First Person

How a refugee father gave me hope — and a new outlook on teaching U.S. history

PHOTO: Via Flickr Creative Commons

Stephen Lazar is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan and a longtime Chalkbeat contributor. This past Monday was the last day of a class he teaches called American Stories. His students were anxious about the election and still reeling from the death of one of their classmates 10 days prior and his funeral over the weekend. Here is what he told them.

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I normally don’t give speeches to end my class for the same reason I normally don’t share who I’m voting for: I don’t want you all to learn to look to authority figures for answers to big questions that matter. I want you to find those answers yourselves, alongside your peers.

But given that, this past Saturday, many of us attended the funeral of one of our students and friends, and given that tomorrow this nation could potentially elect Donald Trump president, I’m going to make an exception today.

It’s always easy to become cynical. Given Saturday, and what could happen tomorrow, it’s even easier now. But what I want to think about today, and what I hope that you all will take away from this class, is hope.

I want to share with you all two stories about why I choose to continue to have hope despite all the terrible things we experience. The first is about teaching, the second is personal.

The very first class I taught was in Providence Summer School when I was 21. Here I am, this white Ivy League guy with two other white wannabe teachers, teaching a diverse group of students about U.S. history. We decided to teach a class about all the problems of U.S. history — racism, sexism, and classism — and how some have tried to fight against those things.

Toward the end of the first week, we had a parents night, and I’ll never forget one father who asked a question. He was a refugee from El Salvador who had come to the U.S. with his family maybe 10 years earlier. After we explained our plans for the class, he asked us, “What do you plan to teach my child about liberty? What will you teach him about freedom?”

I don’t remember how we answered that question, but I do remember the conversation we had after. This man, who was very well educated and clearly knew more about U.S. history than I did, told me that he and his family had escaped civil war in El Salvador, a war that had killed much of his family. He told me how he now raised his family in this land where, despite the very real problems that he knew about and that we intended to teach about, he knew his children would have a better life here than they possibly could have dreamed of back home. Here, they had hope.

That conversation changed my outlook on how I teach U.S. history.

The second story is a personal one. As you know now, when I was 16, one of my best friends died suddenly. The night before Josh’s funeral, there was a gathering at the local Jewish Community Center to help prepare people for the funeral. Hundreds came, and the session became overwhelming for the group who were closest to Josh, and we left to go cry in another room.

Coincidentally, a very famous rabbi named Harold Kushner was speaking at the JCC that same night, and someone thought to bring him over to speak to us. Rabbi Kushner is famous for writing a book called “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” At that time, one day after losing one of my best friends, the only thing I could imagine worse than that was losing your child, as I would later learn Rabbi Kushner had years before.

I remember the rabbi talking about how for a long time he was angry at God for taking his son. How he didn’t know how he could get out of bed, let alone be a rabbi to his community, with that knowledge and that anger.

The answer he came to, which I share not because I believe it literally but because he did, is that God wasn’t responsible for the death of his son, or war, or the Holocaust, or other terrible things. Rather, God is what allows us to find comfort in the hug of a loved one, gather the strength to get out of bed, and feel the power of community in terrible times. God is what lifts us up and makes us able to continue.

There, I realized if this guy, who had lost his son — the worst thing I could imagine at the time — could have hope, I could find it too.

So here’s what I want to say to all of you as we end our class together. My hope, more than anything, is that you all will choose to find hope of your own. In times of tragedy, I have been able to find hope in the comfort of friends, family, and my community. And even if Trump wins tomorrow, I will choose to find hope in the fact that this country is constantly changing, and still values liberty and freedom.

More than anything, I find hope in you all. I have no idea how to solve injustice, but I have hope that you, who in 20 years will have thoughts and experiences I can’t even dream of yet, will do something to make this world a better place. I have hope because we don’t know what you will do with the future, and I choose to have faith that you all will do wonderful things to this world you will inherit.

So if you take nothing else from me, I hope you will take this: that no matter what happened to our friend who is gone, that no matter what happens tomorrow, choose to find hope.

First Person

My students are worried about their families being deported. Here’s what I stopped world history class to tell them

PHOTO: Creative Commons / nickestamp
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Queens, New York is an exciting place to teach world history. The borough is known for its diversity, and more than 1 million of its residents were born in a different country. The world’s history is the story of cultures represented right in my class.

That diversity is also why I knew my high-school students would have more than a mild curiosity about President-elect Donald Trump’s stance on immigration. According to the Migration Policy Institute, as many as 232,000 residents of the borough could be undocumented. More than 15,000 of them are children.

So, last week, I finished our lesson a few minutes early and asked my students a question. “Who here is concerned that someone they love will be forced to return to a home country under President Trump?” More than half of my students raised their hands.

I have read about what Trump has said he intends to do with regard to undocumented immigrants in this country — plans that have honestly left me disturbed. But I’m also aware that, when fear is pervasive, a well-timed lesson can be a calming force for students who are feeling anxious about what may happen to them.

So I did some research. My plan is to return to the topic in a few days with a brief lecture about what could occur to undocumented persons under a Trump presidency.

Raising this topic in a world history class may seem a bit incongruent. But part of my responsibility as a teacher is to make sure students feel safe and valued in my class. So I’ve decided that sharing some basic facts that are important for understanding this topic is a good place to start.

The first set of facts will be designed to assuage some fears. I think it’s a good idea to inform students about the extent to which New York City, like many cities across the country, has committed to making their families safe from deportation. The truth is that the city government has a three-decade-long tradition of making New York a sanctuary for undocumented people.

I’ll tell them that New York’s status as a “sanctuary city” began back in 1989, when Mayor Ed Koch signed Executive Order 124. That expressly forbade most city employees from telling the federal government if they suspected someone was in the United States illegally. That was enforced by mayors Dinkins and, surprisingly, Giuliani.

That order was ultimately struck down, but Mayor Bloomberg issued his own executive orders establishing a policy where most city employees cannot ask about an immigrant’s legal status or disclose someone’s documentation status under most circumstances. And it is important for my students to know that the exceptions to those policies pertain to undocumented people who are suspected of breaking the law.

In 2014, our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, signed two bills into law which promised even less cooperation with federal authorities seeking to remove undocumented city residents. In 2015, federal officials asked the city to detain under 1,000 people who were already in jail. The city transferred fewer than 220 to federal custody — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the city’s estimated 500,000 undocumented residents.

I’m not inclined to leave my students with a false sense of safety, though. That would be irresponsible.

The truth is, if they live in communities where there are a lot of arrests, and Trump follows through with some of his campaign promises, then there is a greater likelihood that more deportations will occur. If he triples the number of ICE field officers in the U.S. and ends the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants a path to residency for people who grew up without documentation, the chance that my students will be affected will increase.

But facts don’t always have to represent good news in order to make a young person feel more secure. Young adults just don’t work that way. That’s why I will be sharing this information as well.

I will also tell them they do not need to face their concerns in isolation. Seeking out other people and organizations who handle this issue can be incredibly empowering. The New York State Youth Leadership Council is a great place for students to start.

The truth is no one knows whether Trump’s campaign promises will become reality. I also know that one teacher in one classroom isn’t going to do much to combat the reality that undocumented young people already live with real fear. But as we combat the “Trump effect,” facts can be helpful antidotes.

John Giambalvo is a social studies teacher at Information Technology High School in Long Island City, Queens. 

First Person

My education career has focused on poor students of color. Why I’m rethinking that in the wake of Trump’s election

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
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I grew up in a low-income, abusive household in Chicago. My teachers encouraged me to find my way out through college, and I reacted by taking school seriously — almost too seriously.

Once I got to college, I worked my butt off to land a job in investment banking, satisfying a need for prestige and security. I spent the next few years building complex financial models to help one mega-corporation swallow another, and made enough money to wipe out my college debt. I was also exhausted to the core and unfulfilled by my work. So I quit, opting instead to help young people from circumstances similar to mine. I applied to Teach for America, and was soon teaching math at an alternative high school in New York City.

There, I was focused on improving the achievement of black and Hispanic students, a cause Teach for America is devoted to. I’m thankful for that focus. Its teachers, and so many others, do the kind of life-saving work that helped me get to college years ago.

The results of the election, though, have me thinking about how complicated our American ecosystem really is — and whether our focus within improving education has been a bit short-sighted.

Throughout his campaign for president, Donald Trump spoke against inclusion and acceptance, the very things that make America great. He promised to erect a wall, deport immigrants, and force Muslims to register in a national database. He went out of his way to insult women. He was endorsed by David Duke and said nothing of it.

It’s also true that voters identified by exit polls as “white without a college degree” helped Donald Trump win the election and become the next president of the United States. A whopping 67 percent of them voted for Trump.

I think we can understand this in two ways. One is that it’s unrealistic to expect rural white Americans to weather the status quo as they suffer the effects of globalization. The other is institutionalized and systemic racism.

Education is one way to address both. And so, if America continues to fail to provide everyone with an equitable education — one that puts them on the pathway to economic prosperity — we all lose. People of color like me are likely to lose the most.

That doesn’t make the choices ahead of us any less complicated. Allocating resources for one group often results in unintended consequences for others. I also know that we can’t let up in our efforts to help students of color, who need us to continue to push for college and career initiatives aimed at bridging gaps created by generations of racist policies.

But we should simultaneously redouble our efforts to improve educational opportunity for rural, disenfranchised whites. When I attended Teach for America’s 25th anniversary summit in Washington D.C. last year, I attended a session called, “What is the Role of White Leaders on the Path to Educational Equity?” This certainly needs to be talked about. It’s also important to recognize that when we talk about being white in education, we tend to assume it’s a position of power. That privilege is real, but so are the limited opportunities for higher education and a sustaining career for plenty of white Americans.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” Our job now is to make sure that every American child has access to the best one.

Abbas Manjee is the chief academic officer at Kiddom, a platform that helps teachers design personalized learning experiences.