Jessica Lander, award-winning teacher, policy consultant and author, visited the Cabot Intercultural Center on Nov. 8 to discuss her book “Making Americans: Stories of Historic Struggles, New Ideas, and Inspiration in Immigrant Education” (2022).
Lander’s presentation centered around the stories of her immigrant and refugee students at Lowell High School in Massachusetts, where she teaches history and civics. In 2021, she was named a top 50 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize. This year, she was named a 2023 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year finalist and the 2023 Massachusetts History Teacher of the Year. Despite having received many accolades and authoring several books, Lander shared that her greatest pride was in being a teacher first and foremost.
Lander explained that her advocacy work was first inspired by her own students.
“It is the work they do, the ways in which they are fully embracing and going after their own education, supporting their families, supporting each other and then taking that learning out into the community that inspired me to go out and do this work,” Lander said. “Four years ago, I set out from the classroom to both understand how I could be a better teacher to my students, but also understand how we collectively could do better by our students.”
During her presentation, Lander addressed the overarching question “What does immigrant education in America look like today?” The presentation was organized into three sections: the past, the present and the personal.
In the first leg of the presentation, Lander briefly introduced three court cases that shaped immigrant education in the U.S. today. The first story was of Meyer v. Nebraska, which secured the rights of students to learn and teachers to teach non-English languages. The second was Mendez v. Westminster, which desegregated California’s schools and laid the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education just under a decade later. The third was Plyler v. Doe, a landmark Supreme Court decision that affirmed undocumented children’s right to education.
“These stories are rarely taught,” Lander said. “I think they need to be.”
The next part of Lander’s presentation was an interactive segment called “Moving Stories.” Audience members were asked to turn to a partner and share personal stories of migration, an activity that Lander asks her own students to do as well.
Lander then continued the discussion with stories of the present, sharing several models of education that are happening in the U.S. One example presented was the Aurora ACTION Zone in Colorado, where schools that are open from sunrise to sundown have been reimagined as community hubs. Another example was Guilford County in North Carolina, a diverse district of 7,000 extended learning students from 50 different countries.
Lander emphasized the importance of learning from these models of education.
“Today in the United States, one in four children are immigrants or the children of immigrants,” Lander said. “There is a role for each of us in ensuring that students feel welcome … so that they can see success both in schools and out in the community.”
The next segment of the presentation was called “The Personal: Learning from Young People.” During the process of writing her book, Lander sat down with seven of her students to hear about their stories about education in the U.S.
“For me, the heart of this work is the personal, our young people. We need to learn from our young people,” Lander said. “It is essential that if we're serious about reimagining immigrant education for newcomers, we have to learn from our newcomers themselves, learning from them about their experiences of coming to this country and their experience of our schools.”
Throughout the presentation, Lander referenced what she called “The Eight Pillars.” These pillars are a framework for cultivating that sense of belonging for children and reimagining immigrant education. They include 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 importance of recognizing, valuing and investing in the student voice.
Each of Lander’s pillars tied back to one theme: belonging.
“Belonging is essential for all people, but it’s particularly important for young people who are creating new homes and new lives here,” Lander said. “But how do we as institutions, either as universities, or as schools, or as educators, or policymakers or advocates, help nurture that sense of belonging? What does that actually look like in practice?”