Written by Beth Lyon
Imagine my panic when my son’s school invited me to present for 250 sixth graders on immigration – in the time slot just before lunch. On the one hand, I welcomed a chance to counter the distressing anti-immigrant xenophobia I witness every day on the web, in social settings, and even in court. A 2006 study of college students’ opinions published in the International Journal of Intercultural Relations found that undocumented immigrants were the most despised group in America, viewed more poorly than convicted criminals and drug dealers.
With this in mind, reaching sixth graders seemed to be a way to cultivate greater empathy for immigrants.
On the other hand, I did not want to ruin my son’s social life.
With his consent, I decided to take the risk, and planned a presentation to make three points: 1) immigration is one of the best parts of globalization; 2) all Americans are immigrants; and 3) the United States has fewer per capita immigrants today than when many of our ancestors came. I intended to explain that the United States is a country with relatively low population density, so the reason immigrants from past eras say bad things about more recent immigrants is probably because they are uncomfortable with difference.
To illustrate that immigration benefits Americans, in a way sixth graders might understand, I pointed out that five of the then-top-ten pop songs were sung by either foreign nationals or immigrants. I told the immigration stories of each of these performers, played a snippet of their songs and challenged students to name the songs and the performers. To show that the United States is an immigrant nation, before the presentation, students were asked to research the national origins of their own names, and I surveyed the group using a name origins map. I also incorporated pictures of early European immigrants to Pennsylvania, and showed pictures of the exotic costumes and customs of early immigrants, sharing my own ethnic origins (Scottish and Welsh).
The presentation finished with two short videos about child immigrants: the 2009 Nightline expose on child blueberry pickers and a documentary on an undocumented UCLA student who was brought to America on a visa as a very young girl:
To my relief, the presentation was well received by students and teachers alike. Interestingly, based on the thank you letters the students sent, many of them were especially moved to learn that undocumented teenagers aren’t allowed to get driver’s licenses (much more important than entry to college or a green card).
You can download the powerpoint presentation with notes (but stripped of the sound and movie clips) at , the in-class “quiz” I administered during the presentation and a memo for the middle school teachers with a list of potential pre- and post- presentation small group exercises. I’m happy to assist anyone in putting it all together or tailoring it to different audiences.