When I designed my non-fiction unit three years ago, I had no idea how very relevant it would become. I chose authors that, when they were teenagers, were engulfed in a life of chaos and uncertainty. The same authors went on to achieve greatness as adults. I designed the unit to show students that their past does not define them, that things can always get better, and that with perseverance any setback can be surmounted. My hope, via their reading, was to increase my students’ awareness and empathy. It has always been a quite successful lesson, but this year, it was phenomenal. Four of my six authors came to America as immigrants. They came seeking refuge from war, violence, and poverty. In light of our current political situation, texts that were already intriguing became testimony to the true face of immigration and to the true reason so many immigrants turn to America for assistance. The texts for my unit, and brief author bios, are listed below.
Michael Oher – I Beat the Odds Born to a drug-addicted mother, Michael Oher was raised in extreme poverty. He barely knew his father, who died in prison when Michael was a freshman in high school. Michael failed several years of school and was homeless throughout his teens. He went on to graduate from college (with honors) and to an illustrious football career. His story was made into the Hollywood movie The Blind Side.
Bich Minh Nguyen – Stealing Buddha’s Dinner Born in the midst of the Vietnam War, Bich and her family had to run from a particularly vicious attack on her village. During the attack, her mother was lost in the crowd and is now presumed dead. She came to Kentwood, Michigan as an immigrant and a refugee soon after. She received her Master’s Degree from The University of Michigan and is a college professor.
Ishmael Beah – A Long Way Gone Forced to be a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, Ishmael was tortured, abused and forced to take part in unspeakable crimes. He also witnessed the murder of his family at the hands of rebel soldiers. He ended up graduating from college, even though he missed several years of schooling, and now works for the United Nations helping other boy soldiers in need of rehabilitation.
Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings A victim of sexual abuse at the young age of seven, Maya Angelou had the decks stacked against her from the start. She became pregnant at the age of 16 and dropped out of high school to raise her son. She overcame the tragedy that plagued her young life and went on to become a formidable voice for our modern generation. Earning countless university degrees, writing countless books and publishing countless poems, Ms. Angelou is the most prolific writer of our time.
Malala Yousafzai- I am Malala Attacked by the Taliban on her way home from school, Malala was shot (and almost killed) because she insisted on going to school to get an education. She is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and continues to be an activist for Women’s Rights in Pakistan and all over the world.
Zlata Filipovic – Zlata’s Diary Born in Sarajevo, Zlata was eleven years old when war engulfed her village. She witnessed the ravages of war and wrote all that she saw into her diary. Called a modern-day Anne Frank, Zlata published her diary at the young age of 15. She went on to attend Oxford University. She currently works for Amnesty International and is a documentary film-maker.
When I chose the books for this unit, I tried to find a multicultural array of authors. My district, Kentwood Public Schools, has over 70 countries represented. So, it was important for me to tap into that diversity. We have a large population of students from Bosnia (Zlata’s Diary), Vietnam (Stealing Buddha’s Dinner), Sierra Leone (A Long Way Gone), and the Middle East (I am Malala). We also have a large population of Muslim students and the fact that Malala, Zlata and Ishmael are all Muslim is not lost on them.
The fact that our 45th president attempted to ban immigrants from 7 Muslim countries has created quite a debate, both inside and outside my school. As a teacher, I have to be careful discussing politics with my students. But, the beauty of this unit is that these authors (hand-picked years ago) presented a significant pro-immigration argument simply by speaking their truths and sharing their memories.
Ishmael Beah’s story highlighted the fact that, so often, the greatest victims of war are children. He shared the experience of seeing his mother, father and two brothers shot by the RUF in Sierra Leone. He showed how the government army came in, captured him, and forced him to become a boy soldier for their cause. He highlighted atrocities that many of us in America can only imagine in our greatest nightmares, atrocities committed against children. His story pulls at the heart and turns the stomach. As the students read, they have empathy for Ishmael. They cheer when he is rescued by UNICEF at the age of 15. They breathe a sigh of relief when he is flown to New York City to attend the United Nations school there. They see the true face of a Muslim African, not the face presented by our 45th president and his administration. They realize that there is nothing to fear and every reason to help.
Malala Yousafzai is also of an ethnicity, and from the corner of the world, that has been targeted recently. She is a Muslim who resided in the heart of Taliban-controlled Pakistan. Malala, at the young age of 11, became a target of the Taliban because she dared to do two things: write a blog and attend school. As a girl, she was not allowed to do either. When she continued to write and to sneak into a covert school, she was targeted. Malala, at the age of 15, was shot in the head three times. Malala came from the very corner of the world that the GOP is attempting to bar from coming to the United States. When students realize that, most are horrified. How could we turn away young girls whose only desire is to be educated and free from the violence and horror of the Taliban? Through this unit, students are offered a face behind the image of a Muslim. The GOP equates Muslims with terrorism and fear. But this unit, in a quiet and subtle way, shows students that most Muslims are running from terror not towards it.
Bich Minh Nguyen instantly gets my students’ attention, because she is an immigrant who traveled to their very community for refuge and shelter. Once fleeing Vietnam, right at the end of the war, Bich and her family came to Kentwood, Michigan to start their new life. Bich’s village was attacked when she was just a toddler. In the chaos of the attack, Bich’s mother was left behind. She can only assume that her mother died in that attack, as she was never heard from again. The fact that the Nguyen family was allowed into the United States, in particular Kentwood, has a profound impact on my students. In fact, each year, a Vietnamese student will approach me to let me know that the personally know the family. If all people, especially those against open borders, could know true immigrants, could hear their stories, could have empathy for their pain, the vitriol we are feeling around this issue would be much less severe.
Zlata Filipovic and her family fled the terror of the Bosnian War. Zlata grew up in Sarajevo and, at the young age of eleven, began to keep a diary highlighting the horror that she witnessed during the four years her village was under attack. Zlata has been compared to Anne Frank for her diary entry accounts of the ethnic cleansing that occurred. As students read, they wonder out loud about the fact that (after the Holocaust) we said, never again. They then wonder how we find ourselves having similar conversations today. Conversations revolving around putting ourselves first, fearing those different than us and building walls to keep others out. The fact that Zlata and her family are Muslim also creates interesting dialogue in my classroom. Zlata is a young dark blonde, blue-eyed teenager.Many students are surprised she is Muslim. They also reluctantly admit that they feel less threatened by her. This leads to a dynamic conversation about race, color, and preconceived biases. It also leads them to understand that so much of the fear they may have is based on lack of understanding rather than reality.
This has always been a powerful unit for me, but this year it felt like a little bit of magic. The timeliness of the stories was palpable. One of my Bosnian students, who is also a Muslim, left a note on my desk as he left for the weekend. It read: I want to thank you for this unit we have been doing in class. It made me realize something. We all have a great chance to be successful in life. I thank god I live in a society where I do not have to wake up to gunshots like my father did. Or wake up wondering if I will make it to school alive. I get to wake up ready, with no worries. I appreciate that the books you picked showed us how important education is. I go to a great school, with great students and great teachers. I am so grateful to be able to learn alongside students from all over the world. I think it makes our school stronger.
If only our politicians, and those shouting about building walls, could see what this young man sees. It is our diversity that is our strength, we are more alike than we are different, and it is in loving each other that we truly love ourselves.