George Lucas Educational Foundation
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As we navigate a political landscape that is too often hostile toward immigrants, it's a good time to remember that the vast majority of us are here as American immigrants.

The Power of Storytelling

Recent anti-immigrant rhetoric in the news is disheartening and infuriating, and it urgently pushed us to address these issues in our high-school classrooms. As educators, we felt it was our responsibility to provide students with an outlet and counter-narrative to the dehumanization of immigrants and, recently, refugees. With this context, we wanted to create an experience in which the power of storytelling could be used as a vehicle for empathy, community, and great writing.

We are ninth-grade English and history teachers at a small California charter school that serves many first-generation students. As teachers of color and immigrants, we felt that we had a responsibility to bring these issues into our classrooms and engage in personal reflection and analysis. We jumped at an opportunity to collaborate with Elliot Margolies, founder and director of Made Into America, a non-profit organization with a mission of archiving immigrant stories. In our two-week humanities project, students investigated and wrote the immigration story of one of their family members to be published on the Made Into America online archive. The inherently authentic nature of the task lent itself to strong student investment and writing products.

More notably, the task privileged students whose families are recent immigrants or who had personally emigrated here themselves. Additionally, it gave students an opportunity to utilize their native languages in their writing and view that as an asset rather than a deficit. (How often do we get to do these things?)

Creating the Narrative

Our version of this project spanned eight instructional hours, but it's very adaptable to however you might use it in your own curriculum. We used these traditional steps of the writing process:

1. Kick-Off: Interview Workshop and Skype Call With a Syrian Refugee

Students engaged in an interview workshop where they teased out elements of a good story and developed interviewing techniques. In this workshop, they learned how to ask poignant follow-up questions to gain rich, provocative, detailed responses. For example, students learned that when the interviewee's intonation changes, or when they start to give quirky, memorable details from their journey, the interviewer should say, "Tell me more." Then, students applied and practiced these techniques by writing questions and conducting a Skype interview with a Syrian refugee who recently emigrated to Lebanon. (This step could also be done by inviting an immigrant parent or a guest as an interviewee.)


2. Action Research: Interviewing Your Family Member

Using techniques learned from the interview workshop, students wrote questions to use for conducting interviews with their family member. Before writing their own questions, they examined an example story that one of us had written in order to understand the end goal of their interview. We encouraged students to conduct and transcribe their interview in their home language. (Note: Students with special circumstances interviewed and wrote stories of their neighbors or friends.)


3. Organize Details: Outlining the Story

In order to guide students in their interviews, we asked them to divide the immigration story into five main parts:

  1. Life in original country
  2. Why they decided to leave
  3. How they left
  4. Arriving in America
  5. Where they are now and hopes for the future

We encouraged students to cover each part in their story, but emphasized that each story is unique, and that some parts would be longer than others. To organize their interview responses, students copy-pasted their interview into each part of the outline.


4. Drafting and Workshopping the Story

After looking at one more example story from us, as well as exploring the Made Into America website, students started drafting their stories. As they wrote, we held writing workshops around writing in different points of view (POV), embedding quotations, and writing engaging hooks. We also projected and examined student work in real time throughout the writing process. Here are writing skills that we workshopped:

  • Students examined POV and "tried on" different POVs (first- or third-person perspective) before settling on the one that most powerfully conveyed their story.
  • Students creatively embedded non-English quotations from their interviews.
  • Students experimented with different hooks as an opening for their story.


5. Peer Review and Final Draft

Students peer reviewed and finalized their drafts.


6. Honoring Our Immigrants: Sharing and Celebration

A few days prior to the celebration, we sent the students out with invitations and cards to give to their interviewees. The goal for this celebration was to honor the immigrants, the interviewees, and their families. During the sharing activity, students sat in a circle and shared one part of their story. With a 30-person classroom, each student got one minute to share part of his or her story. At the end, they shared overall reflections and learning experiences with one another. It was a powerful and collective way to end this project.


Here are some examples of the stories written by students:

Has your school honored students' heritage and their families' immigrant narratives? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.

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Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Ladies, it made me really happy to see this post here. What a wonderful idea to connect students to real issues and people experiencing those issues. I am curious about the interview preparation part, how did you prepare students to discuss what might be some difficult questions for the interviewees to answer? Did you prepare them beforehand about the sensitivity of the issue being discussed? Thank you so much for sharing these helpful strategies!

Emily Lee & Nanor Balabanian's picture

Hi Rusul,

I'm glad you find these strategies helpful. You raise a good question about interview preparation. When we introduced interview preparation, we emphasized empathy. For example, before the Skype call with the Syrian refugee, we gave some historical context and also an idea of the trauma she had faced. We had students think about what it would be like to be in her shoes. We as teachers also interviewed each other (or a student could interview you) to model vulnerability and how to be sensitive in asking questions that may trigger difficult memories from an interviewee's past. We talked about how to listen to their interviewee--push for details, but remember that they might not be ready to share some memories.

Hope this helps.

Emily and Nanor

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

This is so helpful and such a necessary process to go through when it comes to sensitive issues such as the refugee experience. I love that you helped students to practice empathy and practiced with them as interviewees yourselves. I hope other teachers will be inspired by your work!

Bhadgal's picture

As a middle school Social Studies teacher, I am always looking for innovative ways to bring history alive and I enjoyed your blog regarding interviewing Syrian refugees and creating an archive of their experiences. My initial trepidations were similar to Rusul's above in that were your 9th graders able to be sensitive enough and mature enough to approach a topic and experience which still must be quite raw in the minds of the refugees. I applaud your efforts in trying out something quite innovative and wonder what the feedback was from the Syrian's you interviewed? Was it beneficial to them or still too difficult a topic to talk freely about? Did they receive a copy of the final draft outlining their experience as that may be a way to connect further and ensure both parties benefit.

Emily Lee & Nanor Balabanian's picture

Hi Diana,

Thank you for your interest in the project. Glad that you enjoyed reading the blog. Luckily, Nanor already had a relationship with the Syrian refugee who the class Skyped with, which may have helped her open up. We didn't get a sense if talking about her experience was beneficial to her or not. However, students were moved by the Skype interview and ended up organizing a clothing drive for refugees who are currently living in camps in Syria.

We got a lot of anecdotal feedback from students saying that most their parents were receptive to sharing their immigration stories. For more traumatic stories, we tried to frame talking about it as a way of healing. A few students' parents were resistant to sharing their traumatic memories. In these cases, we encouraged students to shape their story in a way that does not require details that open up difficult memories. Or, they could interview a different family member or friend. We would love more ideas from others on how to allow students to be responsive towards sensitive issues. You bring up a great idea to share a copy of the final draft with family members. We could have done a much better job of encouraging students to do that.

Hope this helps. Would love more ideas from you!

Emily and Nanor

Bhadgal's picture

Thanks Emily and Nanor for sharing with me the more nitty gritty details of the whole process. It is indeed a great opportunity to bring this stores and experiences to life by sharing them with students. It opens up opportunities to learn and grow that go so far beyond the classroom, Perhaps collaborating with the school councillor may help address the more traumatic stories you as how to approach them more sensitively. I would love to try out something but teach mainly 6th graders who will find such a project still a bit challenging. Thanks again, and I applaud your efforts.

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