Stories of Human Migration: The potential for students to learn about the world, themselves, and perspectives on the past?

Emi Kane and Sarah Sheya, who have done a great deal of work on this curriculum, contributed to the ideas in this post. Nathalie Popa also contributed.

Approximately 1000 teenage students from varied geographic locations and family backgrounds are currently participating in our Stories of Human Migration curriculum, a learning journey that addresses a timely yet complicated and sensitive topic. We outlined the goals of this learning journey in earlier blog posts: Introducing a New Learning Journey: Stories of Human Migration and Everyday Borders. In sum, teenage students are invited to listen to other people’s migration stories, reflect on the ways in which we are all connected to and affected by the phenomenon of borders, examine the ways in which stories about migration are reported in the media, and consider what it means for individuals to move across and navigate cultural differences.

This learning journey, like our other ones, is driven by student interest. But it also aims to develop young people’s substantive understanding of the topic of human migration. In this post, I’d like to share some initial, exploratory thoughts from my perspective as a former history teacher and someone who is broadly interested in ways to make history and social studies more engaging and personally relevant for young people – even while recognizing that students participate in this learning journey from a variety of subject area contexts. I believe there are opportunities for learning – by no means fully tapped – that go beyond the important goal of developing students’ understanding of the historical and contemporary phenomenon of migration. There are also some puzzles and challenges.

For example, I’m interested in young people’s “historical consciousness” or sense of “historical identity”. When young people are invited to explore their personal connections to the historical past – including but not limited to their family’s history – we are arguably creating opportunities for them to consider themselves as human beings situated in a particular time and place yet connected to human stories that stretch both before and after their own limited lifespans. I also think that Out of Eden Learn potentially offers students a chance to think about the ways in which our individual circumstances and stories help shape our perspectives on the past and present. By extension, we could be helping them to understand the interpreted and at times contested nature of human knowledge, including the stories we tell about the past – as well as the ways in which they might enrich or challenge prevailing narratives.

Let’s focus on the first activity of this curriculum, which invites participants to “Listen carefully to someone you know well as they share their migration stories from their own lives or their family’s history.” Students post what they find and then read and comment on each other’s work. Some students describe recent migration stories, while others write about ones that happened further in the past. The resulting collage of recent and not-so-recent stories, as well as stories that took place in varying political, geographic and/or economic contexts, creates important learning opportunities.

Let’s zoom in on two specific student posts. The first is a detailed piece by a user called Alpal24 who lives in West Hills, Los Angeles. She narrates the story of her grandfather’s imprisonment in Dachau Concentration Camp during World War II, at the age of nine. He survived and was released at the end of the war. After a year of recuperating in Germany, he migrated with his father and brother to Mexico thanks to the support of distant relatives living there, and went on to start an impressive watch-selling and then duty free business. Later, fearing political instability in Mexico, he migrated to the United States with his wife and four children.

The second is a briefer post by cherobeng from the Bronx in New York who writes about her mother’s experience of voluntarily migrating as a child to the United States from Ghana, West Africa. Her mother was frequently bullied because of her accent and “kinky” hair but ultimately came to be glad that she moved to the United States.

I notice three interesting things happening in these posts and the comments that they generate from other students. Young people are (1) expressing pride and exploring identity; (2) making connections between past and present and/or different historical events; and (3) finding inspiration.

Expressing pride and exploring identity

Students on our platform often express considerable pride in the stories they tell if they are ones related to their parents, grandparents or other relatives. Sometimes students discover family histories that were previously unknown to them. Other times, they enjoy the opportunity to share their story and cultural identity with a wider audience, including their classmates. In this case, children who are migrants or the children of recent migrants often have particularly interesting stories to tell and effectively become recognized as experts on the topic at hand. This opportunity to explore identity taps into developmentally appropriate teenage preoccupations with questions about who they are and the kinds of lives they want to live.

To my eyes, Alpal24 writes with pride about her grandfather and seems keen to relay to other students that he was a very special man and even a moral exemplar. In this excerpt, she impresses upon the reader that he worked hard and was admired by many people, in ways that some readers might find reminiscent of the American Dream.

… In fact, when he emigrated to Mexico, he did not speak one word of Spanish, but in no time, by reading newspapers daily and working hard, he became fluent. My grandfather worked 3 jobs to 4 jobs. He did whatever it took in order to survive. Him and my great grandfather created a business of watches. Together, they worked day and night, and eventually after my great grandfather passed away, my grandfather created a duty free business between Mexico and the United States which grew to be extremely successful. He was an honorable man with great work ethic and a charming personality. Rolex ended up giving him their representation in all of North America. That is no easy achievement, but my grandpa was a very special man. …

Cherobeng’s post similarly reflects affection and admiration for her mother who overcame bullying and homesickness to create a better life for herself in the United States. Her final comment – “Currently, she goes to work in the hospital in order to take care of her three children” – is perhaps a recognition of the sacrifices that her mother makes. As emotive discourse currently circulates in the United States and other places around the world about migrants, youth on our platform are given the opportunity to read firsthand accounts of migrant families’ experience that counter stereotyping narratives in mainstream media.

Making connections between past and present and different historical events

While Alpal24 focuses on the story of her grandfather – as presumably narrated to her by family members – some of the details she includes appear to nod to contemporary political concerns. For instance, she notes that he migrated with documentation from Mexico to the United States: “The move to San Antonio Texas was done legally where he was able to get his green card because he employed so many people in his 37 duty free stores he was partnered with. Many years later he decided to become a citizen of the United States.” We have not spoken to Alpal24 to know if she is intentionally differentiating her grandfather’s migration story from the kind that Donald Trump hopes to stem with a concrete wall between Mexico and the United States. However, at least some students are likely to draw such a comparison, especially given our inclusion of a resource created collaboratively with young people seeking unofficial passage to the United States via Mexico. The variety of recent and not so recent migration stories on our platform can, I believe, help young people develop a degree of historical perspective and an understanding that current policies and attitudes towards migrants are liable to change over time.

Meanwhile, scrappy.hawaiian from Honolulu left a comment for Alpal24 that expresses a connection between her own family’s story and that of Alpal24’s grandfather:

Wow, this was similar to what happened to my family except they were a part of the Taino Indians, and the Spanish started to enslave the majority of them. When my great great grandmother and great great grandfather came to Hawaii, and they had to work in the sugar cane fields in order to get enough money to survive.

Here she is noticing resonance between two different instances of oppression and forced migration. The comparison she draws also leads to a moment of connection or solidarity with a student living several thousand miles away because of perceived similarities in their families’ pasts.

Finding inspiration

Stories such as the one posted by Alpal24 often lead to generally admiring comments from other students about the resilience and strength of people who overcome arduous migration experiences. Sometimes, students’ expressions of appreciation are more directly connected to their own lives. JT from Serpong in Indonesia related Cherobeng’s mother’s experience to her own experiences as a minority: “Amazing! Your mother is a really tough woman. I can feel the difficulties being a minority in my country. Chinese people in Indonesia often are harassed and mocked. This is such an inspiration for me to keep being strong. Thank you.” This response – both upsetting and heartening at the same time – helps underscore for students that peers in their midst are actually living through challenges associated with migration. It’s also worth noting that students have told us that the relative anonymity afforded by our platform emboldens them to share experiences and feelings that might be difficult for them to do in more public venues.

All that said, taking part in Out of Eden Learn’s Stories of Human Migration curriculum by no means assures the development of a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of migration as a contemporary and historical theme – or the growth of young people’s historical consciousness or their historical understanding more broadly. The former history teacher in me wonders about some limitations of our model and curriculum. For example, while Alpal24 does set her grandfather’s story within a broader historical context and accounts for the interplay between his personal agency and circumstances or structural forces beyond his control, many students understandably tend to emphasize the personal bravery or endurance of individuals. How can we help them to consider the experiences and decisions made by individual migrants in relation to structural forces, institutions, and historical developments that lie beyond their control? Is it possible to deter students from discerning similarities between experiences too readily such that they overlook the historical specificity of particular migration patterns or events? Can we help them recognize and explore significant differences? Relatedly, how do we make sure that they don’t over-generalize from single cases but instead recognize the diversity of experiences within any particular migration wave? It would also serve students well if we helped them be mindful that individual stories about the past or present are not just straightforward factual accounts but instead are memories or interpretations that are told from certain perspectives to certain audiences, which are then in turn re-interpreted and re-told. Ideally, we want to help make students aware of their own perspectives on the world while supporting their interest in exploring and developing identity.

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