Immigration Literature: Bridging Global Cultures for Classroom Communities

by Andrea Baily, April Sanders, Patricia Sosa-Sanchez, University of North Texas, Denton, TX

When incorporating varied literature into school curriculum and/or the classroom, those choices should logically reflect many stories that eventually are woven into a mosaic of understanding, but are students getting this international perspective from the literature found in their classrooms and libraries?

Understanding the authentic immigrant experience necessitates exposure to international literature. Reading about such experiences gives a peek into the hearts and minds of people whom we may not fully understand. The reader is able to experience the struggles and triumphs of these characters; thus, we get a tiny glimpse of the world through the eyes of a person who has arrived at America’s doorstep. This glimpse is where we as readers learn empathy and acceptance for other cultures that face the task of maintaining their own heritage while living in a new country with possibly vastly different rules and structures. Without the authenticity provided by the immigrant voice, the reader may begin to form false ideas about a culture or simply form no ideas and be completely void of knowledge of their new fellow country mates.

Middle Eastern cultures and Asian cultures are underrepresented in our classroom selections of literature (check out WOW’s Korean and Arab language book lists). Students miss out on these stories, which could have much more importance during this particular time in America’s history. When political movements surge, readings are imperative to provide to students in order to start a true discussion in the classroom regarding world events. Understanding the struggles of immigrants arriving from the other cultures is our only defense against prejudice and strife.

One such example is the graphic novel, American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang, a story told from the perspective of Jin Wang, a boy whose Chinese parents met in the United States. His parents’ pursuit of the American dream ends up ostracizing him when they move to a new neighborhood. Jin is now an outsider trying to survive as he watches members of the dominant culture make friends, succeed in school, and even get the girl. Jin copes with his culture struggles by using Chinese characters, some positive and some negative, to tell his story through fable-like stories or episodes. This is a unique insider’s look at how it is to live and try to fit in with the dominant culture. Using immigrant literature in the classroom makes our students from outside cultures more “normal” (or at least makes them visible) and builds a bridge to discuss their struggles in our country.

Some people may argue that immigrant literature has no real place in the American classroom, but this argument falls short of reaching the true American ideal set forth to us from our founding fathers. Over time, the United States has used various metaphors to represent the diversity held within its borders. The melting pot is widely known and used; this metaphor does recognize the diversity, but “we must recall, it was assumed that the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant image would color the whole homogenized social mass” (Rosenblatt, 2005). So we move to other metaphors to explain our structure – to give us all a place in America.

tasting the skyThe idea of saturating our students’ reading with only one view or only one voice or only one culture isn’t especially helpful to our students, but it isn’t especially American either. The United States cannot claim to be a republic “by the people” and “for the people” if only a select few are recognized. As Ibtisam Barakat gives shape to her story in Tasting the Sky as a child in Palestine, she is also giving substance to the creation of the American story. The American story is about those stories that served as the foundation for those who have found themselves far way from their native land in a new home in the United States.

And the freedom boasted about by Americans to be a right of its inhabitants must be just that –- a freedom. And freedom of the republic must begin with the individual. Freedom has not been achieved if we are bound by a collective of stories from an elite majority. Walt Whitman believed an American is, “a man…divine in his own right, and a woman is hers” (Rosenblatt, 2005). We are a collection of people, or rather individuals, with individual stories to tell that must be heard because if we refuse to listen to these stories, we then run the risk of losing the mosaic –- the complete picture of the American people.

So the only way we become the aggregate (or salad bowl or symphony or any other host of metaphors for America’s diversity) is to recognize the individual experience –- give credence to it –- give voice to it –- give respect to it. The significance of the Preamble to the United States Constitution is that it was written by the people and not handed down as law from a king or god or elite group. Our collective American experience should follow suit and be written by the people (ALL people) to express an understanding of what came before we reached this land.

To deny our students this full and complete and rich experience is almost to deny their birthright as Americans to know what has shaped the families of each of their classmates and possibly their own family instead of knowing what formed a mere few. That diversity is our common skeleton; we, as teachers, must feel an obligation to help students explore that diversity and thus explore the true American experience.

When considering these ideas of incorporating international literature into the classroom, do teachers actually use that literature to help connect to the life experiences of immigrants in the classroom community? And do we, as teachers, build on the international knowledge our immigrant students (or children and grandchildren of immigrants) bring into the classroom? If we do use this immigrant knowledge and international literature in the classroom, how does it give our classrooms an “insider” perspective on world events?


Rosenblatt, L. (2005). Whitman’s Democratic Vistas and The New “Ethnicity”. In Making Meaning of Texts (pp. 144-155), Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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8 thoughts on “Immigration Literature: Bridging Global Cultures for Classroom Communities

  1. Mary Amanda Stewart says:

    I am very intrigued by your question: “And do we, as teachers, build on the international knowledge our immigrant students (or children and grandchildren of immigrants) bring into the classroom?”
    In Texas, many of our students travel to Mexico for the summer or over winter vacation. Although that might seem common, we need to value our students’ international experiences. They are a wealth of linguistic and cultural knowledge that needs to be shared with others. All of our immigrant students have experiences that need to be valued by their schools, teachers, and classmates whether they are flying to Europe or driving south of the border.

  2. Janelle Mathis says:

    And as we share international books or ones that deal specifically with immigration, students can be a source of authenticity as they respond to and extend the insights that such literature offers!

  3. Lois Ann Knezek says:

    I have found that my students responded with excitement when I used multicultural books in my English as a Second Language classroom. Many times, they could not or would not see the world outside their own private lives. When I would bring books in that reflected their own culture or the culture of others, it led to interesting discussions. I would read Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say and my students would realize that they were not the only ones and the only culture to make a “journey” to a new and unfamiliar country. Since most of my ESL students were Hispanic, they especially liked reading stories that reflected the Hispanic culture. One of their favorite authors was Gary Soto – we read books such as Baseball in April and Too Many Tamales by him and several of his poetry volumes. They were initially not the most enthusiastic about poetry but grew to love it. That allowed me to introduce other Hispanic poets such as Pablo Neruda. Comparing and contrasting their poems and lifestyles was also very enlightening.

  4. Ragina Shearer says:

    Yes, I agree. Immigrant children, as all children, need to see themselves in a positive light in literature. In my experience, the immigrant children in our classrooms are withdrawn and afraid to mention their differences or any knowledge about their own cultures or lifestyles. When literature authentically portrays their lives, cultures, and experiences, I find students feel more comfortable and encouraged to share personal knowledge. When international and multicultural literature is shared, non-immigrant children become interested in engaging in conversation, asking questions, and learning about the lives and customs of their new friends. Thus, trusting and sharing relationships are built.
    It is also important that teachers are careful to choose authentically correct literature, so that stereotypes are not reinforced, and immigrants are not offended by incorrect portrayals. Teachers should learn as much as possible about their individual students as well, in order to ensure the literature chosen will reflect their immigrant students in a positive, capable manner. The literature should focus on the strengths of the characters and celebrate the influences of culture empowering the student in the classroom and beyond.

  5. Patsy Sanchez says:

    International literature is a good resource for engaging students in a classroom. Making them aware of the diverse cultures in today’s world is important as the gain information through authentic and well written literature. In addition, good authors tend to have authentic portrayal of the cultural representation, as well as keeping the text entertaining to increase transactional practices within the reader and the text…

  6. Susan Hillebrandt says:

    With racial tensions running high at many of our schools, it is definitely imperative that we teach ethnically diverse texts. By creating a classroom that has buy-in from all students, the entire class will grow in understanding and tolerance. Teacher’s must go outside of the texts that they are used to, or that are typically available, to find works that reach out to the students. Great blog in this ethnically tumultuous time.

  7. Robyn Dickinson says:

    As a “global society”, it is now more important than ever for educators to offer as many diverse opportunities for student learning that will sustain this progress toward a more unified world community. Students need continually updated curriculum ( living informational sources) which incorporates more culturally diverse topics that are delivered in a less formal learning arena.This type environment for instructional delivery must also meet the learner’s desire to access information within a few “clicks” of a button! With that in mind, educational leaders must make a paradigm shift that reflects a more globally, technology-based vision for meeting the instructional needs of all types of learners. Kudos for contributing to this “vision” in this very well written and thoughtful piece!

  8. stacy shenefield says:

    “Middle Eastern cultures and Asian cultures are underrepresented in our classroom selections of literature.”

    This is so true. I have found it nearly impossible to find any literature concerning these cultures. What I have found is extremely limited and doesn’t offer varying perspectives or insights into different issues involving these two cultures. The link to the language book list was extremely helpful.

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