For These New York City Fourth Graders, A Project On Immigration Hits Home

Story by Kelly Shetron
Photos by Kimberly M. Wang

The fourth graders in Miriam Sicherman’s class studied immigration this past year, and for many, it was not an abstract concept. About half of the eighteen students in her class at the Children’s Workshop School in New York City’s East Village were children of  immigrants — from Poland, Algeria, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Tibet, Haiti, Yemen and other countries.

Ms. Sicherman, who has been at the school for 17 years and teaches third and fourth grade, pointed out that often classroom studies of immigration focus primarily on the Ellis Island era. But in her classroom, that was not the case.

“To me, yes, [the Ellis Island era] is an important era and a lot of Americans trace their ancestry to those immigrants, but a great many Americans don’t, including most of my students,” said Ms. Sicherman. “There are a lot of other important eras of immigration to America.”

Like many of her students, Sicherman also had an intimate connection to the immigration experience. Her daughter, Una, a 9-year-old student at the school, was born in Korea and adopted at nine months of age.

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Miriam Sicherman and her daugher, Una. Photo by Kimberly M. Wang/Eardog Productions

While the students learned about Ellis Island, the curriculum didn’t end there. And, as the school year wound to a close, the students worked on a special culminating project: they created oral history picture books about real immigrants of today.

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Student book covers. Photo by Kimberly M. Wang/Eardog Productions

To make their books, the students interviewed three of the school’s teachers who also happen to be immigrants: Noelle O’Reilly from Ireland, Susan Browne from Barbados, and Cassi Park from South Korea.

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Students working with Ms. Browne. Photo by Kimberly M. Wang/Eardog Productions

Before each teacher sat down in front of the class to be interviewed, the students worked in pairs to come up with questions. Did you want to come to America? How was your trip? How much stuff did you bring? Were you scared? What was the first food you tried?

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Adam with Ms. O’Reilly. Photo by Kimberly M. Wang/Eardog Productions

After the interviews, Ms. Sicherman provided transcriptions to the students. The fourth graders read through them and identified the parts they wanted to include in their books. Then in the final weeks of school, the students sat together in groups and excitedly put finishing touches on their work.

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“How did you feel when you came to America?” Photo by Kimberly M. Wang/Eardog Productions

Lovinia, a soft-spoken student with a broad smile, made her book about Ms. O’Reilly, who immigrated from Ireland. One of Lovinia’s favorite parts of the interview, she said, was when Ms. O’Reilly described her shock at experiencing New York’s intense summer heat for the first time. The interview process was interesting to her, she said, but not necessarily surprising. “It’s not really surprising because my parents are immigrants, and my mom tells us about her home country, which is Haiti, and what it’s like there,” explained Lovinia.

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Ms. Park helped students with their projects. Photo by Kimberly M. Wang/Eardog Productions

For many students, the teachers’ immigration stories were relatable. And everyone in class got exposure to different kinds of immigration experiences.

“I think it’s so important for them to realize that immigrants tend to have certain experiences in common and certain experiences that are very different from each other. That definitely came through,” said Ms. Sicherman.

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A student asked Ms. Park, “What Korean foods do you like?” Photo by Kimberly M. Wang/Eardog Productions

In each of the interviews, the teachers expressed having mixed feelings about some parts of the immigration process. Afterward, the kids brainstormed ways to depict complicated emotions and experiences artistically, using collages and abstract drawing.

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A page from a student’s book. Photo by Kimberly M. Wang/Eardog Productions

“It helps the kids understand that immigration is not some sort of upward story where you’re leaving the ‘bad place’ and going to the new ‘good place’ and everything is better in that new good place, which is sometimes the sort of heroic narrative of immigration to America. It’s not necessarily like that,” said the teacher.

In the beginning of the year, the students were asked to choose a name for their class. They came up with “The S’mores,” because s’mores, they explained, are delicious and made of different kinds of ingredients. This past year in Ms. Sicherman’s classroom, all of those ingredients were celebrated.

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Kelly Shetron is a nonfiction writer based in Brooklyn, working primarily as a collaborative writer (ghostwriter) with Unfurl Productions. She develops books for major publishing houses, taking projects from the proposal stage through final execution, including conducting hours of interviews with the author, developing the story, and drafting and revising the manuscripts. She also writes branded content like ebooks, infographics, and blog posts, as well as personal essays and longform stories.

Kimberly M. Wang is a director, producer and production executive whose work has been as diverse as her clients which includes: PBS, ESPN and MTV. Her company, Eardog Productions, creates branded storytelling content for small businesses, start-ups and non-profits. And as a photojournalist, she is pursuing a passion project comprised of photo essays exploring the creative processes of renowned artists from a wide range of disciplines.

Copyright © 500 Pens. July 2017.