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Education Program hosts Jessica Lander to speak on “Making Americans”

On Wednesday, Nov. 1, the Brandeis Education Program hosted teacher, scholar and author Jessica Lander in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall. Lander spoke about her recent book, “Making Americans: Stories of Historic Struggles, New Ideas, and Inspiration in Immigrant Education,” what education looks like in a classroom primarily filled with immigrant students and more. This event was sponsored by Brandeis COMPACT, Brandeis’ Environmental Studies Program, the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy at Brandeis’ Heller School for Social Policy and Management and by Friends of the Waltham Family School.

Jackie Herrera, Program Coordinator at the Waltham Family School, spoke at the event. She said that, as a first generation immigrant from El Salvador, she feels that Lander’s book is very important. She added that it’s important to create spaces of equity, nurturing and learning for immigrant families.

Rachel Kramer Theodorou, the event’s organizer and Elementary Faculty Leader with Brandeis’ Education Program, spoke briefly too, saying that the study of educational systems is the responsibility of leaders. Like Herrera, she noted that this book’s help is important in forming an understanding of how to educate immigrants.

Then, Lander, who currently teaches English Learner History and Civics at Lowell High School, was recently named as the Massachusetts History Teacher of the Year and listed as a Top 50 Finalist for the Global Teacher Prize, talked about her work and “Making Americans,” a book that “weaves captivating stories” from her students and others to create an “inspiring vision for how America can educate immigrant students.”

Lander opened by noting that one in four young people in the United States is either an immigrant or a child of immigrants. She also acknowledged that the work her students did inspired her to create this book, citing a desire to reimagine education to better support students. When she began writing, Lander noted that she had three main sets of stories: the past, the present and the personal, which all combine to create the possible.

Speaking specifically about the personal, Lander said that “if we’re serious about reimagining … education for young people … we have to listen to them.” But, she noted, belonging is a complicated term. She views belonging as consisting of eight main pillars: Opportunities for new beginnings, supportive communities, assurance of security, chances to dream, committed advocates, recognition of students’ strengths and assets, acceptance for who students are and where they come from and opportunities for students to develop their voice while valuing those voices.

Lander gave a few examples of how education has evolved to create the system that we have today, citing several turning points that changed the shape of the education system drastically. She spoke on Meyer v. Nebraska, Mendez v. Westminster and Plyler v. Doe, mentioning how each of these Supreme Court cases broke barriers in the American educational system.

Then, after an activity where audience members spoke to each other about how their family came to the United States, the challenges associated with that migration and what caused their family to migrate in the first place, Lander spoke on the present. She mentioned Guilford County, North Carolina, where English Language Learners Director Mayra Hayes and her team are rethinking English instruction, a school in Decatur, Georgia that is dedicated to refugee girls who have spent a long time outside of a formal academic setting (or have never had a chance to experience one at all), Leah Juelke’s classroom in North Dakota where students collaborate to learn English in pairs and a school in Aurora, Colorado that acts as a community hub to include families and the larger community as partners in education. She explained that all of these techniques, and more, are deviations from the norm that help immigrant students learn how they need to.

Lander closed out her talk by noting that we can reimagine immigrant education by seeking out inspiring educational practice, building collaborations between educators and communities and realizing that everyone has a role to play in the educational process.

Then, current Heller School student, recent undergraduate and former member of Lander’s class, Robert Aliganyira ’23, spoke on his participation in “Making Americans” and Lander’s work. When asked what it feels like to have his story asked about, and to see it published, Aliganyira said that he hopes that individuals with stories like his may see this text and “find solace,” in knowing that they are not alone. He also felt pride in having come so far, now “being part of a community and being recognized.” 

Aliganyira also said that “teachers are on the front line of your journey, whether you’re born American or born immigrant, when you’re trying to learn these complicated ideas about the world [teachers are important].” He identified strongly with the importance of good teachers, adding that “he didn’t have the guidance he needed from home to back him up along his journey, having a teacher like Lander was crucial.” He also noted that forming strong relationships with a teacher can be crucial for students, noting that, for teachers, “the more you know your students the more you can help them.”

In a brief interview with The Hoot after the event, Lander spoke about her time in Cambodia after undergraduate, noting that she “graduated on a Tuesday, packed my bag, drove back to Boston, unpacked my bags, repacked my bags, got on a plane Friday, and was teaching at university [in Thailand] Monday morning.”

With a desire to work in educational policy, Lander felt that she needed “a year in the classroom, because no one should take me seriously if I have no experience in the classroom.” At the end of her last class, she recalls driving her motorbike to a nearby wat, and “just sat in the courtyard and wept, because that community we had created as a class was no longer going to exist. I realized that I needed to continue teaching, so I came back to the Boston area, then wanted to teach back in Southeast Asia, so I moved back to Cambodia at this time … and then started at Lowell.”

Lander said that she started writing that book in 2019, “about 10 years after I was in Thailand and Cambodia. But they are part of that journey because being teaching in Thailand really led to me becoming a teacher.”

When asked more specifically about her classroom at Lowell, Lander said that “this is the work of all educators and also all members of the community, whether you are in policy or in research, to be thinking about re-imagining learning and education. It’s not just the work of certain educators or certain organizations. It’s the work of all of us.”

She added that “in my own classroom, I’m just so lucky and honored to get to teach students from all around the world. That makes our class [vibrant] because we have such expertise drawn from the wisdom my students bring from having lived in so many countries, bringing with them so many histories and cultures and traditions and languages. All of that they bring and reach our classroom in numerous ways.” 

Lander went on, saying that “we try as much as possible in our class and the curriculum and [with] how the classroom space is constructed, to both honor and to tap into those strengths. I try as much as possible to create a classroom that is one where my students feel comfortable sharing and connecting with each other. Now, of course, that classroom is co-created. What our classroom feels like is a collaboration between me and my students: we do that work together over the course of a year where we are creating those spaces where we can share, collaborate and where hopefully my students feel comfortable coming to me if they wanna talk about either academic stuff, or stuff going on at home, or stuff going on with their friends or wanna share exciting news or grapple with challenges in life. That’s what I hope to create in my classroom.”

Special thanks to Tyson Bailey and Eileen Kell for their help with coverage of this event.

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