Monday, December 7, 2015

Bring Me Your Tired, Your Poor…

For generations, American schoolchildren have learned that the United States is a nation of immigrants - melting pot, tossed salad, destination for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” welcomed by the Statue of Liberty.

The issue of immigration is now fraught with controversy and polarizing politics, but it remains a worthy subject to challenge student thinking and writing. In fact, the American Immigration Council is sponsoring its 19th annual Celebrate America 5th Grade Creative Writing Contest. Students are asked to write 500 words on “Why I am glad America is a nation of immigrants.” Essays are due February 29, 2016.  In Maryland, D.C. and Virginia, contest questions may be directed to 

The Friends of the Library in Montgomery County, MD, also sponsors an essay contest on“Celebrating Diversity” with a January 29 deadline.  This contest invites middle school students to submit an essay, short story or poem that is an expression of their culture. It is appropriately called “Mosaic.” With or without a contest, these writing prompts about immigration and culture can be adapted to any grade level.

Use the contest guidelines directly or simply ask students to find out when they or their families came to the United States and why.

Some families came willingly, some not and some were here long before immigration became a fact of American life.  The question should prompt discussion at home and interesting stories or essays at school. If the question is too sensitive for some children to discuss publicly, they could talk to a neighbor or a school staff member instead.

There is a variety of books to inform the discussion and stimulate writing.  The Institute for Humane Education lists 14 picture and chapter books about refugee children from Vietnam and Cambodia, Somalia, Mali, Pakistan and more.  For older students, Kem Knapp Sawyer has just published Grace Akallo and the Pursuit of Justice for Child Soldiers. Akallo escaped the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and is now raising her family in Massachusetts while she advocates for peace and justice. Sawyer’s message in the book, as she explains in an interview with Deborah Kalb, is that Grace Akallo – after a tragic and frightening childhood - became an American immigrant with a “remarkable vision, who believes she was given a purpose in life, not to mourn for herself but to help others who have suffered as she has.”

Last year, fifth grader Anya Frazier of Raleigh, NC, included these thoughts in the poem that won the American Immigration Council contest:

On each ship,
A flicker of hope,
A flash blinding my endless waters,
But then its gone.
Like a burnt out fire,
Trying to reignite.
But as they catch sight of the golden land,
That fire begins to glow.
It spreads out wide like a seed to soil,
Its timid shoots poking out of the ground.

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