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ELLs "Are Sick of" Writing Their Immigration Story


When Maria Estela Brisk, a professor of teacher education at Boston College, observes writing lessons in elementary-school classrooms, it seems to her that children are usually writing personal narratives. She says that, for the sake of English-language learners in those classes (and probably for other students as well, I'm guessing), teachers need to help students experiment with other purposes for writing--and other kinds of texts.

"Children have told their story of immigration. They're sick of it," she said during an April 3 session on professional development at the annual conference of TESOL here in New York City, which I'm attending. "They need something else to talk about."

I smiled at her observation because I, too, have visited an awful lot of classrooms where students were being asking to write personal narratives. And I've often seen postings of students' immigration stories in English-as-a-second-language classes.

I get Ms. Brisk's point that in education, one can overdo a good thing and wear out its potential as a learning tool. Having students write instructions, provide information through reports, or write persuasively are other options, she suggested.


I think that personal stories at any age level can be a great help. It may be more boring for the teacher than the students, but it is a good way to know your students and let your students know you. Care has to be given though, if a student is mentally ill or had mental illness, they can't tell a coherent story about their past. If there is trauma, you can re-traumatize the person. But saying that, I would never rule out or ignore students telling their stories. It is often done in ESOL classes because narrative writing is the first step in writing. Just like you have to start somewhere in reading, and that place is usually about the areas which the child or adult has experienced first hand. Kids learning to read chapter books often read about simple things that take place in American life and American classrooms. As they develop reading competency, they go on to read other subjects but even higher elementary kids often begin to struggle in the jump to more expository text and in novels where the settings are foreign to them. In the middle school I teach in, the regular English classes never get more "multicultural" than reading "The Watsons Go To Birmingham" or "Ezperanza Rising". Both are wonderful books and should be read for the minority experience in the USA but neither take place outside the US. While more books are being written in English for youth that take place outside the US, the need to read them has not always trickled down to required reading in the schools and many adults are ignorant of countries outside the US and would be hard pressed to teach about them.
I recently had my middle students write about their cultural group's experience in immigrating to the United States, a different take on the "telling our story theme". The purpose of the lesson was to focus on Civil Rights and the struggle for them and to have the students not come away with the idea it was "a black thing". They learned a lot from doing the research and as needed veered into telling their stories as a secondary project or telling their native country's story. A very moving exercise. To just stand up and declare that students are bored with telling their stories as a blanket statement doesn't help anything and more than likely, that teacher or observer is missing a great deal.

I am willing to bet that most students are tired of the personal narrative often assigned when the new school year starts up. There are thousands of writing assignments and overdoing any single one is not useful for any student. But, like Lynn, I have other observations.

I recall a student who was a senior in high school before he was asked any question about how he got to the US. When he told me that he added that he had never had the opportunity to speak so much and liked that his classmates were interested in him. I also recall another high school student who expressed the sadness and disconnectedness she felt which otherwise was not noticed. It helped the the student express something in a safe way and helped the teacher understand something more about her. I also recall teachers asking students to retell personal narratives of family members or neighbors. Some have woven genealogy into the mix and the connections to history. Other teachers, sensitive to students who may have less to share or wish to, offer creative personal narratives tied to an event or a piece of fiction. One of my favorites was to find intriguing pictures from magazines and use images as a prompt to writing.

I think there's much more to what's going on in writing than one assignment.

I rarely ask my 4th and 5th grade students to write about their personal immigrant stories, mainly because many of their past experiences, in war-torn Iraq or as refugees in other Middle Eastern countries, are so painful. Several of my students have had to leave mothers in their home countries to live with their fathers and new step-mothers in America so even innocent, family-related questions can bring up difficult issues. Good for that speaker at the TESOL conference for being brave enough to say what I've been thinking for a long time . . .

I think more the point may be how the assignment is presented. "Tell your own story about coming to the US" is probably as uninspiring as "How I spent my summer vacation." On the other hand, my mother saved an absolutely wonderful and hilarious biography my brother wrote at age 8 or so that he called "The Three Stages of My Life."

What about having students write about "something you played with when you were younger" or "the first experience you remember with an animal" or "the worst food you ever tasted"? Any of these might easily involve experiences arriving in the USA, or stories of last goodbyes before immigration, but the focus is on something more tangible and may give them a new, creative angle for their biography.

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