Over the years, I have worked with hundreds of immigrant students, many of them gifted, whose stories go beyond stereotypical narratives told by the media. Their stories, dreams and desires to succeed represent the other side of their story. The truth is that most immigrant stories are incomplete. They are incomplete because they are often told from the perspective of those who look at these students from the periphery of society. There are times when telling a story we choose what to write, which details to omit, and more importantly what image we want to portray. We live in a society of incomplete stories. Yet, it is hard to stop and think of the other side of that story. Our lives, our cultures are composed of many overlapping diverse stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. In her narrative she reflects on how telling a single story could be oppressive and lethal, especially for children.
As an educator I have learned to discover the untold stories of immigrant children whose resilience, courage and talents go beyond a label we immigrants receive upon arrival. Currently, many of these immigrant children are being overlooked and unidentified, in part because educators fail to see the other side of their stories. Patricia Gandara (The potential and Promise of Latino Students, 2007), points out that contrary to deficit perspectives, immigrant students possess a set of unique characteristics. The five characteristics that are typical of many immigrant students are a collaborative orientation to learning, resilience, immigrant optimism, multicultural perspectives, and multilingualism. Many of these characteristics are learned and developed as they try to assimilate in a heavily racialized society. For example, because immigrants cannot rely on the normal routines of their homelands and must adapt to new circumstances and expectations. Children learn to be resilient and persistent in the face of adversity. This persistence and resilience to succeed leads to deeper learning. For example, second generation immigrant students tend to outperform subsequent generations academically, in spite of language differences and cultural barriers. This phenomenon has been labeled immigrant optimism, in which these students, taking a cue from their immigrant parents, come to be true believers in the American dream and strive to realize it, exhibiting extraordinary motivation.
So what can educators do? Teachers have an amazing power to change mainstream discourse and narratives of immigrants. Teachers can nurture the assets and talents these students bring to school, such as their resiliency and the persistence they have shown in difficult circumstances. Teachers can celebrate the cultural practices that have nourished immigrant communities. Teachers can serve as the cultural brokers, empowering students and challenging distorted narratives we often hear. They can ensure that being labeled an English language learner or immigrant does not limit a student’s access to all the courses and opportunities that English speakers enjoy. But, perhaps even more importantly, what teacher should do is to avoid the danger believing and telling a single story!