Contrary to the widespread popular belief that learning is absorbing a body information and that computers can accomplish the task of pouring in material as well as human teachers, teachers know that knowledge is constructed, primarily through human relationship and the connection between the student and teacher and student and student.
Here is Alfie Kohn explaining learning theory: “Superb teachers strive constantly to imagine how things look from the child’s point of view… (K)nowledge is constructed rather than absorbed: we form beliefs, build theories, make order. We act on the environment rather than just responding to it—and we do it naturally and continually. It’s part of who we are. Learning isn’t a matter of acquiring new information and storing it on top of the information we already have. It’s a matter of coming across something unexpected, something that can’t easily be explained by those theories we’ve already developed. To resolve that conflict, we have to change what we previously believed. We have to reorganize our way of understanding to accommodate the new reality we’ve just encountered… Some would call… (the) teacher a ‘facilitator ‘ of learning, but she doesn’t facilitate ‘in the sense of making smooth or easy’; rather, she stimulates learning ‘by making problems more complex, involving, and arousing.’ She artfully complicates the situation, challenging the children to think harder and better.” (The Schools Our Children Deserve, pp. 131-135)
For learning to happen, as Kohn describes it, children need to be intellectually and emotionally present at school in order to learn. I have been reflecting on what I know about how schools help children learn while I’ve been reading the news reports about President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown on people who live in the United States without documentation.
Anya Kamenetz describes the new immigration policies in a short piece for National Public Radio: “Under the new directives issued in February by the Trump administration, anyone with deportation orders already issued, and anyone convicted of even a minor crime like a traffic offense, can be targeted for immediate removal. This is a change from the Obama administration’s policy, when suspected gang members and felons received the highest priority from law enforcement.” The problem for public schools is that many of the people who risk detainment by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deportation are parents of children in public schools.
Public schools are required to educate all children living in the United States and not to require families to declare their immigration status. The Associated Press explains: “Under a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plyler vs. Doe, K-12 public institutions are not allowed to ask for the documentation status of any child.” Plyler vs. Doe guarantees all children, whether or not they or their parents have legal immigration status, the right to a free, public education. It is difficult to know exactly how many families and children are affected because schools may not collect the data, but the Pew Research Center has made estimates, which were recently reported by Moriah Balingit and Emma Brown of the Washington Post: “The Pew Research Center estimates 3.9 million schoolchildren had an unauthorized immigrant parent in 2014—or 7.3 percent of all schoolchildren. About 725,000 of those children were unauthorized immigrants themselves.”
While the Department of Homeland Security has declared that schools are off limits to ICE agents, and that neither children nor their parents may be detained inside the school, anxiety has become acute among children and their families. Even children who were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens may have parents without legal immigration papers. These children risk being suddenly separated from their parents. Schools are scrambling to provide guidance to frightened parents and emotional support for children who may be too upset to learn. Balingit and Brown quote Virginia’s state school superintendent of public instruction: “‘Our goal is to get children in school and have then engage in learning,’ said Steven R. Staples… ‘A frightened child doesn’t learn much.’ He also said the state doesn’t want children ‘to be missing days of school because of concerns about immigration status.'”
Cities and school districts seem to be responding in different ways to the need to try to reassure parents and children. Boston has responded warmly and proactively. Even though children’s rights are protected by the Plyler vs. Doe decision, Boston has reached out farther to be supportive. On March 8, the city council passed a resolution granting the Boston Public Schools sanctuary status: “The resolution forbids federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from entering BPS property without explicit permission from Superintendent Tommy Chang and Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley. It also prevents BPS from requiring proof of legal immigration prior to enrollment, and recommends BPS refuse all voluntary sharing of information with ICE to the fullest extent possible under law.” The Boston Globe reports that Mayor Marty Walsh released a public statement: “We are committed to making sure students and families of all cultural backgrounds succeed, and feel safe and welcome in their schools and neighborhoods.” Boston Public Schools just launched a new website, bpswedreamtogether.org, that provides information about immigration issues in fifteen languages. The Boston Globe describes almost half of Boston’s 57,000 public school students as speaking a primary language at home other than English.
In January New York, the schools chancellor Carman Farina sent a letter to the families of the district’s more than one million students to reassure them that the schools cannot keep records of a family’s immigration status and that ICE agents may not roam the schools. Politico New York Education reported yesterday that on Tuesday, NYC updated its protocols to further limit access of ICE to the city’s 1,800 public schools. In her piece for NPR, Anya Kamenetz describes a meeting convened by Christian Rodriguez, a parent coordinator in a PreK-8 school in the Williamsburg/Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, a school that is more than 80 percent Hispanic. Rodriguez describes “children crying in the classroom, crying in my office… When I ask them, ‘Why are you crying?,’ they have expressed to me that they don’t want their moms to be apprehended and taken away from them.” To the meeting Rodriguez convened to reassure parents, she brought attorneys and community workers who, “advised attendees to be prepared: Don’t drive with burned-out taillights. Don’t exceed the speed limit. If you have an attorney, carry his or her business card at all times. If ICE… comes to your home or stops you on the street, they are allowed to call themselves ‘police.’ But they can’t come inside your home or car without a warrant unless you invite them in. You are allowed to ask for a warrant and to make them slip the warrant under the door.”
The Huffington Post reports on a school in Austin, Texas where teachers—told they were forbidden to take a political stance—felt they couldn’t discuss the issue of immigration in their classrooms, but they could invite children write about and draw their feelings. When the reporter visited the school, an immigration sweep had just led to dozens of arrests nearby. The reporter interviews teachers anonymously because they believe they are forbidden to speak. The teachers describe their students’ dilemmas: “ICE operations in front of a local H-E-B supermarket had left some students too nervous to go shopping. Rather than venture outside and exposing themselves or their parents to ICE, they’re making do with what they have to eat in the house… Some parents worry that ICE agents will follow them if they take their kids to class. ‘What we’re seeing is a lot of parents who used to pick up their children from school and now they’re sending them on the bus,’ a teacher told HuffPost. ‘The parents are afraid to come to the school.'”
In Colorado Springs, the atmosphere described by the Associated Press reporter is more tense. A spokesperson for the Harrison School District 2, describes the schools as places that “legally cannot deny access to public education, whether a student or parent is residing here legally or not… Public schools also cannot give legal advice or stand in the way of law enforcement, and have to remain politically unbiased.” The school district sent home a letter that lists services to help families with immigration problems. But the reporter also profiles a white parent who is closely watching to be sure the school district doesn’t go too far to support families who may be undocumented: “Harrison parent Thompson said he doesn’t think it’s the job of public school administrators to ‘comfort illegal immigrants.’ ‘People are raising an eyebrow about this.'” Thompson says he is concerned that perhaps undocumented parents are even being allowed to serve as volunteers at the school.
The majority of reports in the press, however, have been compassionate—emphasizing what the immigration crackdown means for children—and for the teachers who know that it is almost impossible for children to thrive at school and to engage with their teachers and their fellow students in the active process of learning if they are constantly frightened. Here is Donald Kerwin, of the Center for Migration studies in New York, commenting on the psychological impact of Trump’s policy on millions of children: “It’s difficult to think of a crueler fate for a child than to see their parent deported. It’s like their world turns upside down on them. Studies show they mourn, have trouble sleeping, their eating patterns change. Some cannot concentrate in school, they’re fearful and some withdraw, while other act out in anger. Beyond losing a parent, they’re often dealing with the sorrow and distress of another adult, typically a second parent.”