Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Teaching Storytelling: Helping Immigrant Students Cope with Uncertainty

February 27, 2017

Gina Benz Teaching immigrants 1000w

By Gina Benz (SD '15)

South Dakota Milken Educator Gina Benz (SD '15) teaches English at Roosevelt High School in Sioux Falls.

The day after the 2016 Presidential election, something was off in my intermediate ELL (English Language Learners) class. My outgoing, high-energy students, mostly freshmen and sophomores originally from Southeast Asia, Central America and North Africa, were buzzing.

"Okay, let's stop," I said. "What's going on? What do we need to talk about?"

Their collective anxiety about potential changes to our country's immigration policy bubbled over. All at once, the questions came. Are we going to be deported? Can Trump make us leave? What's going to happen now?

I took a deep breath, trying to buy time. I had no ready answers.

"Well, I don't want you to leave," I said. "I love you all. I want you here." And I do: My immigrant students bring joy, diversity, challenge and love into our community and my life. Their stories, their passion, their efforts teach us all compassion, empathy and determination. I need them here. We need them here.

"What I do know is that in America, one person can't make all of the decisions," I continued. "We have a government made up of lots of people, and lots of people must agree before major decisions are made."

My words helped, but only a little. The weeks since President Trump's inauguration have been tough for many of my ELL students. They left their home countries to escape war, violence, disease, famine, poverty. Some came with their families; others made the journey all alone. And they are nervous—for themselves, their families, their friends—about what will happen to immigrants in the U.S. over the next four years.

"In my country I couldn't go anywhere because it was too dangerous," one student told me. "It's upsetting to have the same feeling here. I'm scared to be caught by immigration."

Said another: "It sucks to have undocumented parents, because now I have to live knowing that they fear leaving the house. My parents and brothers are scared to go to work. Even I'm scared, and I'm legal. Every time the phone rings, all I can think is that a family member got deported."

"I know their stories. And that changes everything."

After 17 years as a teacher, I have worked with people who identify as black, white, Native American, African, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, gay, transgender, poverty-stricken, middle class, wealthy, introverted and extroverted. When you don't know people, it's easy to vilify them or see them as "other." But I know them. I know their stories. And that changes everything.

I teach my students that when people feel helpless, sharing stories is a powerful way to promote understanding, empathy and change. All my students, both ELLs and native English speakers, know the power of sharing their struggles, failures and dreams.

Some made life-or-death decisions to come here. Some had no say in the decision at all. But they all have the potential to make positive contributions to our country, and they have all wiggled themselves into my heart.

So what's a teacher like me to do when the world is uncertain and her students fear deportation? I focus on three steps I can take right now:

  1. Connect. I go out of my way to connect with a diverse group of people. I choose to teach ELL students. I try, very deliberately, to build a classroom atmosphere that holds trust sacred. Students feel safe sharing their stories with me.
  2. Listen and learn. I offer what one of my students calls "a sympathetic heart." I listen. I care. I tell my students often that I appreciate them and need them here.
  3. Give my students a voice. I teach reading and writing because people who read and write well have more power and more opportunities in this world. I teach reading and writing because I understand the power of story to promote empathy and change.

People who aren't teachers can also give others a voice by sharing stories, writing to leaders, and standing with people who need help. We need the same bravery, determination and passion our immigrants brought here. We need their voices. And they need ours.


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