Magazine article Curriculum Administrator

Real-Life Lessons from America's Immigrant History

Magazine article Curriculum Administrator

Real-Life Lessons from America's Immigrant History

Article excerpt

A school's third-grade, social studies class learns through an interactive study of immigration.

At about 3:00 a.m. one early morning, Sylvia Stein was awakened by screams coming, from outside her window. Assuming the screams were coming from people soon to be shot by the Chilean government officials of the concentration camp, she ran to her window in terror. But after peering outside into the Miami street, she immediately remembered that she was not in Chile anymore. Instead, the screams came from teenagers playing in the street. It was then "I realized I didn't have to live in fear anymore," she recalls.

Because Stein spoke out against the government, demanding democracy, freedom and human rights, the Chilean government considered her an enemy of the state and threw her into a concentration camp in 1973. After three years there, she received one of only 400 visas from the American government to emmigrate to the U.S. She arrived in Miami, but soon got a job as a seamstress in New York City. Determined to do more, she found a way to complete a degree in fine arts. In 1979, she moved to Stamford, Conn., where she resides today, and later met her husband.

For almost 30 years now, she works with immigrants and promotes cultural values through the arts as program coordinator for the Urban Artists of Stamford. "It was also that first night in America, seeing those kids laughing and playing, that I realized what freedom meant and why I was fighting so hard for it," says Stein.

Like Stein, countless immigrants recall why they made America their new home. Spanning many centuries, immigrants continue to make their mark on this city of 110,000, an hour north of New York City. Stamford's historical tapestry encompasses various cultural groups that helped construct the railroad in 1848, and the many factory workers, merchants and tradesmen.

More recently, Stamford experienced an influx of immigrants from South America, the Caribbean and other areas that add much to the city's dynamics. According to the Board of Education, at least 24 percent of Stamford children live in a home where a language other than English is spoken. And more than 50 languages are spoken in the city's public schools. More than 15,000 students fill the 21 schools that comprise the district.

"Stamford is a city of immigrants," says Walter Wheeler, president of the board of directors for the Stamford Historical Society. The story of the immigrant experience shows that "many cultures can live together and stimulate each other."

LEARNING FROM THE IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE

To build upon the rich diversity present in the city, the Stamford public school system's elementary curriculum brings real-life social studies to the study of immigration. In the fall of 1999, a $1,200 grant established by residents Jack and Claire Steinburg, through the Jewish Community Endowment Foundation of Stamford, was offered to the public school system. Toquam elementary school became the pilot school and has used the new program to enhance its immigration curriculum. The grant, titled "The American Connection," has a mission "to celebrate the contribution of the many ethnic and immigrant groups to America, and foster better inter-communal relations among these groups." In doing this, the Jewish tradition of Tikkun-Olam, or Repairing the World, is accomplished. "It's the Steinburgs' attempt to touch young children in their early years to learn how to heal the world through respecting diversity," says Joel Feerst, executive director of the city's Jewish Community Endowment Foundation.

Traditionally, the study of immigration is introduced in the third grade. Every third grade student in public school examines these principles through discussions, occasional guest speakers, projects and literature. "When children reach third grade, they are beginning to see outside themselves; their home, town, state and country," says Rosalea Fisher, a third grade teacher at Toquam magnet elementary school. …

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