By Don Vu, EdD

If you followed the Olympics this summer, you know the story of Suni Lee, the Hmong American gymnast who won gold, silver and bronze medals. Suni’s story reminds me that the American Dream is alive and well. From her family’s refugee background to her dad building a balance beam in the backyard because they couldn’t afford to buy one, to her family selling noodle soup in their garage so they could raise enough money to send her off to competitions, her story reminds us all that when immigrants and refugees realize their American dreams, we all feel like we’ve won the gold medal.

Although Suni’s story is one in a million, there are countless other stories of immigrants and refugees worth being told. Some of them right in your schools. My new book, Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness, hopes to shine a light on those countless stories yet to be told. It is a call to action and a reminder that even if your students are learning English as a second language, they deserve to be immersed in the wonder of books and stories.

As you begin the new school year, I encourage you to find new ways to help all students—especially your immigrant and refugee students—realize that their personal stories are critical pieces in the multicultural fabric of America. Here are two ways educators can use the power of literacy and stories to achieve this:

Read immigrant and refugee stories.
Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who made popular the idea of windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors in children’s literature, once said, “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are part” (Bishop, 1990). If we are serious about empowering all our students, we need to ensure the stories they read in our schools are a reflection of them and their importance in society. It can be as simple as sharing a read aloud of a children’s book that highlights the immigrant or refugee experience. For example, reading aloud Dreamers by Yuyi Morales in class may be especially meaningful to a newcomer who is looking for belonging and connection. They may finally feel visible when they see stories like theirs are important enough to be shared in school.

Write and share immigrant and refugee stories.
In addition to reading the stories from diverse children’s books, you will want to have your students reflect on and share their own immigrant and refugee stories. For these newcomers, they will find power in understanding and celebrating their own stories as they trace their family roots. For others who will listen to these immigration stories, they will gain a different perspective and, hopefully, see others with a new sense of empathy. Hearing the personal stories of immigrants and refugees can be an effective way to combat misinformation and stereotyping that is so prevalent in our society.

As Dr. Bishop reminds us, the stories we tell and the stories we don’t tell all reflect our values, and kids learn these lessons either way. Let’s seek out these immigrant and refugee stories and let them be told and celebrated in our schools. When we make this possible, not only are we helping guide all of our students towards realizing their American Dream, we are building a foundation for a better America.

Dr. Don Vu has been an elementary school teacher and principal for 24 years. Don and his former school staff chartered a literacy campaign in 2013 to foster the love of reading in all students. In 2017, he received the Celebrate Literacy Award from the California Reading Association for his outstanding leadership in literacy. In 2018, his school was one of five schools nationally to receive the Exemplary Reading Program Award from the International Literacy Association. In 2020, the school received the California Distinguished School Award for its work in closing the opportunity gap for all kids.

Dr. Vu understands the challenges children face when learning a new language and culture, having fled Vietnam with his family in 1975. He also knows that reading can be transformative and life-changing. Don continues to spread the message that literacy can change the world through his work with state and national literacy organizations as well as his writing in publications such as Edutopia and the Scholastic EDU blog. He currently serves on the national advisory boards of Scholastic Book Fairs and the Library of Congress Literacy Awards Program. His new book, Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness (Scholastic), is a call to action for all educators who want to build a school culture of literacy to empower all students as they pursue their American Dream. Visit www.drdonvu.com.

Learn more from Dr. Vu at TEPSA AP to Go.

Resources from Colorín Colorado

TEPSA Leader, Fall 2021, Vol 34, No 4

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