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TNTP Re-imagine Teaching

Maria Morfin

Students Define Themselves: Debating Social Issues in the Middle School Classroom

For students in Maria Morfin’s classroom, immigration isn’t politics—it’s lived experience. For Morfin and her colleagues in East Los Angeles, the challenge is creating a safe learning environment where students can focus on the academic skills they need to achieve in school and help their families seek better opportunities. In her essay, Morfin describes how she teaches her fifth-grade English students to cut through the noise of current events, evaluate arguments and evidence, and form their own identities and perspectives at a time when their community—and their families—feel threatened.

“Are my parents going to be okay?” Cesar asked as he left my class. “Are we going to be separated?”

I wanted to say, “It’s going to be all right.” Instead, I said, “Your parents love you, your family loves you, and there are many adults in this building who also love and care about you. All the adults who love you will do their best to take care of you and to make sure you are safe.”

I could not look Cesar in the eyes and say with certainty that he and his family would not be separated. I was equally uncertain about my role as his teacher in easing his fear at a time when the national debate over immigration and who belongs in America can make my students feel unwelcome—and unsafe. Should I add my own beliefs to the many people and sources telling Cesar what to believe?  

I watched him walk away from our school, a building located on the corner of Cesar Chavez and Mednik in East Los Angeles. For nearly 80 years, this has been home to a predominantly immigrant and Mexican-American community. Colorful murals cover the building walls with images of Cesar Chavez and the Virgin Mary. Cumbias and rancheras play from the bakeries where pan dulce is baked and the restaurants where tamales are sold year-round. Street vendors stand proudly by their stands as they sell their fruit, popsicles, and aguas frescas. Children wearing shirts with the imprint of “East Los” run around the park playing sports, speaking in both English and Spanish.

In 1968, thousands of students from four underserved local high schools led a march to demand access to a better education. Embodying the spirit of resiliency that lives on these streets, students took their demands to the board of education. The board did not follow through on their promises, but East Los Angeles remains a community of people who are united and who want to succeed.

A mural of the Virgin Mary on the wall of KIPP Sol Academy.
The school is on the corner of a busy neighborhood intersection.
Cesar Chavez is the focal point of this mural in the neighborhood of East Los Angeles.

After my encounter with Cesar, I reflected on how I could answer the difficult questions about the possible implications of immigration raids, the construction of a border wall, and the negative portrayal of immigrants in the media. When my principal, Mrs. Minix, designed Sol Academy, she envisioned a school where students are not just students, they are advocates. As Mrs. Minix says, at Sol we believe that if we are to create advocates, our students must have “the ability to define themselves, name themselves, create, think, and speak for themselves so that they do not risk being named, created, or spoken for by others.” I believe in the idea of empowering my students to be advocates because my students deserve to have agency over their own identities, thoughts, and beliefs.

I don’t have to develop my students’ advocacy skills at the expense of developing their academic skills. While I cannot predict the future for Cesar, I can provide opportunities for him to practice his advocacy skills by helping him comprehend the information presented in text, evaluate the details, create evidence-based arguments, and engage in discussions to support or challenge an argument—all of which are demands of the fifth-grade ELA standards. By marrying academic and advocacy skills in my lessons, I foster instruction that is both rigorous and relevant to the issues that affect our community.

A student explains his thinking to Ms. Morfin.

Like all children, my students want to learn, to be accepted, and to feel loved and safe. In the spring, as students’ anxiety about the border wall and the threat of ICE raids grew, I had to keep my class focused on the academic and advocacy skills they needed to make sense of the world around them—even as that world became more frightening.

I intentionally chose not to focus our learning on Cesar and his peers’ concerns about the future of their family in this country. Instead, we attempted to unwrap the enduring understanding of how place shapes identity through the lens of the travel ban on the seven Muslim countries.

Students read current event articles modified for readability from NewsELA and news outlets about the President’s travel ban on the seven Muslim countries, each with a different point of view. We spent over a week building background knowledge on the countries listed on the ban, learning new vocabulary words, annotating and closely reading the articles, and responding to comprehension questions. 

Ms. Morfin's students work together to complete a writing activity.

After spending several days trying to make sense of the information presented in the different articles, students participated in a fishbowl conversation. Nine students sat in an inner circle to discuss the essential question of the fishbowl. The rest of the class sat in an outer circle, prepared to evaluate their peers in the inner circle on their use of evidence, their clarity of reasoning, and the relevance of their contributions. The goal is for students to engage in a productive discussion, sharing a variety of perspectives and reaching multiple conclusions. Later, they could refer to the discussion as they began to write an essay on the same question.

The conversation unfolded quickly—the product of months of practice engaging in class discussions, using sentence starters to agree, disagree, add on, and question, as well as to cite and elaborate on evidence.

Axel read the essential question for the inner circle: “Should the President keep the ban on the seven countries, or should the President get rid of the ban on the seven countries?”

We sat silently for a minute while students shuffled through their articles and notes, gathering their thoughts. 

Students work on notes to reference later.

“In the text it says that a person from one of the banned countries came to the United States and he exploded a bomb in the Boston marathon,” claimed Kevin. “Why would we want to allow someone dangerous into our country?”

“I respectfully disagree,” said Alexis. “In one of the articles it says that only a small percentage of terrorist attacks in the United States were committed by terrorists from the seven banned countries. Just because one or two people from one country are dangerous does not mean everyone from the country is dangerous.”        

“I agree with Alexis. It’s like the President and other people say Mexicans are violent and lazy and that’s not true. Maybe there is one Mexican who is lazy or violent, but that does not make us all lazy,” Jackie said.

Their bodies and eyes shifted towards the side of the classroom where I sat with my notebook and pencil taking notes from the conversation.

I knew what my students were seeking. They wanted some affirmation about Jackie’s comment from the adult in the classroom. I felt a knot in my throat. I was proud of my students for using evidence and reasoning to engage in an ideologically complex conversation, but I was shaken. I gripped my pen. My students are children. Ten years old. Why do we even have to have a conversation about immigration? Why do they have to worry about whether or not they will get to see their parents after school?

Then I remembered the conversation I had with Cesar a couple months prior during dismissal. My students had enough to worry about. Their teacher bursting into tears and laying her thoughts on the table would only raise their anxiety and rob them of learning. When I step down from the conversation, students become active learners because students are empowered to define their own point of view.

When I step down from the conversation, students become active learners because students are empowered to define their own point of view.

I looked at the class, cleared my throat, shrugged my shoulders and said, “What else are we thinking?”

“Well, I think the President should remove the ban. In the text, I read that one of the banned countries is Syria.” Jacob paused, sifted through his notes, and then continued. “I also read in another text that there’s a war in Syria and a lot of Syrians want to leave Syria to protect themselves. I think the President should remove the ban because we could be saving people from the dangers of war.”          

Xitlaly jumped right into the conversation. “Jacob, I both agree and disagree with you. On the one hand, the President could be saving Syrian people by removing the ban. On the other hand…”

By the looks on their faces, I could tell that students were beginning to formulate their own opinions about the ban, listening to each other and questioning the information in the articles—and questioning each other. Students politely reminded each other to stay grounded in the evidence. While I did intervene a handful of instances to push students to elaborate or to clarify misconceptions, not once did I provide my personal point of view.

After each student in the inner circle had an opportunity to contribute at least twice to the discussion, we jumped into a writer’s workshop. Students closely reread the articles at the sentence level to determine how the details in the text supported either side of the argument, outlined their ideas, and drafted, revised, and edited their essays.

Students use sentence starters to build an argument.

The data I collected from grading their essays was useful in helping me monitor my students' progress toward mastery of the fifth-grade writing standards. Most students were making good progress towards meeting their individual writing goals, but many students struggled to elaborate on their reasoning in the body paragraphs of their essay. I made a note to spend time working on this during the next workshop session.

The unit did not directly address many students’ personal concerns around immigration, but students were challenged to engage with both sides of an argument, to listen to the different perspectives of their classmates, and to disagree with peers they consider to be friends. My students and the people from the seven banned countries do not share the same heritage and culture, but they do share a desire to feel accepted and to seek better opportunities in our country. They were able to explore their own thoughts and feelings about immigration by empathizing with the immigration situations of people who are in many ways both like and unlike them.

It is a lesson they can draw on for the rest of their lives. In an age when a world of information is at their fingertips, 10-year-old children will inevitably be exposed to injustice. They will see police brutality against black males. They will hear the word terrorist and Muslim repeatedly used in the same sentence. They will experience girls being treated differently from boys. They will inevitably have questions about the things they see, hear, and experience, seeking answers and comfort from the adults in their lives—including their teachers.

As educators in the classroom we have two choices: We either ignore the realities of our students and pretend we live in a world where everyone is treated fairly and equally, or we find productive avenues to help children address their own realities. Let’s honor our students and their realities by equipping them to engage in respectful conversations to challenge systemic and structural injustices.

Unless there is a shift in the way we think about race and class in the United States, as Cesar and his classmates become young adults, there will continue to be people and policies that attempt to degrade them, their families, and their community. I hope that Cesar will use these academic skills to define, name, create, think, and speak for himself, and if need be, for his parents, and for his community of East Los Angeles, which always has, and always will, persevere.