debate—even among elementary students

Jennifer Rich

Jennifer Rich

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., called them “child internment camps.” Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham compared them to “summer camps.”

The left and the right are wildly divided on how to think about the separation of children from parents in the current migrant crisis at America’s southern border. It has been disheartening to see how far apart the coverage on this issue has been in lead stories on Fox and CNN. Immigration has always been a difficult issue to grapple with, but we are in the midst of what will be remembered as a particularly dark time in our history.

Many voices have weighed in on this debate, but we remain unsure of how to talk about it. Americans have especially neglected to make sense of the migrant crisis in classrooms across the country.

In schools, educators will inevitably teach students from a variety of backgrounds with different beliefs, ideas and opinions. Over 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States, two million of whom are under the age of 18, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. About 65,000 of these young men and women graduate from U.S. high schools each year. What this means is that these children are in our classrooms, whether or not we know it.

Related: DACA students persevere, enrolling at, remaining in and graduating from college

In recent weeks, numerous teachers have shared with me their thoughts on how to discuss the immigration situation with their students. Most are hesitant to tackle the subject because they might have some undocumented students in class, while other students support “the big, beautiful wall.” Put simply, they want to skirt difficult conversations.

Consider the ways in which students are typically taught about multiculturalism. The teachers-in-training I work with speak of a “Food Around the World Day,” often an annual occurrence in their own school days. Conversations about food, clothing and language can be the sum total of what they know about just a few cultures. They never discussed immigration when they were students, and they are unprepared to teach those who have recently come to the United States.

Related: COLUMN: How teachers should talk to students about Trump’s racism

There are ways to do better. Maureen Farina, a fifth-grade teacher at Bear Tavern Elementary School in Titusville, New Jersey, heads a classroom that is diverse in terms of culture, socioeconomic status, family political beliefs, and student interests and abilities. She brings her class together through Socratic seminars, debates and technology, and she encourages conversations about topics that many consider “too hard” for fifth-graders. This past year, for example, they researched and discussed the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as gun violence in schools.

Farina encourages her students to confront their own assumptions about themselves and others, to use their words to ask for change, and to speak loudly for those unable to do so for themselves. She teaches her young students to demand equity, and gives them the tools to begin working for it. What is admirable isn’t only the content to which she exposes her students, but also the methodologies she employs.

Farina is an example of how to foster open discussion, even in primary classrooms: present students with facts about events difficult for adults to understand, expect them to work to gain understanding, teach them to disagree respectfully and bring to bear sound pedagogy. Her methods can be replicated with practice and care: fifth-graders engaged in seminars, responding to one another after a difficult question has been posed, using technology to gather, share and evaluate resources, and, finally, coming together to decide when and how to take action.

In Farina’s hands, the migrant crisis, though a hot-button issue among the diverse students she teaches, will become an opportunity for young people to consider equity and social justice. Some might decide to take action; others might not. All will be pushed to think critically, speak kindly and listen to one another as they grapple with topics that many adults avoid.

Related: STUDENT VOICES: DACA students worry about ‘really tough times’ ahead

Creating inclusive classrooms goes far beyond having international food days. Such spaces allow for uncomfortable conversations where close examinations of the migrant crisis, and other crises of social justice, can be debated in thoughtful ways. As Farina says, even young children can—and should—learn to “raise their collective voices.” It is reasonable to expect disagreement, but it is essential to provide opportunities for students to learn how to have difficult conversations respectfully.

Students face numerous challenges. They or their parents may be undocumented, and they may worry about what they will eat or where they will sleep from one day to the next.

If we are to avoid hyper-partisan debates in the future, we need to do better at having hard conversations with our children now.

This story about classroom conversations and pedagogy was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Jennifer Rich is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Rowan University, and the director of research and education for the Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Her research and teaching focus on “hard histories” (such as slavery, the internment of Japanese-Americans and the Holocaust), and how teachers can talk about these time periods in more honest and inclusive ways.

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Jennifer Rich

Jennifer Rich is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Rowan University, and the director of research and education for the Rowan Center… See Archive

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