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Immigration in Public Education and Public History: A Brookline Non-Profit Makes an Impact

By: Katie Burke

When I entered a graduate program in Public History I was often met with a resounding “I hated History in high school!” from friends and acquaintances. I could actually relate in some ways. In History class there was often a sense that we were being fed regurgitated, cliché narratives that were, well, old. Without connecting to these stories, they never really came alive.

I spent summer 2017 as a graduate intern at the Brookline-based non-profit organization, Facing History and Ourselves. Facing History works with high school educators to develop lesson plans on the Holocaust and other instances of racism, prejudice, and antisemitism. Their goal is to promote awareness of these events, and help students use historical knowledge to make thoughtful and ethical decisions in their own lives.

My main project at Facing History and Ourselves allowed me to strategize effective ways to implement their resources into regional curriculums. I researched high school social studies standards for the seven states in which they are based, and worked with my supervisor, Dimitry Anselme, to match Facing History’s educational resources to each state. As I reviewed the required content, Dimitry encouraged me to make conclusions about how immigration history is taught in these states as well, in order to tie the project into my interest in immigration in Public History.

In the past, immigration history in schools has often fallen victim to a problematically stereotypic narrative. Students heard about European immigrants sailing into New York Harbor at the turn of the 20th century, with the Statue of Liberty in the distance, ready to embark on the “American Dream” in the “Land of Opportunity.” This overly-simplified narrative perpetuated a false nostalgia that prevented students from reckoning with the complex history of immigration in the United States. It also alienated students with the most recent ties to immigration when this narrative was a far stretch from their own experience.

Newspaper illustration of an ocean steamer passing the Statue of Liberty from the steerage deck, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1887

I was surprised to discover that many of the states’ standards outlined immigration history with nods to various ethnic groups and legislative acts. I did not remember this as a part of my own learning experience. However, immigration reporter Ted Hesson argues that, in practice, the actual teaching of immigration history is sparse or clings to the Ellis Island narrative. Additionally, state standards often stop shy of bringing lessons of immigration full circle to modern day debates. In today’s environment, where debates on immigration have become so contentious, it is important for students to be well informed on how immigration has impacted the past and present.

Facing History and Ourselves, along with a number of other organizations, have made efforts to help teachers utilize immigration history in their classrooms. Immigration has been a part of some of the major Facing History units, such as Race and Membership and Holocaust and Human Behavior. In some locations, Facing History also runs a hands-on workshop “Immigration in a Changing World: Identity, Citizenship and Belonging,” to guide teachers in creating a four-week unit that highlights the Chinese American experience from the mid-1800’s to the present. As with all Facing History lessons, these units are designed to use historical case studies to assist students to have greater worldly awareness about instances of genocide and persecution, and to make informed and conscientious choices in all their interactions in the present.

This immigration unit raises questions about American identity, and examines the tension between race, democracy, and citizenship. Students are encouraged to face their own prejudices while considering reasons that the Chinese and other immigrants have met resistance from many Americans. The questions are also a tool to help students make connections to the current debates and issues surrounding immigration today.

Photograph of Chinese American men and three children in traditional dress in Chinatown, San Francisco, between 1896-1911

I attended two days of Facing History’s immigration workshop and learned a lot from the comments of the teachers in attendance. Many wished to better serve their diverse student populations by offering broader narratives beyond the Ellis Island paradigms that focus predominantly on white immigrants. Others commented that they felt a responsibility to focus more on immigration history in response to a surge in anti-immigrant sentiment, especially towards Hispanic and Muslim immigrants, in the past few years.

Cover of Facing History and Ourselves’ educator’s guide to the documentary film Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

This workshop also revealed that Asian Americans have been hugely underrepresented in history lessons and popular culture. Many of the teachers at the workshop appeared dismayed that there was so much of the Chinese immigrant experience they did not know. This is perfect evidence that many of us adults received a homogenous immigration narrative, if any, while we were in secondary school. Now it is the responsibility of teachers and immigration public historians to make sure this does not persist.

As Dan-el Pedia Peralta, a professor at Princeton and Dominican immigrant wrote in a 2016 op-ed, “My hopes for immigration reform lie with the young. Their education is what’s next for reform, since the urgency of teaching about the immigration experience has rarely been so acute as it is now.” I would add that public historians also have a role to play in teaching about immigration outside of the schools. Both teachers and public historians have a lot to gain from Facing History’s approach to teaching immigration in this moment.

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