I was excited! I had been searching for a text that authentically engaged students about issues of immigration (with a particular focus on immigrants from Latinx communities). These students filled my classroom, but rarely saw themselves reflected in the literature. While our curriculum has boasted a host of remarkable authors of color, too few of these authors were American immigrants from Spanish speaking countries. Too often, the suggested books for my students were “LATINO/LATINA LITERATURE”. These were stories that suggested that the entirety of a person’s identity was their origin as opposed to an aspect of their experience. While great literature engages the reader with a culture through powerful human stories, explicitly “cultural” literature often reads as dull and un-relatable to our students. As one of my Latinx students said last year, “why is our literature reduced to descriptions of food or clothing as opposed to interesting and dynamic stories that happen to be about people like us?” That idea stayed with me until I read The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez. This book tells a powerful tale of love, shame, machismo, family, xenophobia and fear swirling inside a community of immigrants (from Central and South America). I hoped this was the ticket. I planned a unit around the book focusing on theme and characterization and hoped that the students would be as excited about the book as I imagined they would be (sadly, my ideas about our students’ excitement had not always been spot on in the past!)
Finally, the books were in the hands of the students! It was a hit! The kids were fascinated and engaged with the text. I felt so excited. This book hooked so many of my hard-to-reach students! I had never seen so many students both excited by the story of star crossed lovers and the explication of the immigrant experience in America. The xenophobia outlined in the story felt more relevant than ever. The frustrations of the immigrant families connected to many of my students’ personal experiences. The variety of experiences helped my students feel seen and appreciated and not boxed in or stereotyped by one type of Latino/Latina American experience.
As I looked at the final project for the unit, I was concerned. How would I be able to match a literary analysis project with the creative work we had been doing in class? I wanted the students to be able to engage with the themes we had been tracking and the characters that provided the narrative energy in the text. I also wanted the distinct neighbor sections of the novel (2-3 page immigrant stories from different countries and different neighbors) to be honored in the project as well. What was I to do?
So, I created a project that had three distinct parts. Research, Create, Critique
Part 1: Research about a country to understand the reasons for migration. Why do people feel compelled to leave? What might people appreciate in America? How does the history of migration from this country connect to the stories from our novel?
Part 2: Write a letter as a character in the novel to another character about the shock ending?
Part 3: Write a four paragraph thematic analysis essay about a theme you have tracked throughout the text (machismo, immigrant experience, shame/guilt, communication and secrets)
Here is a link to the project:
The students are finishing up their projects but they presented their country research to each other today and it was great to see them feel like experts. I hope they feel like they both get to be critics and authors and researchers at the same time.
I have three remaining struggles:
- How can I ensure that the creative part of the project is still rigorous? I provided some models and they are still less thoughtful and thorough than the other aspects of the project?
- How can I push my students to feel like they are the experts and creative writers in each part as opposed to people just trying to complete the requirements?
- What moves can I do to make students continue through the different parts of the project and not feel overwhelmed by the three different sections?