New York Teacher’s Innovative Approach Humanizes Asylum-Seeker Students

by Shealeigh

In an article for Rethinking Schools, New York teacher Juan P. Córdova shares his experience teaching a “traditional bilingual classroom” of fourth- and fifth-grade students whose families were seeking asylum in the United States. For example, Córdova renamed home visits “family connections,” acknowledging that while not all of his students may have a place to call home just yet, “family is what they still had, what kept them going in their journey, and what they believed in and could trust.” Creating connections with students through the inclusion of culture, Córdova says, establishes trust and care.

For every student whose first language isn’t English, problems learning within the school system become increasingly more common. Next to the language, there are differences in family traditions, and social and cultural backgrounds, along with possible trauma originating from their journey to the United States.

Córdova works to gain the trust of his students and families by sharing his own experiences of migrating to the United States and opening the floor for them to do the same. He creates a space for their traumas, efforts, and aspirations to be heard and acknowledged in the way he runs his class; this has improved the children’s success in their transitional bilingual program. 

Córdova states, “Grounding the curriculum in students’ language and culture gave us a shared foundation for talking about other topics—history of the United States, Indigenous people, African American history, math, social and emotional health, etc.” 

Córdova incorporates stories about immigrant children that his students can relate to and builds meaningful connections with his students to make sure he keeps their cultures present. Individual immigrant experiences, traumas, and abilities influence the learning process and must be taken into account, rather than being disregarded through the use of generalized terms for asylum-seeking students.

Córdova’s knowledge about his new students and their family backgrounds helped him eliminate that mentality, “I wondered what my new students felt, what they thought. I felt an urgent need to know my students, their families, and their stories.” And he learned “how rich their lives were before they became ‘migrants.’”

In corporate media, asylum-seekers or refugees are often talked about as one homogenous group. Getting the perspective from someone who built interpersonal connections with people in these circumstances can change readers’ attitudes. Vague language and generalizations can be incredibly dehumanizing, often minimizing how policy changes affect actual individuals and groups subject to them.

Córdova’s effort to learn these students’ stories impacts their opportunities for success. Additionally, acknowledging that migrant students have different needs when it comes to learning, can make their transition to a new culture smoother. Córdova’s method of experiencing immigrant culture first-hand is mostly not reported in corporate media and is therefore not implemented by other schools around the country.

Source: Juan P. Córdova, “Embracing Asylum-Seeking Students and Their Families,” Rethinking Schools, Fall 2023.

Student Researchers: Izzy Hazard, Mascha Leonie Lang, Paulina Ortiz Orive, Julia Owen, and Michael Scott (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Faculty Evaluators: Allison Butler and Jeewon Chon (University of Massachusetts Amherst)