Every year, dozens and dozens of students make the decision to leave their homes, leave everything familiar and comfortable, get on a plane and enter our school. They come for broader horizons, opportunity and quality learning. They come to increase their life chances for success, their own and their families’.
They are lucky if they land in Leonie Plunkett’s classroom.
Leonie cares about these kids and she brings this ethos into her social studies classroom.
Recently Leonie and her international students worked their way through the Great Migration unit but they also worked their way into the consciousness and even hearts, of our Canadian students.
Some of our Canadians students have no idea what it’s like to place themselves in a foreign routine. They have no idea how easily humour and personality can dissipate when living in a foreign place. Knowing this about her Canadian students and knowing the real strength and struggles of her international students, Leonie used her unit on the Great Migration to teach her students a contemporary lesson.
“What would it take to make you leave everything you know for the promise of something different and the potential of something better?” Leonie asked this question of her grade 10 socials students.
They met her question with blank stares and she resolved to go deeper.
Over the course of their unit, students gained perspective on the experience of those who left Europe to travel to a land they’d only heard about, the New World. Many of these immigrants arrived mid-winter to a frozen land without supplies or understanding of how to sustain themselves. They navigated hostile politics and immersed themselves in unexpected physical labour. They fought to survive and to find themselves anew. This, our Canadian students discovered, remains the experience of many immigrants today.
Leonie gave her Canadian students the task of seeking out international students and interviewing them about their personal “great migration”. What did it require of them to leave their homes and families? What got them through the first big transitions? Who did they rely on? Who did they confide in? What gave them joy in this place? What caused them to struggle? Was it worth it? What do they miss? What have they gained? Individually, Canadian students asked around the hallways and cafeteria to find their international “twin” and interview him or her about this most profound experience.
After studying some political cartoons of the era, cartoons which communicate the difficulties of the immigrant experience in sharp and sometimes acerbic tones, Leonie had asked her international students to create political cartoons to represent their experience. Here is one:
“You know what would be great next year, if I get to teach this course again?” Leonie reflects one afternoon. “I’d give the Canadian students the political cartoons the internationals created. I’d ask them to think about the images and to articulate the messages. Then, maybe, I’d invite the internationals in and have them get into a discussion about immigrant experiences.” Leonie hopes that students would learn how much they have in common, how similar their worries and emotional lives are.
We talk about how having the conversation anchored by these political cartoons would ground the conversation in a much deeper place than the types of food they miss from their home countries or what they think about Canada’s climate.
We talk about brave it was for her 15 year old Canadian students, many who have never left their comfortable neighbourhoods, to approach someone whom they don’t know and extend themselves in conversation about things they know nothing of. We talk about how brave it was for her international students, also 15, to speak up and own the difficulties inherent in living and learning in a different culture.
Mostly though, I notice how Leonie’s eyes glow and her voice gets raspy as she talks about how the other day, one of her Canadian students came by her classroom, his arm draped casually around an international student’s shoulders: “Hey Ms Plunkett! This is Henry – the guy I interviewed for that assignment in socials!”
Henry had the goofiest grin on his face.