Larry Ferlazzo is an award-winning veteran educator who teaches English and social studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento. He has written seven books on education, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher and has his own popular resource-sharing blog. In this post, Ferlazzo writes about the first day of school with students — many of them immigrants — after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election.
During class, some students expressed fear about a Trump presidency, and Ferlazzo engaged his students in writing exercises. Some of them wrote letters to Trump about their backgrounds and hopes and fears, and Ferlazzo is sending them to the president-elect — without the names of the students.
By Larry Ferlazzo
The morning Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, I knew there were going to be many students in my classroom who were frightened about their own — and their family’s — futures.
It didn’t take long for me to experience that fear; the first student I saw asked, “Mr. Ferlazzo, is la Migra coming to school today?” [La Migra refers to immigration officials.]
That question was the first in an avalanche of questions, worries, tears and anger shared at our 100 percent free-lunch and 50 percent English Language Learner urban high school. I had decided driving into school that day that the best strategy in the classroom would be leading with my “ears” and not my “mouth.”
In each of my classes — ones that focused on newcomers to our country as well as ones that were International Baccalaureate for more English-proficient students — I began by asking students to talk with a partner about their feelings and questions around the previous night’s election. Students were then invited to share — if they wanted — to the entire class. During this time, anger was the predominant view, ranging from “I’m afraid and angry that they are going to send my friends back to Mexico,” to “Hate was really underestimated in this country.”
My colleague, Pam Buric (who also teaches recent immigrants at our school) and I then invited students to write letters to Donald Trump (which we are sending to him — without student names). We created a sheet using “sentence starters” based on discussions we had had in previous days. Though several broke down in tears and asked to bring it home instead of writing then, here are a few examples (shared with their consent). [Please note that incorrect spelling and grammar have not been corrected:
I am a high school student. I am originally from Afghanistan. My family came here because it was too much fight and we did not get to go to school and they will beat us if we want to go to school. We are grateful to this country because we can go to school and others love back like we do. We want to give back to this country by being nice to others. During the election, some of the things you said made us feel really bad for myself and my family and others. It really made me cry. My family and I hope you will be nice and don’t be racist and love us back.
I am a high school student. I am originally from Honduras. My family came here because there was a lot of violence in my country. We are grateful to this country because I am learning English and because I am safe here. We want to give back to this country be becoming better people and working hard to make this a better country. During the election, some of the things you said made us feel offended because you don’t think good of immigrants. My family and I hope you give us the opportunity to demonstrate we are good people — please.
I am a high school student. I am originally from China. My family came here because we believe that United States is the perfect place to live. We are grateful to this country because it provide us with food, house, school and most importantly, freedom. During the election of the things you said made us terrify. My family and I hope you will do what’s good for us, good for our country and the community.
I am a high school student. I am originally from Mexico. My family came here because we need to work to have place to live and food to eat. We are grateful to this country because it is our home, we came here with nothing and work and get everything. We want to give back to this country by working and giving the best for others. During the election, some of the things you said made us feel sad because you offend us without knowing us. My family and I hope you will let us stay here, because here is everything.
I am a high school student. I am originally from the Marshall Islands. My family came here because we heard that this is a free country and that we will be loved by its people. We are grateful to this country because it has given so much to us — education, medication, and security. We want to give back to this country by doing what we can and cooperating with people in it. During the election, some of the things you said made us feel unwelcome, scared, afraid, panic and mostly embarrassed that you don’t want immigrants like us here. My family and I hope you will do good for this country.
I am a high school student. I am originally from Vietnam. My family came here because we want to have a better life, a good education and an opportunity to succeed. We are grateful to this country because it provides us a good educational system and health service for everyone of any age, any gender and any race. We want to give back to this country by being educated, be a good citizen and serve other people as how we want to be served. During the election, some of the things you said made us feel unrespected because of your thoughts about women and immigrants. My family and I hope you will be a good President, raise up the economy, and give your cares to other races along with whites.
I am a high school student. I am originally from Afghanistan. My family came here because we want to have better life. We are grateful to this country because we get education from this country. We want to give back to this country by graduating from University and becoming dentist. I want to be a good citizen for this country. During the election, some of the things you said made us feel sad because you not respect to our religion. My family and I hope you will be a good human for this country in the future.
I am a high school student. I am originally from Afghanistan. My family came here because we want to have good future and we are safe in the U.S. In my country there was fight and because of that we lost our familys. I feel really safe in U.S. and I’m really happy that we are here. We are grateful to this country because the good schools and for all the nice people that are here in the U.S. We want to give back to this country by studying hard so we can become a good Doctor and work in hospital and help other people. During the election, some of the things you said made us feel so sad because when he said he’s gonna kick out Muslims and Mexicans. My family and I hope that you don’t kick out Muslims and Mexicans. I hope that you will be President for Muslims and Mexicans and others.
Writing, talking about what they wrote, and knowing that the letters were actually going to be sent to Donald Trump all seemed to improve the tense atmosphere in class. It improved even more when — in response to a question about what students could do — I shared about the public education campaigns that my past classes had done during the SARS epidemic and in 2000 to encourage residents to complete U.S. Census forms.
“Could we do one on the rights of immigrants?” asked one student. Of course, I replied.
Making sure students had accurate information was also a help; many thought that Trump would become president immediately (one colleague told me about a student who said her family began packing their things on election night), and others did not realize that many of his plans would have to be approved by Congress and could wind up in the courts.
However, though having accurate information is critical, it was not always reassuring, as one student pointed out that “the Republicans control Congress and Trump picks who goes on the [Supreme] Court.”
Listening and providing simple words of support were the primary strategy, though. I reminded students that they should immediately tell a teacher if they felt targeted because of their ethnicity, and they should let us know also if anything like that happens to them or their family outside of school, also.
“School is a safe place for you, and we teachers are here to support you,” I said over and over that day. Those words appeared to provide some comfort to students.
At 2:45 p.m., however, after I had said it for the 30th time, one student said, “But, Mr. Ferlazzo, school ends in 15 minutes.”
I had no answer to that… . . .