Seventh grade English students finished their unit on short stories of the immigrant experience by becoming the storytellers this month. Students have been reading selected short stories from Come On In, an anthology of immigration stories from well-known YA authors. Through the lens of these works, seventh graders have explored the unique challenges immigrants face in finding and creating a new home in unfamiliar and sometimes hostile places.
To wrap up the unit, seventh grade English teachers Deb Smith and Scott Melton asked their students to interview a family member, friend, or acquaintance who has immigrated to the U.S. Some students interviewed parents, while others chose Fay faculty members and classmates. Students were tasked with discovering why the person came to the U.S., the challenges they faced, how they maintained ties to their home country, and whether they were happy with their choice. Students retold the story in writing and then compared it to one of the characters in the five immigration stories they read and discussed in class.
When presenting their stories to the class, Deb asked her students not to read directly from their writing so that they could think about telling the person’s story instead of reading it. Phoebe O. wrote about her grandfather, who emigrated from Hungary to Austria and then to the United States. He left to escape communism, and because he had to leave in secret, he couldn’t say goodbye to his family. After finally arriving in Greensboro, North Carolina, he had few employment options because he did not speak English well. Still, he worked his way through college and eventually started his own company. In her essay, Phoebe compared her grandfather’s experience to one of the short story characters who also had to leave in secret. Easun L’s mother emigrated from China to Oklahoma City in 1997 for a better education. She wanted her parents to join her, but she had to go alone because of visa issues. Easun compared his mother’s experience to that of Darya, the main character in “The Wedding” by Sara Farizan. In both stories, leaving behind family is a painful theme.
The experiences that students heard and retold in their immigrant stories project highlighted many of the same themes from the short stories they had read: the logistical challenges of navigating a new culture without a job or driver’s license, missing family members, food, and all the traditions of home, and the worry that after getting settled in the United States they won’t fit in if they ever return to visit. However, the stories were also overwhelmingly positive as most people who had immigrated to the U.S. noted that despite difficulties, they were happy they had made the choice. Reflecting on the project, one student commented, “I learned that sometimes leaving things behind can be good because you are starting a new life where things could be better.”