Friday, May 28, 2010

We've All Got Papers: The Role of Undocumented Students in the Classroom

You! You sitting with your computer reading my blog. Come closer. Closer. Closer still. I've got a secret for you. Are you ready? Here goes. I have taught undocumented students.

The response I get when I tell the aforementioned "secret" to people their reaction often varies with a wide range of emotion from disdain to praise. I assume that in this day and age, it's not necessarily a popular statement to make. However, it is the truth and I am never one to hide the truth from people, regardless of how uncomfortable it might make them. Working in inner city schools, you see and teach a variety of children throughout your time. Being three years into a hopefully long-lasting teaching career I already know that I have taught some undocumented students. And I know I will continue to teach them in the future. There are some students who confide in me with their deepest secret. There are others who I know I will end up teaching for an entire year and have no idea that they were even undocumented. Such is the nature of the beast.

One common argument on the immigration debate today is the fact that these undocumented students place an unfair burden on our education system. To this I have one simple response: Hogwash. The fact is that these students pose no more burden on our education system than affluent White kids from the suburbs. This "burden" that critics often speak of is set in place due to overcrowding in our inner city schools and the inadequate resources available to them. I have yet to hear a teacher say, "I was doing fine in my class with the first forty-one kids. However once I got that forty-second kid, that undocumented kid, that's when my classroom really went to hell." The fact is these students are part of the general school population and it is our job at teachers to teach all of our students no matter what kind of classroom conditions might be placed upon us.

I also hear the argument that these undocumented students are the troublemakers, the ones who are in gangs and wreak havoc upon their school communities. Again, this is a gross exaggeration of the truth. The fact is that yes, some undocumented students to end up choosing the gang route. However, this can be said for any immigration population that constantly faces the home-grown xenophobia that is so prevalent today. We as a society don't label all Asians as gang members just because a few Hmong students have chosen that route. Why should we do the same with Latinos? Of the (known) undocumented students I have taught, some of them were in gangs. Some of them were my hardest workers and best students. Undocumented students, like all students, run the gauntlet in terms of behavior. I feel no more "burdened" for teaching them as I do any of my other students.

There is also the criticism that these undocumented students do not even try to learn English. Again, another erroneous statement. Studies have shown that this current generation of immigrants are learning English faster than any generation that has proceeded them. I have yet to have a student flat out refuse to speak English. However, there are definitely some students that have been bullied by previous teachers and who definitely lack self-confidence in the language. Imagine if you went to a foreign country and were forced to speak a language you were still learning. Imagine that each time you misspoke, you were reprimanded. It would hurt your confidence, right? Make you hesitant to want to speak, to play with the language? This is the same experience that many of our undocumented students have had. Somewhere during their schooling, some teacher told them they were bad at speaking English. Odds are, it happened at an early age. This kind of experience can cause a child to shut down for a long period of time.

As teachers, we need to respect our students' home culture and language. Just because our students aren't producing constant English doesn't mean they aren't being exposed to it on a daily basis. Many of these students can code-switch back and forth between English and Spanish, which is an incredibly valuable asset. Having any student become fully bilingual will continue to help them throughout their lives in both school and their chosen professions. I personally have seen some of my undocumented students translate during parent conferences. They understand the need to maintain their cultural identity at home but also to do their best to learn the dominant language as well. For critics to say that these students don't learn English is a gross exaggeration and one that will not be verified in any public school today.

I guess my biggest qualm with all the criticism of undocumented students is how they are viewed as criminals. Many of these students were brought here at too young an age to have any choice in the matter. Some of them do not realize until their late high school years that they are even undocumented. Regardless of how you feel about the immigration debate, you must first realize that these students are HUMAN BEINGS. They know what is expected of them and they do their best to live up to teachers expectations. They laugh, cry, smile, and frown like all their peers. They play sports, have friends, go to dances, and date just like anybody else their age. The difference is that each and every day they come to school, there is the chance that their lives can be swept out from underneath them. They come, they take this chance each and every day, for a better life for both themselves and their family.

I leave you with this image: A student of mine in tears, being consoled by her boyfriend. This student not knowing whether or not this day would be her last in her school, her city, her country that she had known as far back as she could remember. This student who writes all her papers in Spanish and then meticulously translates them to English in my class of eighteen. This student who has been late to my class because she had to go with her younger brother on the city bus to go and try to track down his school ID. This student who missed classes one afternoon to be excused to attend a multi-cultural fair and dance with her partner. This student who writes about the greatness and fairness of the American laws but has to add that sometimes Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can be a little unfair. This right here is your undocumented student. The one who is a burden on me and my classes. The one who is a bad influence on her peers. The one who isn't trying to learn English. Contrary to popular belief, this student has papers. She has papers due in all of her academic classes. And knowing her, she will pass them all with flying colors.

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