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Making Americans

An excerpt from the new book about immigrant education by Jessica Lander, Ed.M.’15
Jessica Lander's Making Americans

As a teacher in a diverse high school north of Boston — her students come from more than 30 countries — Jessica Lander posed a question to herself: How do educators ensure that immigrants feel safe, supported, and valued, and with the chance to put down new roots and build new futures so that they can become full participants in their new home? She set out across the country to find answers by visiting classrooms, talking to other educators, and hearing from students who were finding their place in America. The result is her new book, Making Americans: Stories of Historic Struggles, New Ideas, and Inspiration in Immigrant Education, which comes out this week and is excerpted below.

In the fall of 2019, eleven fifth-graders huddled in the corner of a classroom. Intently they pondered a strip of calculator paper, six feet long, bearing a sentence in thick black lettering: “When corals are under stress, they expel their algae, lose their color and will eventually die.” Their teacher had posed a challenge: could they rearrange the sentence and retain its meaning

Excitedly, students at Allen Jay Elementary School, in Guilford County, North Carolina, took scissors to the paper. Five sets of hands now clutched five sentence fragments. A Pakistani boy directed a classmate holding a snippet of the sentence to stand to the left, another to stand in the middle. A tall Mexican girl assumed command, “Fiza, switch with Wilmer.” Their new sentence: “Corals are under stress When they expel their algae, and will eventually die, lose their color.” “That doesn’t make sense!” exclaimed a tawny-haired student. Classmates giggled, others groaned, then one gasped: “Hold up!” surging forward, a girl orchestrated students to swap. Satisfied, she stepped back to read: “When they expel their algae, corals are under stress, lose their color and will eventually die.” Around her, classmates broke into applause.

The day’s lesson was part of a districtwide experiment for Guilford’s nearly 7,000 English learners, who make up about one in ten of the roughly 70,000 students enrolled in the county’s 126 public schools. 


Three years ago, in 2019, I set forth from my classroom to begin work on a book, Making Americans: Stories of Historic Struggles, New Ideas, and Inspiration in Immigrant Education. Making Americans explores the past, present, and personal aspects of immigrant education in this country. I teach history and civics to extraordinary immigrant and refugee teenagers hailing from more than thirty countries in a New England public school. But the longer I taught, the more I wondered what approaches educators elsewhere were taking to support immigrant students. And so I set out to learn from others — visiting innovative schools working to support immigrant-origin students, delving into the history of our country’s approaches to immigrant education, and learning from my own former immigrant students. To reimagine how our country can better educate newcomer children, I believe we need to understand our past, explore present innovations, and listen to the personal stories of young people themselves. 

Today, roughly one in four students in K-12 schools is an immigrant or the child of immigrants. As I traveled across the country, I had the opportunity to meet extraordinary educators working creatively to teach and nurture immigrant-origin students. Generously, they welcomed me into their classrooms and their schools, shared their students’ successes and spoke too of challenges they faced. 

The past three years have been immensely challenging for so many of our students, for our schools, and for many of us educators as we have grappled with learning and teaching during a devastating pandemic. As reports have detailed, schools struggled particularly in teaching and nurturing English Learner students. 

As we set up classrooms and welcome students back to school this year, I believe we have an opportunity to reset and re-imagine what immigrant education can look like in our lessons, our classrooms, our schools, and our communities. 


For years in Guilford, North Carolina, as elsewhere, many considered the EL program remedial — a class to practice pronunciation, trace letters, sound out phonics, review grammar. But by 2017, Mayra Hayes, after nearly fifteen years as Guilford county’s director for English learners, was still unsatisfied with the district’s progress in serving EL students. Decades earlier Mayra herself had been an EL student in US school, after her family moved from El Salvador to New York. Over her time in Guilford, Mayra had implemented new curricula, adopted education programs, recruited tutors, and crafted professional development. Many students succeeded, but not nearly enough. Yearly test scores crept up in math or reading one year, only to sink back the following spring. Of district students who started in kindergarten or first grade, roughly one in seven remained classified as English learners eleven years later. As Mayra recalled. “The status quo wasn’t working.”

In the fall of 2017, Mayra and her team began implementing an approach born of a bicoastal partnership. More than a decade earlier, two women had teamed up: Berkeley linguist Dr. Lily Wong Fillmore who had devoted a lifetime to understanding how children acquire language and Maryann Cucchiara, a practitioner responsible for supporting many of the New York City’s EL students. Where often EL classes favored simple texts and isolated grammar rules. In classrooms, the duo began demonstrating to teachers how they could use rich, grammatically demanding language—sentences stuffed with dependent clauses, adjective phrases, and compounds. Rather than teach vocabulary and grammar in isolation, language learning would be teased out of studying animal adaptations, immigration histories, and ancient civilizations. Rather than read simplified books, students would analyze articles drawn from Smithsonian and National Geographic and would decode newspapers as well as grade-level books.

In Guilford, Mayra’s team fanned out across the district. They sat in the back of classrooms, conferred with teachers, sometimes even, at a teacher’s urging, stepped in to teach. They tracked down complex texts and helped craft lessons that teased meaning from the sentences. Once a month teachers regrouped, swapping notes and trading lessons. to shrink the miles between classrooms the EL team launched a newsletter: see how students in this class are working collaboratively to deconstruct and reconstruct complex sentences; take a look at how this teacher has made a wall of synonyms using colorful paint sample chips to help students visualize subtle difference between words — hungry, starving, famished. Soon the newsletter was brimming with photos snapped in classrooms, videos of students debating passages, lesson plans constructed by teachers. Slowly, in classrooms, teachers began noticing a shift: Their students, some for the first time, were speaking in complex English sentences, incorporating new vocabulary, asking insightful questions about class texts.

District-wide change took time. It was built on a foundation of trust constructed over years by Mayra and her team, who showed up in the classrooms and schools to offer support, ideas, and academic resources. It was nurtured by the team’s commitment to listen to the concerns of educators dubious about the approach or unsure how to adjust their teaching. When teachers reverted to teaching simple texts with uncomplicated sentences, the team worked with teachers to plan lessons and seek out engaging books. When school leaders resisted, Mayra drove zigzags across the district, sitting with each in turn. She asked: What support did they need? Could she invite them to observe a class in another school? Could a coordinator co-teach a lesson? Change happened steadily, teacher by teacher, principal by principal.

But the transformation in classes was staggering: First grade newcomers mastered words like refreshed and ventured out; they wrote sentences contrasting African and European folktales. It was work that three years earlier Mayra’s team would have expected of fifth-grade newcomers. Sitting in the back of a classroom one day, a member of Mayra’s team nearly fell out of his chair when a fourth-grade boy spontaneously shouted, “I love reading in this class!”

By the fall of 2018, non-EL teachers took to stopping their EL colleagues in the halls. Students once shy and silent were raising their hands, asking questions, and explaining concepts in math, in science, in social studies. What, they marveled, had triggered the transformation? Principals too had taken note. They goggled as newcomers debated the meaning of vocabulary when they observed classes; they began inviting EL teachers to train colleagues. 

In the summer of 2019 the district’s yearly test scores were released. In their office Mayra’s team started, stunned. Compared to two years earlier, nearly 50 percent more EL students were deemed proficient in reading. The number of students proficient in writing had roughly doubled. state test scores in science, reading, and math had shot up. And while two years earlier, less than two hundred students had been able to graduate from the EL program, that year more than four hundred exited.

Weeks later, when they revealed the results to their teachers, the room bubbled over in whoops, shouts, and applause. Then it was time to get back to work — teachers welcoming new students, interpreters meeting with parents, district staff coordinating testing and analyzing data, typing up the next newsletter, modeling a lesson, searching the public library for exciting books, training a new hire. And Mayra driving from school to school to school, doing whatever was needed.


The Guilford, North Carolina school district is just one example. There are extraordinary educators and innovative programs in communities across the country. I visited a school in Georgia for refugee girls who had been kept from school by violence, poverty, and natural disaster; it partnered with local volunteers to build bridges to the neighborhood and create a vibrant, joyous learning community. I learned from five schools in Aurora, Colorado that took a community-wide approach to education, building partnerships and collaborations with families, businesses, and a hospital, to support newcomer children. And, I got to learn from a teacher in North Dakota, whose students wrote books with stories about their immigrant journeys to the United States, held workshops to help teach their new communities, and advocated publicly at the state legislature for more inclusive communities. 

At all the schools I visited, there was a clear commitment to honor students’ history and identities and to nurture a sense of belonging. Belonging is fundamental: for young people, a sense of belonging provides a foundation for building a life and pursuing one’s dreams. 

But as I traveled throughout the United States, I was also struck by how remarkable teachers and innovative programs were isolated from one another. Teachers are too often disconnected — with few opportunities and little time to learn from colleagues in their communities, let alone from those in other states. 

I wondered: How can we create programs and perhaps organizations that bring together the energy, expertise, and wisdom of educators and others from across the country interested in exploring, creating, and sharing strategies? I believe there is much to learn from forging connections that allow educators to share and learn from each other across classrooms, schools, districts, and states.

In researching and then writing Making Americans, I came to realize how much could be learned from these powerful stories of the past, the present, and the personal. And together, I believe these stories hold lessons, wisdom, and ideas that can help us imagine what is possible if we are able to create communities of educators and others across the country who learn from each other and collaborate to reimagine immigrant education and create schools that nurture in students a sense of belonging.

Excerpted from Making Americans: Stories of Historic Struggles, New Ideas, and Inspiration in Immigrant Education by Jessica Lander. Copyright 2022. Excerpted with permission from Beacon Press.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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