November 23, 2020
In this episode, doctoral candidate Cara Morgenson and professor Robert Brooke discuss an extensive project connecting high school English learners, UNL college students, and park rangers at Homestead National Monument.
Plainstate: The Podcast, sponsored by the Department of English, is a podcast about the humanities on the Great Plains and beyond featuring interviews, stories, people, and places.
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ROBERT LIPSCOMB, HOST:
Thank you for listening to the Plainstate Podcast, produced by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. This special episode was produced by the Nebraska Writing Project about the Husker Writers We Are Immigrants project.
You are listening to NWP radio, a production of the National Writing Project. This podcast episode was produced by the Nebraska Writing Project and made possible with a grant from the National Writing Project-National Parks Service partnership: supporting place-based learning and collaboration between National Writing Project sites and our nation's National Parks.
Welcome gentle listeners to this podcast, “We Are All Immigrants,” created by the Nebraska Writing Project as part of the National Writing Project-National Parks Service partnership. I’m Dr. Robert Brooke I’m the director of the Nebraska Writing Project and I was one of the lead teachers in the We Are All Immigrants project.
I’m Cara Morgenson, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, also known as UNL. I also a Lincoln North Star High School teacher in the district English Language Learners program, and I was also a co-lead teacher for this project that we are describing today.
BROOKE: Our purpose for today is to describe the We Are All Immigrants project we did between our two classes: Cara's course at Lincoln North Star, which served in the district English Language Learners program; and my course at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, which served juniors in writing uses and literacies. Our program engaged with immigration issues past and present in Lincoln, Nebraska. We also are offering this project as an example of the place-conscious educational principle of spiraling out from direct, local experiences to issues of national and international scope. In this podcast, we'll give you a quick overview of our joint class project; we'll walk you, as listeners, through the sequence of activities that we did; we'll set the context for the project, both in terms of the national debates and the place-conscious educational principles that inform it; and we'll end with some comments about spin-off projects generated by this one.
MORGENSON: So we are going to start off now with an executive summary of our project. I'll walk us through our Husker Writers partnership focused on public rhetoric and community. There was a place-based premise that we were connecting to this issue of addressing larger global topics concerns by spiraling out from local contexts. Husker Writers grew out of the Nebraska Writing Project and was a community writing endeavor sponsored by the English department at UNL. Our two schools in this project are located in Lincoln, Nebraska, a city of near 300,000 in south-central Nebraska. Lincoln is home to the University of Nebraska flagship campus, the State Legislature, the State Prison, and a variety of industries including Duncan Aviation, Kawasaki, and several poultry processing plants. The city is very culturally diverse and was, in 2018—at the time of our project—the per-capita national leader for refugee resettlement.
Our eight-week partnership between the classes started out with students meeting together and they continue to do so every Thursday over the eight weeks of the partnership. Mixed groups of our students work together to share their own family immigration stories and engage in relationship partner building. We visited Homestead National Monument of America to learn about the 1862 Homestead Act as a major immigration moment in Nebraska history, along with our national history in the United States. Students then adopted a local agency here in Lincoln—one that supported current immigrants—and developed as a part of this writing project a set of documents that would assist the agency with their transformative work in the community and working with immigrant families. Our classes chose four different organizations. These were the Asian Community and Cultural Center, the Center for People in Need, El Centro de las Americas, and the Yazidi Cultural Center. We'll have more on these later and their individual missions in the podcast.
Then, finally, the last part of this project was a visit to the UNL campus. We were also mindful of supporting secondary to postsecondary transitions as a part of this project. Students were able to come from North Star High School for a campus tour that was led by their UNL partners and to share a meal in the dining hall.
BROOKE: Thanks for that overview, Cara. I also wanted to say—about the start of the project—that the Husker Writers program was set up here at Nebraska as a place-based community literacy program. We were trying to set up cases where teachers in high school and teachers in college could pair together to do something with public rhetoric out of the schools. During the semester that we're talking about—in 2018—we actually were part of a team of 14 different pairings of high school and college teachers that worked on programs in the two cities. We focused in writing about and engaging in community rhetoric while adults are still in school, and not postponing engagement in the community until after we graduate. We're guided here by an idea in place-based education that involves having students be active citizens at the time the school is going on.
We have a wonderful quote from Paul Theobald's wonderful book, Teaching the Commons, where he writes about exactly this principle. He writes about elementary students; we were working with students at the secondary level. Paul Theobald writes: “Beginning at the elementary level, students must be socialized into the practice and habit of researching and deliberating answers that vex their communities at the moment. Schools can become places that live and work in the present with skillful pedagogical guidance. The school's place allows children to develop the intellectual flexibility needed to see history, for example, as a force in their lives rather than as an exercise in the acquisition of names and dates.
The whole Husker Writers program was aimed at doing this kind of engagement with local public rhetoric within the city at the time that the students were actually in school. Our project in immigration came out of that.
MORGENSON: So now I would like to walk us through the project itself and I would like to begin this section by highlighting what students most valued about the work we did. Ultimately this comes back to the learning and that's something we want to really highlight in this podcast.
So, this particular quotation comes from a final reflection document submitted by one of my North Star students who was a partner in this Husker Writers project. This young woman was from Ukraine. When asked to describe her overall experience with her Husker Writers—whether it was positive or negative, and then speak to why—she wrote: “My overall experience with Husker Writers is really positive. How can it not be positive when I had learned a lot of new things? Also it was very interesting to me when I had shared my new knowledge with my parents and siblings. However, it was really cool to hear from my parents and siblings that this is a very cool project. This experience made myself to think of myself that I can actually do something. It made me to be the one that I was in Ukraine, because when I came here I felt down; I felt that I’m not smart; that I would never learn English and never finish ELL. However, now I feel very strong inside of me. Now I’m trying my best to be the best of my personal view.”
I really love that this excerpt highlights how students lived experiences and knowledge were leveraged in the partnership with their colleagues; that they were able to bring in their histories and previous learnings and share that to come to new understandings. We also emphasize this asset-based approach —working with secondary and postsecondary learners—to highlight that both individuals were coming with valuable expertise to share in the partnership.
Turning now to talk about our work together: I am going to talk a little bit about my student demographics and then Robert will do the same for his classes as we delve into the project itself.
My students were freshmen to seniors all intermediate to advanced level fluency across the language domains of reading, writing, speaking, and listening in the English language. These 28 students in the course were emergent bilinguals or emergent multilingual learners. Many spoke one, two, sometimes up to three or four different languages and had lived in at least one other—sometimes two or three other—countries before they had come to the United States with their families.
The course that I taught was specifically a writing and content support class called “Expanding Thematic Studies.” The majority of the students were Arabic or Kurdish speakers from Iraq. Others were from Afghanistan, Guatemala, Mexico, Ukraine, Russia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Iran, and Vietnam. Most of the students in my class would be first-generation college students. Indeed, now, two years later at the time of this recording, many are enrolled in postsecondary institutions. North Star High School is a low-income school with a large portion of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, including a significant number of students in the ELL program.
Robert will now share a little bit about the students in his class.
BROOKE: Thanks, Cara. Your class was more “multi,” just across the board. it was multi-generational, multi-age. My class was all juniors and seniors at college level at UNL. What was interesting about this course was that before the course started, I advertised this section of “Writing Uses of Literacies” throughout the university to make sure that they knew that there would be an off-campus partnership going on for it. As a consequence, I think I did not get the traditional UNL demographic for this writing class.
The traditional demographic for the class is that it fills up with undergraduates who are a mix of strong writers who want a junior level writing class to fulfill their undergraduate writing requirement, and some procrastinators that have reached the senior year and no longer qualify for the earlier courses in first-year or sophomore writing. This was true of the course, but what was also true was that a good percentage of the students self-selected into this class because they were first-generational students in the university with a background somewhat like the one we would be working with. So, I had students in my class who were first-generation from Iran, Mexico, Vietnam, China, Pakistan, and Japan, and they signed up for the course because of the civic engagement project.
Also, some of the traditional students chose the course exactly because of that. The course included an intern from the State Attorney General's Office and a descendant of Nebraska homesteaders who was interested in the Homestead theme. I had 15 students end up signed up for the course. Of those students, 13 completed the course. I'll say a little bit more about the two that dropped out later on in the podcast.
So let's talk about the stages of our work together.
MORGENSON: We broke our project up into two separate but cohesive stages. The first part included learning local stories, and in initial meetings with students, we really focused on sharing stories—sharing experiences; a tour of North Star High School, and then a joint trip to Homestead. We began by highlighting students lived experiences. Students introduced themselves through letters to their partners before they met face-to-face to provide a little bit of background. Students were able to talk about who they were, their experiences with school, where they were from, family—a range of different topics—and were encouraged to share what they felt most important about their identities to share with their partners at the first meeting. Then, North Star students welcomed their UNL partners to the high school and took them on a tour of the building. We then, as a whole group, shared out our “Coming to the United States” stories, talking about our immigrant backgrounds and where we had come from. There were the social aspects, too, of just informal conversations with partners—with individuals; at this individual meeting , as well as on the 45 minute or so bus ride down to Homestead and back.
BROOKE: Those initial meetings out at North Star High School were tremendously important for the UNL students. That day at North Star High School, we had a tour of the building; kind of got the UNL students to value the North Star students as experts in their own right, but even more important was the round robin where we ran around the classroom and talked about where we had come from—when our families came to the U.S. I remember very much hearing back from my students, the next day we met them in class, that some of them were absolutely flabbergasted that young people in Cara's class had only been in country for two weeks.
I was also interested in how it was that my students wrestled with getting past the we've always been American and always will be idea. When we went around the classroom, I remember some of my students would share things like “My family came across in the 1600s because of religious problems,” that they've been persecuted in Europe. But we got to one young woman who grew up in Edina, Minnesota, who said—when first asked “Who are you where you come from?”—she wanted to claim “I’m American and I’ve always been American.” Some of the students actually pushed her on that. She thought for a minute and thought oh yeah, really my family was German before they came over here. So, recognizing the range of experience, in relation to what was going on, was kind of an amazing moment for that. My class was full of energy after that initial meeting and we're very glad they've done that.
Our second meeting we tried to build on this energy by taking both classes, on a bus. down 40 miles to Homestead National Monument of America in Beatrice, which is located about 40 miles south from UNL. The reason for going to Homestead is because the Homestead Act can be seen as a major immigration event in the national history, and it certainly was in Nebraska history. In 1862, President Lincoln opened the American West up to settlers. The claim was that if you went out into a piece of land that had not yet been settled by Euro-Americans and stayed on it for a period of years—I think it was five years—the land became yours. In the history of the American West, a huge number of acres in the American West were given away and over 1,600,000 successful homesteaders proved up on the land; they stayed there five years and proved up on it. Of those 1,600,000, 300,000 were immigrants—were not U.S. citizens—but they came over from another country, usually eastern European countries. So one of the things we were able to claim for our young people, in our studies, was we're going down to Homestead because we're looking at the first wave of immigration in Nebraska and you all—we, collectively, in our two classes—may be part of a later wave of immigration in Nebraska. We were able to cue into that in what we studied when we went down to Homestead. That was one of the things I was really excited about when we went into that project
MORGENSON: When our groups arrived at Homestead National Monument,we met first with our park ranger, ho gave us a brief outside introduction and then we moved inside to watch a video that was curated specifically for visitors to Homestead. This video did a nice job of introducing some of the conflicts of place: thinking about indigeneity and colonization of the land by predominantly European settlers, as well as then the hardships that homesteaders experienced coming to this land as part of the Homestead Act, and breaking that down into the different narratives and stories did a nice job of representing voice there.
We then toured the inside artifact collection, which included things that immigrant families had brought wish them, such as spice vials, family bibles, silver teapot. There were all kinds of artifacts that I noticed students from the North Star groups really connecting to, and sharing stories with their UNL partners, with myself, with Dr. Brooke; thinking about what they themselves had brought from their home countries as first-generation immigrants, or the things that they were unable to bring with them, depending on the nature of their leaving and arrival.
We also then went outside to look at a cabin from an early homesteader, and students were able to go inside of this cabin, take a look, and get some of the history and a sense of what it looked like to live as a homesteader at this time. There were also some area maps of the American western states with the amount of land that was given away as part of the Homestead Act, so students were able to get that visual as part of the history as well.
When we returned a few weeks later, the Lincoln Public Schools district actually did a feature story on this Homestead trip, and our photos that we'd taken and stories from that day were picked up for a narrative that was done by the district communications department. An individual visited my classes at North Star to interview students talking about their experiences and going on this field trip. It was a really fun celebration of the experience.
One thing that came out of this, in thinking particularly about agency and community writing: when the story was published, it was published with the title “ELL students see Past, Present, Future on Field Trips.” One young woman in my class took particular issue with this title and made the argument that we, as the class, are not ELL students; we are first and foremost North Star students. She did not appreciate the labeling as an English Language Learner being the predominant focus of the story. And so, I was able to find the email for the communications writer who had done the story and she took it upon herself to write an email to this individual requesting that the title be changed from “ELL students” to “North Star Students See Past, Present, and Future on Field Trips” and indeed, by the end of the working day, the title had been changed on the digitally published article. That was a great moment to see what it meant to have voice and agency, and talking about identity in the community. It was a really fun real-life writing application that had come out of this project and this experience.
In reflections, students also were asked to reflect on their favorite part of Husker Writers. For many of the students in my class, this field trip to Homestead ,and this historical study of the Homestead Act, was their favorite part of the whole project. One student in my class wrote “My favorite part of Husker Writers is when we went to the field trip to the Homestead Museum; we share magic moments. Also, we saw how the immigrant people live before, and how they build their own houses, and how they survive, and the difference, and how immigrants live today. That was an amazing field trip. I love that day and I want to go again and share that moment with my family, too.” This was something that was important to us in terms of connecting to the community—of resources that would go on beyond the scope of the class and be something that, particularly students in my classes, could then share with families, and students in Robert's classes could bring these narratives and understanding to their interactions with family and friends as well. That was a great moment to see that transferring.
BROOKE: Yeah, Cara it really was a great moment. I’m remembering a couple related activities on that. One was trying to get everybody on the bus to go back. There were a couple of your students that—my goodness—we couldn't get them out of the gift shop because they wanted something to memorialize the day, which was kind of interesting to have happen. The other was the set of young women from your class that grabbed Susan Cook, the lead ranger down at Homestead, to get their pictures taken together as a group, which is one of the things on the video feed, which was really great.
By chance, one of the students in my class confessed to us all that he lives on land that his family homesteaded, and that he is a descendant of actual homesteaders from 1862. He was really kind of proud of that. He brought into class the next day the actual paperwork—the official document—that showed the publication of it. He's a political scientist and was actually in the class because he was really interested in immigration issues. That was sort of an ongoing thing that went on with that.
Obviously, this was a great experience for our students, and set up what we’d do—already got them thinking about this issue of immigration as being in their lives and in the wider regional history; and then, would set up our next moment, which was to turn from them absorbing some information, to them acting actively in the community itself. That’s where we moved from absorbing stuff to adopting the agencies that we work with in the second half of the project.
MORGENSON: The second stage, as Robert said, moved from focusing on sharing stories and looking at the historical context, the local context, to then moving towards action and community-based writing. In adopting some local agencies, students from my class were surveyed—as well as students in Robert's class—of organizations that they were aware of in the community who worked with immigrant families, or whether they themselves had received services or had connections to local organizations. So we did some crowd-gathering of information to think what connections did we already have as a group? From this surveying, we identified four agencies that we felt we could partner with and leverage those experiences and those connections that students had, in a way that made them very accessible for the work that we were going to do.
The four organizations we worked with: the first one was Center for People in Need. From their website, they described their mission as “to provide services and programs to low-income people that address their basic needs and help them achieve economic independence.” Services offered by the Center for People in Need include food distributions, a diaper bank, household goods distributions, emergency services, English language classes, educational opportunities, and employment training. They also advocate for policies that help people overcome obstacles and gain independence. Many of the students at North Star in the ELL program—and their families—had previously received services and support from the Center for People in Need, and that was one of the most tangible person-to-person connections that we had.
Another organization we worked with was El Centro de las Americas. From their website, El Centro describes themselves as originally being known as the Hispanic Community Center. It was founded in 1982 and became a 501c3 nonprofit in 1983. For over 35 years, El Centro has provided services in the areas of education, family support, youth empowerment, health, and resource navigation. El Centro's bilingual and bicultural staff's objective is to provide clients with professional and courteous services. El Centro also sponsored a North Star Community Learning Center After-School Program called Joven Noble. Students at North Star were able to go to this after-school club as a part of their project, so there was an on-site learning opportunity for the North Star students through this partnership. Robert’s students were able to go to the outside agency itself to do some extra interviewing and information-gathering.
The third organization we worked with was the Asian Community and Cultural Center. From their website: “The mission of the Asian Community and Cultural Center is to support and empower all refugees and immigrants through programs and services, and advancing the sharing of Asian culture and other cultural heritages of our clients within the community at large.” Their vision is that immigrants in Lincoln and surrounding areas will have access to the resources and support they need to lead better lives. They offer citizenship classes, English language classes, as well as other language classes including the Vietnamese language, Thai and Karin. The Asian Community and Cultural Center also sponsored a North Star CLC (Community Learning Center) After-School Program, called Life After High School, that many of the students in my class had already been attending or began attending as a part of this project.
The fourth and final group we worked with was the Yazidi Cultural Center. From their website: “The Yazidi Cultural Center (YCC) in Lincoln, Nebraska provides a communal space where Yazidis feel safe and can promote the preservation of their culture. The main goal of the center is to build a strong, integrated, and successful community, while preserving the rich Yazidi culture.” They offer classes for citizenship, Kurmanji language, and writing and English language. The Yazidi Cultural Center also sponsored a North Star CLC After-School Program, called Yazidi Club, that again many of the students—particularly those who identified as Yazidis, from Iraq—were already attending prior to this project and were able to work with.
Students then, in reflecting on their experiences, thought about the way they were able to connect. One student wrote: “I would describe my overall experiences with Husker Writers that it was a great program, and I did all I can to make our group project more readable. Some positives are: we read about some programs, and we researched about them to work on what those programs need. Because some of the programs didn't have enough information on their websites, it was great to help them write some information about their programs on their websites, because some of them didn't have a lot of information.” Students recognized the importance and the value in the work that they were doing and how they were helping provide resources/materials to organizations in their community.
BROOKE: Let's talk a little bit about the actual work that our student groups did for the agencies that we were involved with.
After we got done with that survey to figure out what the what the four agencies were, I used my job at the university to make contact with the leaders at those agencies and to set up interview times where the students in my class could go out and engage directly with the leaders at the agencies, to figure out what it was that they might have a need for. This, for my class, became a very transformative moment. I remember the group that went out to Center for People in Need and were given a tour of the entire complex, and then they sat down with a group of leaders to talk through what was existing on the Center for People in Need website right now, and where they could really benefit from having the voices of some young Americans speak back to what was there and what wasn't there. In each case, that happened it was a very good thing for them for the students as a whole. My students then brought that information back to the meeting at North Star High School with their small groups of students, and they brainstormed together what kind of project they would want to develop—and could develop—to offer to the agencies when they got done with that.
The projects ended up being very different, however, for the four different agencies that we got involved. Center for People in Need was the most directive about what they wanted, and they were able to sort of tell the young people “My goodness, what we most need is stuff that would go on the website, which is stories of family transformation: ‘Because you connected with the services that Center for People in Need, here's how your family improved on that.’” In the small groups that worked with that project, we helped the students at North Star craft family experience testimonials that then were offered to the Center for People in Need for use on the website directly. That one was the clearest, cleanest example of what we were able to develop.
At the Asian Community and Cultural Center, the program was already defined—Life After High School. They actually had a pretty good existing web page about it, and were very pleased with all of that, so what the young people did when they were brainstorming what they could possibly come up with here, was the idea of doing a full profile of the lead director of that program; making a testimonial for the city about what this what work this young woman had done in setting up the program that they all enjoyed so much. The group worked together; my students provided some technical audio-visual editing skills to create the profile, and the young students from North Star helped interview the lead director out at the Asian Community Center to develop that program.
At El Centro de las Americas, the team also created a promotional video. This promotional video was split. My students went on their own to a major community event, which was a tango chocolate wine festival that the organization puts on as a donor project, and they did a video that was based on that. They also did a video based on the Joven Noble program up at North Star. They interviewed the director, and they got some of the testimonials from the students involved in that program, to develop that as it was.
The last program was at the Yazidi Cultural Center, and this centered primarily on the club going on at North Star. The connection between my students and the staff at this cultural center in the city was not as strong as the other three places, and so what happened instead was the students all descended upon the After-School Program at North Star High School to figure out what they need. They ended up creating a calendar of events and a bunch of postings about what the actual events were—what the programs involved were—and they were all very excited about that. I remember the student from Edina came by with her camera, took lots of pictures of this event, and felt really proud and energized by what it was she'd done. Of course, she had never before encountered anybody from the Yazidi part of the world at all, so this was an interesting experience for how that worked out.
When we got done with all these projects, we developed a number of public presentations of them. So, besides just sending this information to the agencies to see what they wanted to do with that, we scheduled several venues where the students would present in groups what it was they had done what was they accomplished. We did an agency reps in Lincoln Public Schools administration event in the media center at North Star, and brought everybody together to showcase these things off. We also did a Husker Writers fair for funders, agency leaders, and the other partnerships, in which we showed off the material as a whole.
For some of the students involved, this moment where they presented their material was the transformative moment for the project as a whole, and I think Cara's got a couple of examples of that from her students.
MORGENSON: Yeah. A couple students actually identified these final presentations as their favorite part of the whole project. One student wrote: “My favorite part was the presentation, because we showed our work that we established. We thought our work was very tiny comparing with what the agencies do for their community. I was proud to establish it and be a part of this project.”
Many of my students reflected and continued to talk about—after this project ended—the work that they had done. Some continued going to the meetings weekly at the After-School Programs at North Star; others were really excited to share their family testimonials, to share their experiences, and then also to be interviewers—to be researchers—to help gather this information, write this up, and then turn around and share it to a group of community stakeholders. Another student wrote that “I thought the day of the presentation was how many people, and we can help and give the information we found from each center. Was impressive how a multicultural class can make a great team to help the community, and all thanks to immigrants and refugees who came to help the country and make it better with their different ideas and thoughts.” I love that this student is really emphasizing the value that migrant immigrant refugee families are bringing to the community, and how they themselves—as individuals with those first-generation immigrant identities—are directly interacting with their community, sharing their expertise, and helping to make that experience even better for those coming after them by building the availability of resources through these different organizations.
The last part of our project was a final visit to the UNL campus. When we arrived from North Star by bus at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Admissions Office, students in my classes met with admissions representatives, there was kind of a pitch for coming to UNL. They talked specifically about funding options, about the diversity on campus, the different organizations and student clubs that students could get involved in, and general campus culture. After that initial meeting, we met up with our UNL student partners at the Van Brunt Visitor’s Center, and we divided into groups for campus tours that were led by Robert’s students.
These tours were by partnership groups across the North Star and UNL groups. And so, they were personalized based on the experiences of Robert’s students—what their areas of study were, their majors, and then students from my classes—what their interests were, if they were considering a certain major, or they some had family members who worked on the UNL campus and they wanted to see where their parents offices were—or different things like that. The tours were all very variant and able to be personalized to students’ interests.
Then, we all regrouped at a central dining hall to have a lunch. This was buffet-style, the biggest dining hall on campus, so students were able to get a sense of what it meant to be a college student and what the dining experience looks like; what the inside of a residential hall looks like; and to have some final conversation sharing where they had been earlier in the day, what they saw; and do some final goodbyes, as well, because this was our last time that we met together as groups.
BROOKE: So impressed with that final tour on campus! I remember the group I happened to be in, by chance, had a group of four students who were in and around campus a bit for it together. We ran into some of the students’ siblings—older siblings—who are already UNL students on campus, and they were very interested in talking to each other across that. One of the students that was in the small group was interested in chemistry as a possible major, so I made a point of taking them to the chemistry building, and we got to look at the periodic table made out of Native American seed corn that my colleague Mark Griep has created. And again, this was kind of a transformative moment to have the sharing going on between them. My students felt a great deal of agency in being able to show the young people from North Star what campus life was like. I heard afterwards that some of the groups had taken their students to their dorm rooms to get them a sense of what they look like, actually; if you were going to live here, what it would look like.
Interestingly, not all of my students ended up finishing my class, but all of them finished the North Star partnership. We had about three to four weeks to go to the end of the semester after the partnership, was over and two of my 15 students disappeared at that point. They wrote me later that they had other things going on in their life and fulfilling the writing requirement at UNL was not big on that list. But, my goodness, that connection with the young people at North Star was really important work, and they were glad to stay with that as a whole. I was really excited about that.
Also, this theme of immigration and citizenship became really big in the course of the class. While we talked about the project—as it was going on—one of my students actually went through the official immigration citizenship process. He took the test—he passed the test to become an American citizen—and the class threw an impromptu class party for him in the last week or so of class. This was something that we wouldn't have ever really focused on in a traditional class. But it was important as we worked through the material and as we moved forward from that.
So, from the UNL side, I was aware of the young people that got engaged in civic engagement in the city in an issue that had major discussion purposes in the in the national world that was up close and personal because of the connections that we made and the way in which the transformative life experience of meeting some younger people who are going through these issues right now really had on them. So those were takeaways for me.
MORGENSON: Some North Star students wrote in their final reflections, thinking about the project as a whole— one wrote: “Overall experience with Husker Writers is it actually was great to work with them and see what the project will end up with. I can say it was good to get to know each other and have a fun things to do together. The best thing to me was visiting the college and get more information, because to me, it's really important to learn about the college because it's something I am going to be interested in to do in the future sometime. I think I will study there after visiting and seeing the good things in there. I have visited the UNL four times now.” This student also talked about this visit a little bit more in another part of their reflection and said “That place was my favorite part, because where we get to see the college and learn more about them, like: what is the life? what does it look like to be a college student? Other things: we can see their classes and to know what is the important thing they have to do to be successful in the college and get their goal for what they wanted to be. I think after visiting the college it gives me a better picture than talking about it because it actually helps me to go see instead.” I think this is an important part when we think about the high school to college transition for students. They're often visited at their high schools by college admissions representatives for recruitment, or they're able to do virtual tours, but it really is something in terms of resources—and sometimes, privilege—for students to be able to physically visit a campus and see that. This was a really important part of the project, to think about that access to institutional information, and thinking about what comes next after high school for students in the North Star program. That was a really important takeaway for them in seeing that.
BROOKE: Okay, gentle listeners: we want to move now from talking about the project specifically and what we did to talking about some of what the larger implications of this project are and how we move forward. We're going to talk about this in two ways. First, I want to talk a little bit about place-conscious principles that this project supports. Then, we want to talk about some of the bigger nationalist issues around immigration, settlement, and decolonization that we think the project taps into.
In Rural Voices, the 2000 book about doing place-based education that we wrote here in Nebraska, we articulated a principle of spiraling out from local to global issues in place-conscious education. There's a way in which we think this project supports that whole. The principle was articulated this way in the book: “In order to foster a place-conscious citizenry, place-conscious education centers schooling in a deep understanding of local place spiral ring outward to include more distant knowledge in all areas of the curriculum. While all people are certainly citizens of the world, place-conscious educators believe people learn to be active citizens by engaging with local issues which they can actually affect, and which directly influence the quality of life in their community.” We're guided here by Nebraska historian Robert Manley, who wrote some years ago that history is the story of them, but heritage is the story of us. If we start with heritage, we motivate learners to engage with history. You can see in the design of this Husker Writers “We Are All Immigrants” project how we have orchestrated the sequence of activities that we've involved our students in to move from local to spiral out to national issues.
Immigration remains a hot issue for us nationally. It's still continuing as we record this podcast in 2020 and is likely to be so for the next four or five years. For this project, we set out to ground our investigation locally and let the national connections emerge from productive local work that they did. The students’ own stories were highlighted in what we did—the experiences that they or their family members brought to the immigration story as a whole. We also were connecting to the history and the current agencies here in Nebraska that move forward to how we've moved on from that. So you can see, I think how, it was that that place-conscious principle works.
We also think we connected to some of the larger national and regional discussions of this issue as a whole.
MORGENSON: In thinking about local-national context of immigration and refugee resettlement: this national local issue, at the time of our project in 2018, Lincoln was the per capita leader for refugee resettlement in the nation. There are more than 40 languages spoken in Lincoln Public Schools alone. This number grows significantly when we consider regional dialects and other aspects of language. The local Nebraska community and politics are also heavily influenced by shifting demographics in the community. In particular, in recent years, large number of Latinx immigrants have arrived in several communities that have meat-packing plants, which include Grand Island, Crete, South Sioux City, and the Gordon-Rushville, areas of Nebraska as well as a hydroponic tomato industry in O'Neill, Nebraska. These demographic shifts create a vocal present debate over immigration policy in what's traditionally a red state, but one with a reputation for generally being very welcoming to immigrant and refugee families. In thinking about indigenous legacies and histories in this land we call Nebraska, there are still six active native American reservations in the state, which highlights the ongoing issues of belonging and nativism when thinking about indigenous settlement and immigrant, refugee, and migrant communities in the state of Nebraska.
BROOKE: One of the reasons we chose Homestead National Monument of America as the place to bring our students to visit was—there's a way you can see Homestead as an immigration act, and that was the big thing we connected to, as well. This was a way of connecting to the lives of current immigrants, and a bridge between brand new Americans and those who arrived some 150 years ago. But as we've thought about it more, we realize that Homestead is a great place for doing this kind of work because the Homestead National Monument of America is very self-conscious about its mixed status. It memorializes one of the most dramatic land grabs in U.S. history at the same time that it honors the lives of people who tried to make a go of the grabbed land. That introductory video—which was important for many of the North Star students when they talked about it afterwards—contrasts the layers of stories: the voices of native people who were here on the land before the idea of land ownership ever arose, to the various kinds of homesteaders that arrived and proved up on the land. As we've gone on, I think that national debate—about indigeneity, land grab, immigration—continues on as we move forward into the work we do.
Obviously, part of all of this project is to center the learning that young people do about engaging national discussion in the local realities that they're facing. So, when students studied El Centro de las Americas, or the Asian Community Center, and got a look at what some of the programs that were going on—what kind of people were being served by those programs, in relation to each other, and in relation to the issues that had been arisen in Nebraska history through the Homestead Act—they got a better sense of how it was that a local action that they could be actively involved in spirals out to becoming involved in national and possibly even international global contexts.
So that's the basis of a place-based education move, from the local to the national. We hope you can see how this project was an example of doing that kind of work, and we hope that you can imagine doing something similar in your neck of the woods—wherever you are on the American landscape.
For now, this is Robert Brooke for the Nebraska Writing Project.
MORGENSON: And Cara Morgenson here. So, thanks for tuning in!
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ROBERT LIPSCOMB, HOST:
Plainstate is produced by Robert Lipscomb. Post-production by Stephen Ramsay. Music by Shadows on a River. On behalf of the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, thank you for listening to the Plainstate Podcast. Tagline forthcoming.