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Civics for Immigrant and Undocumented Students

In the new norms of 2018, teachers can use civics lessons to support and empower newcomer students
Drawing of a stormy sea overlaid with the American flag

It’s been a year of new norms for civics teachers, especially those with immigrant and undocumented students.

Current events have negated — or demanded new context for — classic talking points about the land of the free, E pluribus unum, and constitutional freedoms. Today’s civic discourse is polluted by lawmakers who refuse to universally condemn public displays of xenophobia, and by the president’s disparagement of peaceful religious groups.

Americans “are having a really tough time taking seriously, and even really being exposed to, a reasonable array of political viewpoints,” says Meira Levinson, a political philosopher who is deeply engaged in civic education. “We’re having a harder time than usual identifying what kinds of values, beliefs, and characteristics hold us together as a nation. And even if we are able to name some shared values — democracy, equality, speech, or good government — that doesn’t mean that we have a shared understanding of what they mean.”

Civic education can act as a counterweight to the “bad values, bad ways of interacting, and anti-democratic, authoritarian practices and policies” currently being modeled by civically influential people.

Civic education, Levinson says, has the potential to teach young people these capacities. It can act as a counterweight to the “bad values, bad ways of interacting, and anti-democratic, authoritarian practices and policies” currently being modeled by civically influential people. Civics can also teach students “how to get and interpret good information about what’s going on in the world,” a skill especially important in an era where claims of fake news (and "real" fake news) surround us.

Supporting Newcomer Students: A Civics Teacher's Role

Against this complex backdrop, what role can civics teachers play in the lives of the immigrant and undocumented students in their classrooms?

Some educators may feel uncertain as to what extent they should ally with students and their families, notes Eric Shed, a veteran history teacher who now directs the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program. They should first keep in mind, as Levinson has written in Making Civics Count: Citizen Education for a New Generation, that schools are duty and legally bound to embrace all students, regardless of their legal status. Schools “cannot follow a policy of strict neutrality when their students’ and families’ identities are openly under attack in the civic sphere” — because failing to openly embrace students can leave them vulnerable to ostracization from their community. Civics teachers must create a classroom of “inclusion, belonging, and support” for their immigrant and undocumented students, says Levinson.

Other teachers may not know the best way to express their support in the wake of national conversations that are offensive, even dangerous, to these young people. Here, getting to know your students on a personal level is crucial, says Shed. Students will feel safer and more open with their teachers if they realize how much those teachers care. And without taking the time to invest in those relationships, teachers won’t know to provide support when their students are facing some serious challenges.

Educators should also be mindful around how they interact with these students, says Sharon Lozada, who teaches a class on community action and peer leadership at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Massachusetts. Make a point of expressing that you value different cultures, and be sure not to perpetuate microagressions or stereotypes. “Those really simple yet profound things really make a difference to students,” Lozada says.

Examine America's history of xenophobia. Dissect the executive and federal branches of government, to help students understand whether certain proposed policies may take effect. Cultivate the communication skills needed to effect real change.

Civics Lessons to Empower

In this disorienting and worrisome climate, civics lessons have the potential to empower newcomer students. Certain insights, teaching strategies, and skills are key.

Examining American History and Government

  • Frame American history as a story of opportunity gained through struggle. We tend to teach that the United States is a nation where progress is inevitable, but that notion is both false and can discourage civic engagement, says Levinson. Instead, emphasize how the U.S. has grown freer, more egalitarian, and more welcoming because others in the past have struggled.
  • Examine the various waves of xenophobia the United States has experienced, and discuss the people who stood up and fought back through serious systemic civic engagement.
  • Dissect the different powers of the executive and federal branches of government. Help students understand whether certain proposed policies — the ending of DACA or the building of the wall — may take effect. Also discuss the concept of federalism, and how much power states have to deny federal policies, in order to contextualize the concept of sanctuary cities.

Fostering Civic Engagement and Community

  • Cultivate real-world communication skills. Teach students how to construct an argument based on evidence, Shed says. Have students practice making a compelling point with rhetoric that targets a specific audience.
  • Help students get involved with issues in their community. As a class, look at a local policy and inform the community about their rights, suggests Shed, or help vulnerable populations voice their needs.
  • Empower students to lead class conversations. When young people have the agency to choose which current events their class discusses, they may better internalize the idea that their voices and opinions matter, says Ielaf Altoma, a student teacher in Lozada’s class and a current master’s student at HGSE.
  • Connect students to other young changemakers. Lozada’s high school students have presented their work to eighth-graders in Cambridge and collaborated on a Social Justice Sewing Academy project with schools around the nation.
  • Invite students to share their personal histories. When students hear how their peers’ lives intersect with current events, the class’s empathy and passion to create change can grow, say Lozada and Altoma.

Empower students to lead class conversations. Connect students to other young people who are looking to make change. Invite students to share their personal histories, which can help spread empathy and passion.

Keeping Controversy on the Table

Don't shy away from the very real controversies occurring in the United States. If anything, teachers should be prepared to change lesson plans to address particularly volatile events that could affect their students, says Altoma, who herself is a refugee from Iraq.

While teachers may be tempted to ban debate on topics that could offend or even harm their students in their class — President Trump’s immigration ban, for example, or mass deportations — “it’s disingenuous to pretend that these are not real issues,” says Levinson. Students are going to hear about these issues regardless. It’s crucial that they learn the real facts and understand the complexity surrounding these events.

Civics classes can, however, delve into controversy without getting personal. Instead of encouraging students to make individual presentations for or against a divisive issue — a more classic civics class trope — Shed suggests the class together unpack the different perspectives around a debate. The goal, he says, should be, for young people to comprehend the motivations of policymakers on all sides. With this type of nuanced understanding, students may be better equipped to work with people from all backgrounds and to defend their own views when they are faced with opposition.

Illustration: Wilhelmina Peragine


Schools serve as a key point of welcome for immigrant and refugee children in America, but politics and changing demographics are complicating how we assist these newcomers. In a special series, we look at the strategies and practices that best support newcomer students and their families. Read more in Welcoming Newcomers.

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